Black in Rembrandt’s Time 
edited by Elmer Kolfin and Epco Runia.
WBooks, 135 pp., £20, April 2020, 978 94 6258 372 6
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In​ 1636, Diogo Antioine and Catharina Antonis appeared at a notary’s office in Amsterdam, the city where they lived. They were engaged and had already registered their marriage at city hall. Now they proceeded to draw up a will. In the presence of a Spanish interpreter, Josias Doria, they appointed three men – Christoffel Capitano, Anthony and Francisco – as their heirs. Diogo and the three witnesses were familiar with the location. They had been to the notary’s office before, to authorise Josias Doria to collect wages owed to them by a shipmaster – perhaps these were among the assets secured by the new will. The record of this earlier visit is significant. It tells us that Diogo, Christoffel, Anthony and Francisco, along with another man, Caspar, were ‘alle negros offte Swarten’: all negroes or blacks. Diogo, Catharina, Anthony and Francisco, the archive discloses, all came from Angola.

Rembrandt’s ‘Baptism of the Eunuch’ (1626)

Like Diogo and Catharina before them, Christoffel Dio and Catrina Christovi, both from Angola, were married in Amsterdam in May 1655. In the next few years, Christoffel witnessed in turn at least five marriages between men and women from Africa or of African descent: Serafina from Angola to Pieter Bruin from Brazil; Lowijs and Emanuel Alfonso to two Angolan women called Esperance and Brancke; Bastiaan Ferdinando of São Tomé (an island held by the Portuguese in the Gulf of Guinea) to Maria Bastiaans from Angola. Serafina and Bastiaan witnessed the marriage of Anthony from Angola to Leonora Fonçeka of Brazil. Soon, the children of these unions began to appear in the baptismal records of the Moses House (later the Moses en Aäronkerk), a Catholic house church in the Jodenbreestraat (‘Jewish Broad Street’). Serving as a witness at the baptism of Lucia, the daughter of Bastiaan Ferdinando and Maria, was Lijsbeth Pieters from Angola, who had married a Brazilian sailor, Pieter Claesz Bruijn, in November 1649. This same Pieter Bruijn, who was 44 at the time of his marriage, later appeared as a witness to the baptism of Catarina, daughter of Lowijs and Esperance.

Recovered from the sediment of urban bureaucracy – notarial records, marriage banns, cemetery and baptismal registers – these interconnections amount to evidence of what Mark Ponte, whose archival work has brought them to light, calls an Afro-Atlantic community in 17th-century Amsterdam, established in the eastern part of the city in the area around the Jodenbreestraat. Sephardic Jews fleeing persecution in Portugal and Spain had begun to settle there from the late 16th century, bringing with them enslaved men and women of African descent, traded on the Iberian Peninsula, to work as domestic servants. Diogo, Catharina, Christoffel Capitano, Anthony, Francisco, Caspar, Christoffel Dio, Catrina, Serafina, Pieter, Esperance, Brancke, Bastiaan, Maria, Lijsbeth and their kin could all say in some more or less direct way that it was slavery that had brought them to the republic of merchants, even as their residence there conferred on them, officially at least, the status of free persons. In 1644 a city law decreed that ‘within the city of Amsterdam and its jurisdiction, all men are free, and none are slaves.’ The law clarified that anyone entering Amsterdam became ‘free beyond the control and authority of their masters and [master’s] wives’ and that, should there be any doubt, ‘the persons concerned can arraign said masters and mistresses in the court of law of this city, where they then shall formally and legally declare them to be free.’ This was precisely the period, however, during which Dutch engagement in transatlantic slavery intensified. The Dutch West India Company (WIC) ruled over a colony in north-eastern Brazil from 1630 to 1654; in 1637, the WIC seized the fortress of Elmina on the west coast of Africa from the Portuguese. Between 1640 and 1660, no fewer than 164 slave voyages put to sea under the Dutch flag. The surviving records of applications for certification of free status – as in the case of the mixed-race servant Debora Nassy who, ‘being a brown female or mulatto’ was ‘conceived & born in freedom & also raised as such, without anyone in the world having any kind of claim on her person’, or Zabelinha, from Guinea, and her children, who pass through the archive in 1642 – testify not so much to Amsterdam’s liberality as to the fragility of freedom in a world of profound contradiction. An employer might threaten to move his servants away from the city, across the Atlantic, say, and change everything.

