Caribbean dancers in Paris around 1900
Because I receive more and more requests from abroad for the exhibition catalogue Black is beautiful, Rubens to Dumas from 2008, I will publish, again, some of my research and writings in this book. The book has become unaffordable on Amazon. The exhibition and catalogue provided an overview of seven centuries of imagination of black people in Dutch art. It now appears to have become an important reference work for many.
Isaac Israëls’ Caribbean dancers in Paris around 1900
In rapid sketches Israëls recorded a skilled impression of dancers with just a couple of streaks. The headdresses seem Caribbean, so they probably come from the French Antillean island of Martinique. French flags are included in watercolours of these women in the same sketchbook, which could mean that Israëls painted them in Paris, where he lived between 1903 and 1913. The headcloth of Martinique generally has three points (an upturned M for Martinique) sticking up. The number of points on the headcloth, ranging from one to four, has a meaning, as in Suriname, ranging from ‘I’m free’ (one point), ‘I’m not free’ (two points) and ‘You can try’ (three points) to ‘I’m available for anyone who wants me’ (four points).
Israëls had a penchant for dancing women. He was not alone in his liking. In 1905 Frederik van Eeden wrote in response to a performance by the famous, American barefoot dancer Isadora Duncan: ‘That I may yet experience this, that someone does for me, what I have always wished, but for a long time no longer expected to see […] How many thousands of lovely and graceful women are there alive, who have all this glorious art of movement in them, but allow it to suffocate and die, and leave the earth without ever knowing how lovely and joyful dance can be.’
Such a statement could also have been made by Israëls, for his oeuvre includes many ‘lovely and graceful women’ who display ‘their glorious art of movement’. Years later in Paris he tried to sketch Josephine Baker (1906-1975) from the wings during a performance, when she refused to pose for him.
All the watercolours on this page are coming from the same series and represent the dancers in action, performing before a western orchestra, besides what seems to be a French flag flying. The dancer’s white cotton blouse with puffed sleeves (chemise décolletée), white cotton petticoat (traditionally trimmed with lace around the hem) and colourful skirt, usually of checked cotton Madras or floral fabric, indicates that she comes from Martinique.
Israëls was chiefly interested in rapidly sketching and capturing situations and instants.
Another example is a watercolour which shows a woman sleeping : one of the dancers he previously recorded in action is taking a break and seems to be asleep. Sleeping women, like dancing women, fascinated both George Hendrik Breitner (1857-1923) and Israëls. It was another woman’s ‘activity’, probably with erotic overtones, which they endeavoured to capture in their work. Israëls achieves this with splendid, rapid, loose strokes, focusing much of his attention on the bright colours in the woman’s headdress.
In 2008 I was guest curator of the exhibition Black is beautiful. Rubens to Dumas. Important advisors: Elizabeth McGrath (Rubens and colleagues, Warburg institute Image of the Black in Western Art collection), Carl Haarnack (slavery in books), Elmer Kolfin (slavery in prints and paintings) en Adi Martis (contemporary art). Gary Schwartz made his research for The Image of the Black in Western Art available to me.
In 2014 my essay ‘Painted Blacks and Radical Imagery in the Netherlands (1900-1940)’ was published in The Image of the Black in Western Art Volume V (I). (ed. David Bindman, Henry Louis Gates jr.)
In 2017 I published a book about the black servants at the Court of the Royal Van Oranje family. More than a thousand documents have been found about their lives. (only in Dutch)
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