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© August 2005
revised 26 June 2008

Baroque-era printer's ornament

on 17th-century portraits of
African-Europeans & African-Americans

This GALLERY exhibit juxtaposes verbal and visual portraits of 17th-century black Africans living in Europe and the Americas to supplement discussion of colonial identities and the changing social and political meanings of color given in the IN BRIEF topic on origins and issues of slavery in colonial Virginia, Richard Flecknoe’s epistolary account of his time in colonial Brazil (e-text in the library, LIB. CAT. NO. FLECK1656), and the GALLERY exhibit on images of black Melancholy, Portraits of Melancholy — IV.

Several of the portraits to be included here are paintings and drawings of black African retainers serving in white European households (such as that of the marquis of Newcastle, William Cavendish, who had his own black page, while “my Lady’s Moor” served his wife, Margaret) during a period when,

By 1680, servants like these had grown so numerous that it was said that a fashionable lady “hath always two necessary implements about her; a Blackamoor and a little dog.”

Indeed, blacks employed as house servants, cooks, laborers, and clerks had become “everyday sights” in Britain by the early 1600s. By the late-1660s, Pepys documents the presence of black retainers in a range of gentlemen’s households, such as his own. Pepys mentions in his diary that Evelyn’s brother-in-law, William Glanville, had “his Blackemore,” as did Glanville’s friend, the hemp merchant Captain George Cocke, plus the Surveyor of the Navy, Sir William Batten (among other talents, “Mingo, Sir W. Battens black,” was witty and “did dance with a great deal of seeming skill,” relates Pepys), along with the Navy Commissioner Sir William Penn, the wine merchant William Batelier, and Pepys himself (“a black-moore of Mr. Batelier’s” called Doll, employed by Pepys as a cook-maid, “who dresses our meat mighty well, and we mightily pleased with her”).

Within this vein, Wenceslaus Hollar did etchings of a Young Negro and Young Negress in the 1640s (his Antwerp period), part of a series of ongoing ethnographic studies, which included his project documenting “the whole range of contemporary female costume, from the courts of Europe to the wilderness of Virginia.” (Hollar’s subjects for his Aula Veneris, first pub. in 1644, were “full of charm and variety of pose,” and represented women of multiple classes and ethnicities, from urban and rural locales, including illustrations of “A Woman Jewwe,” “Mulier habitans Algieri,” “A Woman Moore,” “a Persian Woman,” and “a Virginian Woman.”)

The black boy and girl whom Hollar etched in 1645 were possibly in the service of the countess of Arundel, although Hollar drew both figures without any explanatory context to help historians identify them for posterity. Moreover, there is no evidence of a close connection with the countess of Arundel during Hollar’s Antwerp period (the earl of Arundel, estranged from his wife, had by then retired to Padua), and it is unclear how much access Hollar had to the Arundel household or the famous art collection while in Antwerp.

We do know that the countess of Arundel brought an African page from Italy to Arundel House in 1632, “and he may still have been there when Hollar arrived in 1636.” Hollar’s first dated study of a male Negro is from 1635 (although two undated studies may have preceded this). It is possible that Hollar drew the portrait of the Young Negro (probably from the life) during his first London period, and then etched the drawing for printing in 1645, the same year he produced etched portraits of the Young Negress, a Turkish man (original study dated London 1637), and a 23-year-old Algonquian Indian man. During his eight years in Antwerp, Hollar produced many etchings made from drawings done earlier in London.

As African servants were not uncommon at the time, Hollar could well have drawn the Young Negress (again, probably from the life) in either Antwerp or London. While in Antwerp, Hollar was working independently, even marketing his own prints, and was engaged in joint artistic ventures for the first time (e.g., collaborating with the engraver Paulus Pontius, a friend of Rubens, and with Abraham van Diepenbeeck, who designed the three borders used to enclose the 33 etchings in Hollar’s series, Dance of Death), and making connections of his own with other artists in the workshops of Antwerp. Although “for the most part he was in thrall to various Antwerp publishers,” some of Hollar’s etchings during his prolific Antwerp period “were mainly intended for export to London — presumably for marketing by Stent or other print-sellers.” From this, we can deduce that Hollar’s ethnographic etchings of 1645 were not done at the behest of patrons such as Arundel, nor were they merely documentary of life at Arundel House. We can assume that Hollar knew there was a market for these etchings, but exactly who and where the market was remains an open question.

Also to be included in this GALLERY exhibit are two mezzotint heads of young black men engraved by the scientist, artist, and architect, Christopher Wren, around 1662. Others with new science connections, such as Prince Rupert and Constantijn Huygens Jr. (elder brother of Christiaan), similarly experimented with the new mezzotint, a tonal engraving process also known as the “dark manner,” which harnessed the interplay of light and shadow to new effect in showing shape and color. The graduated burrs of mezzotint rendered soft flesh tones more effectively than did line engraving, leading to its enormous popularity in England — a nation then “obsessed with famous personalities and portraits.”