Seeing the names of these Amsterdammers in the city archives is like looking at light emitted from distant stars: the indexical thrill of lives long past flashing before your eyes in the here and now. One of the archival fragments reproduced in Black in Rembrandt’s Time, published to accompany a recent exhibition at the Rembrandt House (which closed in September after an extended run), shows the signature of a man known as Christiaan van Africa, who stated in a later document that he had been born in ‘Abi’, possibly Abidjan (in present day Côte d'Ivoire). The signature authorises Christiaan’s will, drawn up in December 1709, which bequeaths all his ‘goods, claims, credits, and rights’ to a housemaid named Willemijntje de Graaf whom he married the following year. Christiaan died a rich man, having inherited a thousand guilders from his former master, a director-general of the slave fort Elmina. In the absence of an image of Christiaan, it’s tempting to let the marks of his pen make a portrait. His signature is a handsome one – clear and compact but spikily elegant. Its very presence on the page, with that flourish of the final ‘a’ in ‘Africa’, bespeaks his confidence and legal knowhow in disposing of his considerable wealth as he wished.

But Amsterdam’s early black community left traces that exceed written words. The globalising ambitions of the Dutch Republic were matched by a spectacular efflorescence of visual culture, and a growing black population was also registered, though never straightforwardly, in countless artworks produced in the same period. There are the street and interior views, deftly bird’s-eye or dispassionately observational in style, in which liveried African servants can be spotted in crowds, waiting at a fish stall, or standing attentively at a lady’s side. And there are the portraits of families and individuals accompanied by their servants that unsubtly fashion white supremacy from a black body in the margins. In Willem Duyster’s group portrait of 1631-33, the satisfied patriarch’s pointing hand relegates at a stroke the family’s servant – wearing a lace ruff and mittens, and holding what appears to be a tray by his side – to the back of the sombrely unfurnished room, while also denoting his attentive son as heir. It’s hard to think of a more brazen, or more devastatingly banal, visualisation of social exclusion. Yet of all the gazes appealing to us from the canvas, the servant’s is the most searing. (Images like this should not mislead us into thinking that domestic servitude was the only or most important form of employment for black people in Golden Age Amsterdam. Records tell us that men of African-Atlantic heritage worked most commonly as sailors, while some were described as craftsmen, soldiers and as professional theatrical extras. Women of African descent, like Francisca, who lived in a basement not far from the Jodenbreestraat and, according to one testimony, ‘receives all the black people in town’, or Eleonoor Koots and Elysabeth da Silver, who had a room in Swarte Gang, might make a living renting out beds for the night.)

Then there are the works that scramble the relationship between lived reality and representation in more complex ways. Consider Rembrandt’s early religious panel, The Baptism of the Eunuch (1626), now in Utrecht. The subject derives from the Book of Acts, which describes an encounter between Philip the Deacon and Simeon Bachos, a eunuch or chamberlain from the North African court of the Queen of Kush. Reading a passage from the prophet Isaiah while travelling home in his chariot, Simeon is puzzled by its meaning. Philip seizes his chance to interpret the scripture for him in terms of the Gospel of Jesus, and Simeon is duly convinced. Rembrandt chose to depict Simeon just after he has stopped his chariot and asked Philip to baptise him by a convenient roadside pool, with his startled – sceptical? – entourage looking on. This scene had been treated in several versions by Rembrandt’s teacher, Pieter Lastman, and the pupil borrowed from, and greatly dramatised, his master’s compositions. Rembrandt later returned to the subject, at least twice. David de Witt suggests in his catalogue essay that it wasn’t the subject, an exotic conversion story long interpreted in terms of the whitening of the soul by Christian baptism, that encouraged this flurry of painted renditions, so much as the pretext it gave for experimentation with the representation of Africans at a moment when both Lastman and Rembrandt were witnessing the arrival of black newcomers to the area in which they lived. Lastman was based on the Sint Antoniesbreestraat (part of which was renamed the Jodenbreestraat in the second half of the century); Rembrandt moved in down the road in 1631. This fact of geography probably helps to explain why around thirty of Rembrandt’s paintings, etchings and drawings depict people of African descent, usually cast in biblical roles.

