From the Black is beautiful catalogue: Rembrandts Two Drummers

Because I receive more and more requests from abroad for the exhibition catalogue Black is beautiful, Rubens to Dumas from 2008, I will publish on my website, again, some of my research and writings in this book. 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. The book has become unaffordable on Amazon.

When I started researching the imagination of ‘black’ and brown people in Dutch art in 2001 (the first years with Alette Fleischer), I was surprised to find quite a few works by Rembrandt. The best known are of course the The studie of two men from the Mauritshuis and the Baptism of the Chamberlain from the Catherine convent.

The baptism of the eunich, by Rembrandt
Two men, Rembrandt, Mauritshuis The Hague

After a while I had about thirteen works by the master. And a study was published in those years that showed that people of African origin lived alongside Rembrandt. ( L Hagoort. 2005). A number of the people on these works could therefore be neighbors.

I asked Elmer Kolfin to join the investigation with his students and he found even more works by Rembrandt (paintings).
For the exhibition Black is beautiful Rubens to Dumas, I selected two works. The drummers from the British Museum and ‘Bust of an African Woman ‘ from the Teylers Museum. I myself wrote about The Drummers, Elmer about the The African Woman in the catalogue.

Rembrandt, African Woman, Teylers Museum

Kolfin has continued the research into Rembrandt and developed it further. Soon (March 2020) an exhibition can be seen in the Rembrandt House in Amsterdam about his research and these works (and that of others). Looking forward to it.

Hereby my research on Rembrandts Two Drummers in the Black is beautiful, Rubens to Dumas catalogue from 2008.

Two Drummers

Rembrandt Drawing British Museum

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669), Two drummers1638, Pen and chalk on paper, 22.9 x 17.1 cm British Museum, London

This sketch was almost certainly drawn from life. Rembrandt made it during the festivities which accompanied the wedding of Johan Wolfert van Brederode (1599-1655) and Louise Christina van Solms (1606-1669) at the Stadholder’s court in The Hague in 1638.

The sketch shows two imposing African drummers on mules or hinnies beating in unison on their large, round kettledrums. They are drawn from a low viewpoint which suggests that Rembrandt observed them from close at hand. He seems to have been impressed by the duo, which may be why he worked up this sketch in colour, probably later in his studio.

Drummers and trumpeters created a stir and were a regular feature of European celebrations,  tournaments and processions. Black drummers and trumpeters were even more impressive, as the Arabs had already noticed in the Middle Ages.

The Ommeganck in Brussels on 31 May 1615. The Triumph of Archduchess Isabella Nederlands
with black drummer Victoria and Albert Museum London

During the twelfth century the German Hohenstaufen emperors adopted the use of black musicians from the Arabs: the Liber ad honorem Augusti (1195-1197), for example, show black trumpeters in the retinue of emperor Henry VI (1165-1197) on Sicily. The custom spread to other potentates and the retaining of black drummers and trumpeters became a symbol of great power and high nobility. Until at least the seventeenth century permission was required from the Holy Roman Emperor to ‘keep’ one or more black musicians at court. This permission was not given lightly.

Around 1630, for example, the Emperor Ferdinand II (1578-1637) granted Count Christiaan of Waldeck (1585-1637) the privilege of retaining a black drummer in his household. Rembrandt was probably less impressed by the Africans as people, for he could also see Africans in Amsterdam than he was by this aristocratic display.

Rembrandt made hundreds, if not thousands, of drawings. Some of these were compositional studies for paintings or etchings, others he used to record individual ideas or observations for possible incorporation in later works. It is quite conceivable that Rembrandt expected to be able to work a scene such as this, with two drummers, into a history painting, although no such picture is known.

There is no evidence to identify the retinue to which Rembrandt’s two drummers belonged, although they could have come from the entourage of the Winter King Frederik V of the Palatinate (1596-1632) and his wife Elizabeth Stuart (1596-1662), whose son performed at the 1638 wedding festivities as the Moor Almanzor.

An ‘authentic’ black drummer had already appeared in Frederik’s retinue during a procession to celebrate a baptism held in Württemberg in 1616 (see below picture). Since drummers were trained from an early age, this man could have been young, f.i. about 17 in Württemberg, and 39 in The Hague.

Repraesentatio der Furstlichen Aufzug und Ritterspil. Pauker Esias van Hulsen

Esther Schreuder in the catalogue Black is beautiful Rubens to Dumas (2008) footnotes in the catalogue.

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

Publication on the Winter king and his family: Nadine Akkerman: Correspondence of Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia,Volume II verschenen bij Oxford University Press

Esther Schreuder

See for more: posts category Black is beautiful, page <Black is beautiful,>

Research made possible hrough funding from the Mondriaan Foundation, the VSB fund

About me:

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.

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.

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