Significantly, both Wren and Prince Rupert used men of color as subjects for their tonal mezzotints (Rupert, who introduced the technical developments that helped institutionalize the art of mezzotint in England, did do mezzotint engravings of several white Europeans, but it was his Small Head of an Executioner, after a painting by Jusepe de Ribera, that was the masterpiece chosen for widest circulation by John Evelyn in 1662).

Other images to be discussed in this GALLERY exhibit include the crude woodcuts of black Africans appearing in John Bulwer’s

A view of the people of the whole world, or, A short survey of their policies, dispositions, naturall deportments, complexions, ancient and moderne customes, manners, habits & fashions: a worke every where adorned with philosophicall, morall, and historicall observations on the occasions of their mutations & changes throughout all ages: for the readers greater delight figures are annexed to most of the relations. Scripsit J.B. ...

printed in 1654.

And also, an image of black sailors serving on a Portuguese ship off the coast of Japan in the 16th century (as illustrated on a Japanese folding screen of the Muromachi period). This Japanese artwork shows blackness as viewed through non-white-European eyes, and hints at the liberatory potential of maritime culture for black and other subordinated groups of men throughout the colonial period. As Paul Gilroy has written about a later period in English naval history:

The precise details of how radical ideologies articulated the culture of the London poor before the institution of the factory system to the insubordinate maritime culture of pirates and other pre-industrial workers of the world will have to await the innovative labours of Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker. However, it has been estimated that at the end of the eighteenth century a quarter of the British navy was composed of Africans for whom the experience of slavery was a powerful orientation to the ideologies of liberty and justice. Looking for similar patterns on the other side of the Atlantic network we can locate Crispus Attucks at the head of his “motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes, mulattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tars” and can track Denmark Vesey sailing the Caribbean and picking up inspirational stories of the Haitian revolution (one of his co-conspirators testified that he had said they would “not spare one white skin alive for this was the plan they pursued in San Domingo”). There is also the shining example of Frederick Douglass, whose autobiographies reveal that he learnt of freedom in the North from Irish sailors while working as a ship’s caulker in Baltimore. He had less to say about the embarrassing fact that the vessels he readied for the ocean — Baltimore Clippers — were slavers, the fastest ships in the world and the only craft capable of outrunning the British blockade. Douglass, who played a neglected role in English anti-slavery activity, escaped from bondage disguised as a sailor and put this success down to his ability to “talk sailor like an old salt.” These are only a few of the nineteenth-century examples. The involvement of Marcus Garvey, George Padmore, Claude McKay, and Langston Hughes with ships and sailors lends additional support to Linebaugh’s prescient suggestion that “the ship remained perhaps the most important conduit of Pan-African communication before the appearance of the long-playing record.”

The portraits of “Black-mores” to be discussed in this GALLERY exhibit raise several vexing questions about the structures of race and systemic forms of prejudice in an era before “black Africans were conceptually reduced in the popular imagination to commodified objects of trade.” As Lynda Boose has asked:

That they had darker skins was clearly recognized: but exactly what significance was attached to that fact? Where should the lines be drawn that separate the observation of difference from various degrees of prejudice and, finally, from what can legitimately be defined as a systemic form of prejudice such as we assume when we invoke the charge of “racism”?

As always, my interest here is in exploring race as signification (a discursive category and sociohistorical configuration), not as identity (an identifiable class).

Not surprisingly, the new science had a role to play in the developing visual culture that relegated some human beings, colors and meanings “to marginal status while elevating others to high visibility and positions of importance.” But there were times when that role was destabilizing, and when scientific inquiry into human difference introduced a more tolerant attitude, born of genuine curiosity and regard for “nature’s variety.”

In his diary entry for 11 April 1662, Pepys records:

So to Greenwich; and had a fine pleasant walk to Woolwich, having in our company Captain Minnes [i.e., Christopher Myngs, a naval commander knighted in 1665], with whom I was much pleased to hear him talk, in fine language but pretty well for all that. Among other things, he and the other Captains that were with us tell me that Negros drownded look white and lose their blacknesse — which I never heard before.

This strange phenomenon, misinterpreted by its august witnesses (in fact, “The removal of the epidermis by putrefaction makes the body paler, but not white.”), was at odds with cultural givens concerning “the dominance of dark pigmentation and its subordination/suppression of white.” “Wash[ing] the Ethiop white” was held by most to be an impossibility in this life, as suggested by a number of proverbs, including

Black will take no other hue.

which the botanist John Ray recorded in his Collection of English Proverbs (1670, 1678), and glossed:

This Diers find true by experience. It [i.e., the proverb] may signifie, that vicious persons are seldom or never reclaimed.