The pictorial qualities of Rembrandt’s characters in The Baptism of the Eunuch – the awkward suture between the jaw of the kneeling figure on the far right and the blue-green silk of his cape, suggestive of a face carefully modelled before the addition of a costumed body; the penetrating frontal stare of the man in blue holding the book; and the subtly modulated skin tones of the foreground protagonists – seem strong evidence for his probable use of living black models, even at this early date in his career. The archival corpus uncovered by Ponte, Dienke Hondius and others compels us to look at such images, and all their art-historical baggage, with fresh eyes. It’s tempting to point to Veronese’s great painted banquets as precedents for a work like Govert Flinck’s overmantel for Amsterdam’s new City Hall, which shows the Roman consul Manius Curius Denatus nobly refusing gold in preference for a platter of turnips. The richly dressed young African who holds open a casket full of golden coins could have stepped out of the Marriage at Cana. He might also recall the iconography of Balthazar as the Black Magus, a common feature of Adoration scenes across Europe by the 16th century which itself testifies to a black presence in Europe and global trading connections well before the 17th century. But the archive forces us to think about the possibility, indeed the probability, that we are looking not simply at an art historical figment, another iteration of an iconographic trope, but also, and at the same time, at a trace in pigments on canvas of the life of a young man with a name, like Diogo, Christoffel or Bastiaan, who might have walked in from an Amsterdam street and donned a costume for a fee.

One of Rembrandt’s most intimate works, and in some ways one of his strangest, is the picture known as Two African Men, painted in 1661. There’s no biblical narrative here, though the costumes are theatrically Roman; the canvas, with its sparsely applied paint and quick hatches with a dry brush, seems unfinished. It’s a sketch, a study, fodder for a future composition, or the basis of what the Dutch call a ‘tronie’ – a sort of fantasy character piece rooted in individual likeness though not intended as a portrait, like the more polished (and extremely beautiful) Tronie of a Young Black Man (c.1635) or Young Black Archer (c.1639-40) by, respectively, Rembrandt’s pupils Gerrit Dou and Govert Flinck. Rembrandt’s later canvas is the product of an encounter in a room, the soft light suggesting early morning or evening; you can almost feel the filtering dust particles at the back of your throat. There is pensiveness, even quizzicality, in the face of the figure on the right, who seems poised to say something or may be mid-speech. His companion is oddly placed, hovering or resting his chin wearily, warily, on the other man’s right shoulder. Art historians debate the circumstances of the picture’s making. Some have suggested that Rembrandt may have worked from a cast (an inventory of 1656 recorded a ‘Moor’[s head] cast from life’ in his studio). Others have wondered whether one person modelled for both figures, as in the four views of a single man in Rubens’s extraordinary oil sketch of c.1615, which Rembrandt is likely to have known. If Two African Men is the picture recorded in the 1656 inventory as ‘twee mooren in één stuck van Rembrandt’ (‘two Moors in one painting by Rembrandt’), notwithstanding the signature and date of 1661, then it was made while the artist was still living in the Jodenbreestraat. Is it possible to link this image, so fragile and seemingly so momentary, with documentary records of Rembrandt’s neighbours? Ponte speculates that it might show us the brothers, Bastiaan and Manuel Fernando from São Tomé, who appeared before a notary in April 1656, along with Jan Sanders of Guinea as their witness, to hire themselves out to the Amsterdam Navy as sailors. The following year Bastiaan married Maria from Angola. They lived at Sint Antoniespoort, a few hundred yards from Rembrandt’s studio.

The lure of an archival match is intense – we long to know who the men in the painting might have been, to confirm by the discovery of written names a meeting in flesh and blood. Responding to this impulse has become one of art history’s urgent projects in recent years. To refuse to accept as adequate the silences, or at best the words ‘unknown servant’, in the titles of so many European portraits that show black and brown figures alongside white, is to insist on the concrete relationships that produced such images and, in so doing, to begin to reckon with the histories of racialised injustice that produce our own present. To resist the conclusion that names are irretrievable is in some way to oppose the denial of presence or co-presence, to undo the erasures of history. Recognising that the modernity of Manet’s Olympia (1863) resides not solely in the naked demi-mondaine who stops your gaze, but in the racialised dynamic between two women – between Olympia and her ‘unnamed maid’, or rather between Manet’s muse Victorine and a woman named Laure who lived at 11 rue Vintimille in the Ninth – is to take a fuller measure of the Paris from which the picture emerged. (This was the starting point for Denise Murrell’s major exhibition, Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today, which travelled from the Wallach in New York to the Musée d’Orsay in expanded form as Le Modèle noir in 2019.)

