From the Black is beautiful catalogue: African – Dutch ‘heroes’

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, Gewonde KNIL militair (Kees Pop) 1882, coll Rijksmuseum
Isaac Israëls, Gewonde KNIL militair (Kees Pop) 1882, coll Rijksmuseum

Isaac Israëls (1865 –1934) Wounded KNIL soldier, ‘Kees Pop’ 1882 Oil on hardboard, 37 x 23 cm Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, SK-A-4954

The painter Isaac Israëls represented this KNIL soldier, Kees Pop (a name he must have been given by the Dutch) as a wounded man. His arm rests in a great, white sling, his expression is pensive, his clothing shabby. He is painted with impressionist style brushstrokes, standing in his black clothing before a black background that focuses extra attention on his brown skin and white sling. Beneath his headgear he wears a conspicuous red cloth which also draws the viewer’s interest. The medal with a blue ribbon, the Atjeh medal, and the Cross for Important Military Operations, awarded to all Atjeh soldiers, do not appear to be of iconographic significance: painterly considerations such as colour and form, plus anti-heroic reality, have determined this work’s appearance, making it an entirely different kind of picture from Leich’s portrait (below).

Later in his career Israëls also painted a larger work of an Atjeh soldier for which this man may have modelled as well. However, information in a letter written by Israëls to the painter Philippe Zilcken implies that the artist needed another model in order to complete this work: ‘Amice Zilcken Will you be please be so good as to give me the address of the negro, whom you painted a while ago! Before going to Paris, I would like to do a further something from that negro to the wounded African (which you saw at my place), which I shall send probably to Rotterdam. Merci d’avance’. The model to whom Israëls was referring was probably Adolf Boutar (see ).

George Hendrik Breitner. De deurwachter (Adolf Boutar) 1883, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

Soldiers are in character with Israëls’ oeuvre for the artist was fascinated by military men, knights and boxers. All three are typical male roles. His choice of black soldiers as a subject seems to have been motivated by the artistic challenge presented by their handsome black skin, rather than their exotic character. It is for good reason that Kees Pop has a red cloth around his head, for over the centuries red and brown had been considered an attractive combination by many painters. In the Middle Ages red still enjoyed an iconographic association with princely power and fire. Here, however, it seems to have been used purely for its artistic value, devoid of any underlying meaning.

The painter Johan Coenraad Leich has a totally different approach.

Johan Coenraad Leich, Portret van Jan Kooij, 1882, coll Bronbeek
Johan Coenraad Leich, Portret van Jan Kooij, 1882, coll Bronbeek

Johan Coenraad Leich 1823 –1890 Portrait of Jan Kooij / Jan Kooi 1882 Oil on canvas, 71 x 54 cm Arnhem, Museum Bronbeek (book cover)

In contrast with Isaac Israëls’ interpretation of the Black Knil soldiers, Johan Coenraad Leich has taken the classical approach in his depiction of this individual, Jan Kooi (or Kooij), for he has portrayed him as an important man and a hero, viewed from the front, with all his medals clearly displayed, and his right hand tucked into his tunic.

Glowing with pride and martial spirit, Kooi gazes directly at the viewer with clenched fist. His grey-green clothing fits him like a glove. Although he was shot ten times during the conflict in Atjeh, there is no evidence of these wounds.

Between 1831 and 1872 the Koninklijk Nederlands-Indisch leger (Royal Dutch Indian Army or KNIL) recruited more than 3000 soldiers on the Gold Coast in West Africa, now Ghana, and a further number from the region that is presently Burkina Faso. These African soldiers were regarded as brave and tireless, although they also had a reputation for being short tempered, hot-headed and extremely bold. The Dutch wished to deploy the KNIL to expand their influence into the region of Atjeh on Sumatra, as this was rich in peppers and probably oil as well.

However, the people of Atjeh rapidly managed to modernise their army and fought back courageously after Dutch attacks. The war in Atjeh lasted from 1873 to 1904. Around 800 Ghanaians fought for the Dutch against the Atjehers.

Jan Kooi was conspicuous for his bravery. According to the Overveluws Weekblad he was able to ‘speak Dutch purely’ and was ‘exceedingly civilised’. His portrait might also be described as ‘exceedingly civilised’. The Weekblad reported his heroism as follows: ‘Moreover the brave Kooi managed on 26 April 1879, with the aid of corporal Blik and fuselier Jaap, both fellow Africans, to ward off the enemy on a transport of 25 Europeans and 65 chain gangers who were charged with fetching pisang trees.’

The artist Johan Coenraad Leich is principally known for his many scenes of boats. Considerable numbers of his works are in maritime museum collections, along with several history paintings by his hand relating to the house of Orange. It is possible that he decided to paint this portrait of Jan Kooi himself, as he presented the work to Museum Bronbeek in 1883.

Esther Schreuder in Black is Beautiful Rubens to Dumas

Sint Nicolaas 2000 , ‘Een Afrikaan in dienst van het knil. Een zoektocht naar de naam bij het gezicht’. Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum 2000.4; Goedegebuure 2004, p. 8; Van Kessel 2005; Van Kessel, “Dapper maar zeer brutaal, De Afrikaanse soldaten in het Nederlands-Indisch leger” 2002, pp. 142-143, Van Kessel, Zwarte Hollanders Afrikaanse soldaten in Nederlands Indië, 2005; krantenartikelen: Overveluws Weekblad 5 augustus 1882

Youtube film about family and how these African men were bought by the Dutch on slavemarkets >

Research has been made possible thanks to a contribution of de Mondriaan foundation, AFK and VSB fonds.

About me EN:

In 2008 I was the guest-curator of the exhibition Black is beautiful. Rubens to Dumas. Important advisors Elizabeth McGrath (Rubens and colleagues), 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.

Black beautiful Rubens to Dumas cover
Black beautiful Rubens to Dumas cover

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)

Cupido en Sideron Cover 30-8-2017

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. 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.

For more information, please feel free to contact me

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