At the same time, it was widely believed that all worldly appearances of difference were resolved in the after-life where, according to Samuel Purchas in Purchas His Pilgrimage, “wee may all be one”:

... the tawney Moore, black Negro, duskie Libyan, Ash-coloured Indian, oliue-coloured American, should with the whiter Europaean become one sheepe-fold, under one great shepheard, till this mortalitie being swallowed up of life, wee may all be one, as he and the father are one; and (all this varietie swallowed up into an ineffable unitie) only the language of Canaan be heard, only the Fathers name written in their foreheads, the Lambs song in their mouths, the victorious Palmes in their hands, and their long robes being made white in the bloud of the Lambe, whom they follow whithersoever he goeth, filling heaven and earth with their everlasting Halleluiahs, without any more distinction of colour, Nation, language, sexe, condition, all may bee One in him that is ONE, and only blessed for ever.

Lynda Boose has interpreted this “apocalyptical vision” as constructing “a taxonomy that groups ‘whiter Europeans’ together and imagines the self as a part of that group.” And, she notes,

Happily for Purchas’s readers, the bodily clothing to which “wee all” will ascend is still going to be white.

What Boose does not mention is the vision’s compatibility with popular belief in white as “the Ground of all Colour” (as Ripa’s emblem for Apprehensiva explained it). This itself drew on the ancient “modification theory” of color, which held that white light (long associated with Purchas’ “ineffable unitie”) is pure, simple, and homogeneous, while colors are produced by a modification or disturbance of white light. Artisans and intellectuals had disputed the nature and causes of color for centuries, and in February 1672, matters would be brought to a head with the public appearance of Newton’s first paper of optics, summarized as follows in the Royal Society’s journal book:

Mr. Isaac Newton wrote from Cambridge, February 6, 1671/2, concerning his discovery of the nature of light, refractions, and colours; importing, that light is not a similar, but a heterogeneous body, consisting of different rays, which had essentially different refractions, abstracted from bodies through which they pass; and that colours are produced from such and such rays, whereof some, in their own nature, are disposed to produce red, others green, others blue, others purple, &c. and that whiteness is nothing but a mixture of all sorts of colours, or that it is produced by all sorts of colours blended together.

Robert Hooke responded with a hastily-composed review, read to the Society on 15 Feb. 1672, in which he argued,

... For all the experiments and observations I have hitherto made, nay, and even those very experiments, which he allegeth, do seem to me to prove, that white is nothing but a pulse or motion, propagated through an homogeneous, uniform, and transparent medium: and that colour is nothing but the disturbance of that light, by the communication of that pulse to other transparent mediums, that is, by the refraction thereof: that whiteness and blackness are nothing but the plenty or scarcity of the undisturbed rays of light: and that the two colours (than the which there are not more uncompounded in nature) are nothing but the effects of a compounded pulse, or disturbed propagation of motion caused by refraction....
   But grant his first proposition, that light is a body, and that as many colours as degrees thereof as there may be, so many sorts of bodies there may be, all which compounded together would make white; and grant further, that all luminous bodies are compounded of such substances condensed, and that whilst they shine, they do continually send out an indefinite quantity thereof, every way in orbem, which in a moment of time doth disperse itself to the utmost and most indefinite bounds of the universe; granting these, I say, I do suppose there will be no great difficulty to demonstrate all the rest of his curious theory: though yet, methinks, all the coloured bodies in the world compounded together should not make a white body, and I should be glad to see an experiment of that kind done on the other side....

The knowledge of color production within early modern communities of practice — painters, dyers, glass-makers (who, like Hooke, made colored glass from white glass), and others — coupled with evolving scientific knowledge concerning the nature of white light, carried over into popular culture by way of proverbs and emblems and casual conversation about experiences such as having observed black sailors drowned at sea.

Purchas His Pilgrimage, Or Relations of the World and the Religions Observed in Al Ages and Places Discovered, from the Creation unto This Present (London, 1613) was an enormously popular and influential book, well known to a range of early 17th-century audiences because English ministers preached from it. James I, who kept a copy in his bed-chamber, told Purchas he had read it through, in full (752 folio pages), seven times. Purchas was emboldened enough by this to dedicate the fourth edition of his book (now swelled to 1047 pages, with 16 added maps, mostly from Hondius, illustrating the material on Africa, Asia, and the Middle East) to Charles I. And Purchas’ unique combination of theological musings and picturesque descriptions of foreign countries (stripped of the tedious detail sought by scientists, navigators and company officials) was still drawing an audience in the 19th century: it was over Purchas’ Pilgrimage that Coleridge fell asleep to dream the exotic vision of “Kubla Khan.”

To the extent that Europeans’ white light, with its heavenly origins, was a religious concept as well as a phenomenological given, Purchas was reverberating commonplace beliefs when he represented the One beyond being as the ultimate multiplicity-in-unity.

TOPICS:  canonical theories and problems of representation; Bourdieu’s concept of perception as vision + division; popular and scientific understandings of white as “the Ground of all Colour”; visual representations of blacks and blackness (vs. race); ocularcentrism (“the epistemological privileging of a reifying and totalizing vision, a gaze of domination”)

Baroque-era printer's ornament

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