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© August 2005
revised 26 June 2008
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,
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
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 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:
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:
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
which the botanist John Ray recorded in his Collection of English Proverbs (1670, 1678), and glossed:
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”:
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,
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:
Robert Hooke responded with a hastily-composed review, read to the Society on 15 Feb. 1672, in which he argued,
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”)
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