95 (Black is beautiful, Rubens to Dumas cat 2008)
Jan Sluijters 1881 –1957 Negress with a red scarf (Tonia Stieltjes) c. 1922, Oil on canvas, 103 x 81 cm Drents Museum, Assen, on long-term loan from Mrs E. Gerritsen-Sluijters, (2008) Now Singer Museum Laren
96 (Black is beautiful, Rubens to Dumas cat 2008) Jan Sluijters 1881 –1957 Recumbent female nude (Tonia Stieltjes) c. 1918 Oil on canvas, 94 x 125 cm Museum de Fundatie, Heino/Wijhe and Zwolle.
Tonia Stieltjes, the model in these works, poses nude in [ 96 ]. The painting is deceptively simple in structure. The composition around Tonia consists of draped cloths, painted in tranquil planes with relatively rough strokes. The emphasis lies on the colours red, white and blue, which could represent the colours of the Dutch flag.
Tonia’s nude, light-brown body is positioned on these cloths. She wears a black hat, black and yellow stockings and green jewellery. Sluijters plays in this work with contrasts and the effects which colours and forms produce in combination. The white contrasts beautifully with Tonia’s brown skin, the red makes her skin tone even warmer and the dark blue brings out the light-green stone in her ring.
In a similar work featuring Tonia, entitled Legend (1919) [ 51 in Black is Beautiful cat.], Sluijters reversed the traditional roles assigned to a black and a white woman when depicted together. Tonia is also nude in this picture, lying on a bench; beside her sits a nude white model, her back to the viewer. This expanse of white back intensifies Tonia’s colour and presence, a reversal of the centuries-old practice of using a black woman’s colour to enhance the whiteness of a white woman, as in Rubens’ Venus of the Night. [in Black is beautiful nr. 19].
But Sluijters was not simply interested in the colour of Tonia’s skin, for in all his works he has magnified the features of her striking face. She may have been no universal beauty but she certainly had something of which Sluijters never tired. In 1937 he told Peggy Vlug what he was looking for in female models: ‘The loveliest women are not our favourite models. What one describes as a great beauty, what is often at first glance also very pleasant to look at, often becomes, when we want to paint it, dull and tedious.’
In the painting Negress with a red scarf  the choice of colours again plays the major role. Tonia is seated nude on a couch with a sheer red scarf draped around her. She wears the same green jewellery as in Recumbent female nude; these pieces appear in nearly every work that Sluijters made of her.
Where the frail Tonia is surrounded in Recumbent female nude by robustly painted hard colours, here the colours are warm and the brushwork tender. Sluijters has chosen the same ochre yellow and blood red colours as in his Negro in the curtains; (BB cat nr 94 ) the yellow is similarly glistening and satiny, the red transparent over Tonia’s pale brown skin.
Everything in Negress with a red scarf, seems to be soft and touchable, except Tonia’s face. She gazes at the viewer aloofly and haughtily from beneath her headband. The clear green of her earrings is reflected in the skin of her face and neck.
In 1929 Sluijters exhibited this work at the Amsterdam gallery owned by the art dealer Karel van Lier in Amsterdam; it was also reproduced to accompany Albert Plasschaert’s review of the exhibition. Plasschaert waxed lyrical about the work:
‘The heavy figure of the woman holds sway: she holds sway over this exhibition. The negress is one of the best that Sluyters has ever made after her who continually incites him with her appearance.
It is a painting for a museum, at least if this airily covered nude does not seem too indelicate to museum directors and their committees of excessively upright painters in an unpictorial angst (which I believe derives from an unsavoury mind), thus causing an impure sensuality to rail against creative sensuality.
I repeat: this painting with its great and weighty figure belongs in the first place in a public collection or in a collection where there is courage to be found in the face of all narrow-mindedness, united with certain choice.’
Other reviewers of the period responded to the work with equal enthusiasm and the picture became regarded as the leading example of Sluijters’ passion for the colours of paint and skin. In 2008 (at the Black is Beautiful Exhibition) it was still privately owned, however. In 2009 The Singer Museum in Laren (NL) bought the work.
Literature Plasschaert 1929; Plasschaert 1930; Vlug 1937; exhibition catalogues: The Hague – Washington – New York 1994 –1996, pp.192-193; Assen 2002
Esther Schreuder in catalogus Black is beautiful Rubens to Dumas (2008) literature and footnotes.
Research has been possible thanks to a contribution of de Mondriaan foundation, AFK and VSB fonds.
All photos on this site are not intended for any commercial purpose. I have tried to trace all the rules and rights of all images. As far as I know, these images can be used in this way (Sluijters copyrights are paid for BB cat and BB website). If you ar a copyright holder and would like a piece of your work removed or the creditline changed then please do not hesitate to contact me.
see also New Yorker “Can we know her”