There is a doubleness to the archive, however, which represents both hope and violence. When Manet entered Laure and her address in his notebook, he wrote down not her surname but an assessment: ‘très belle négresse’. When Joshua Reynolds recorded studio sittings for his portrait of Elizabeth Keppel (c.1762), he listed eight appointments with Keppel and two morning sessions with the woman of African heritage who in the picture supplies a garland for the shrine of Hymen. In place of this woman’s name, Reynolds wrote, simply, and with not so much as an article, ‘negro’. For us, looking at the portrait now, this single word in the sitter-book confirms her image, exoticised and compositionally subservient though it is, as the trace of a presence, a life. At the same time, those five letters stand for all the dismissals and injuries that the racism of British imperialism has so casually and economically administered. The archive gives and it takes away. We know of Francisca’s pivotal role in the formation of the black community around the Jodenbreestraat in the 1630s – ‘the same Francisca has taken into her home various black men and women, pairing them off or separating them as she sees fit’ – only thanks to a neighbourhood complaint, call it a crime report, intended to discredit her. The very names in artists’ notebooks and city ledgers, when we do find them, enact erasures of their own when we remember that they may not always be the names their bearers were given at birth.

Though concerned mainly with the history and afterlives of slavery in Atlantic Africa and the Americas, Saidiya Hartman is the great thinker of the archive’s double bind. In her essay ‘Venus in Two Acts’ (2008) she describes the archive of slavery as ‘a death sentence, a tomb, a display of the violated body, an inventory of property, a medical treatise on gonorrhoea, a few lines about a whore’s life, an asterisk in the grand narrative of history’. ‘How does one recuperate,’ she asks, ‘lives entangled with and impossible to differentiate from the terrible utterances that condemned them to death, the account books that identified them as units of value, the invoices that claimed them as property, and the banal chronicles that stripped them of human features?’ The archive of free black Amsterdam, with its marriage banns and property transfers, is quite different from the documentation generated by the slave ship or the plantation. Yet it too is structured around gaping lacunae; it too is a faceless chronicle of transactions and relationships whose human element we must imagine. Through the practice of what she calls ‘critical fabulation’, which remains attentive to historical evidence while prising apart the structures of evidentiary authority, Hartman defies the limits of the archive by conjuring the stories that it doesn’t tell and by detailing ‘the small memories banished from the ledger’. In imagining the friendship between two African girls in the hold of a ship – rewriting the legal account of their deaths as a story of their love – she seeks to retrieve a possibility that has otherwise been foreclosed. The archival records of Diogo and Catharina, the Angolan newlyweds, and their neighbours in the Jodenbreestraat, are traces of survival that testify to futures unavailable to Hartman’s lost African girls. But still they require stories. Of Catharina’s hopes and desires – her trepidations, her love, her memories – the city ledgers say nothing.

To project the archive beyond itself also means looking at images differently, looking with an openness to the interactions they don’t show but only obliquely index, being prepared to imagine and redescribe the relationships that underlie the fictions on their surfaces. A picture as suggestive and ambiguous as Rembrandt’s Two African Men is an invitation, on the cusp of narrative, deliberately suspended like that wordless open mouth between possible explanations. It’s a bridge of some kind between now and then, though not one easily crossed, even if we do manage to attach names firmly to its subjects. Art history’s task is to show how a work like this puts the very question of presence, of embodiment and of referentiality, on the stand. In their numerous portraits and self-portraits in costume and with their character heads derived from now unnamed models (black and white), Rembrandt and his contemporaries, including his pupils Dou and Flinck, consciously and playfully explored the boundaries and fluid interplay between the tronie and the portrait – between the allusive characterisation of an anonymous model and the presentation of a known subject with a set of attributes recognisable within a defined social field. There is a basic politics to this, of course: if we want to state it as an economic probability, it comes down to the difference between an image of someone being paid to pose, and an image of someone paying to ‘sit’. What interested Rembrandt and his contemporaries, as it interests those attempting to reconcile the archival record of historical black Amsterdam with its visual remains, was the ways in which artists might manipulate the aesthetic codes – the visual rhetoric – that worked to anchor images to, or untether them from, their human subjects.

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Vol. 43 No. 2 · 21 January 2021

In her essay on black models in Amsterdam and London, Esther Chadwick writes (LRB, 7 January) that

when Joshua Reynolds recorded studio sittings for his portrait of Elizabeth Keppel (c.1762), he listed eight appointments with Keppel and two morning sessions with the woman of African heritage who in the picture supplies a garland for the shrine of Hymen. In place of this woman’s name, Reynolds wrote, simply, and with not so much as an article, ‘negro’. For us, looking at the portrait now, this single word in the sitter-book confirms her image, exoticised and compositionally subservient though it is, as the trace of a presence, a life. At the same time, those five letters stand for all the dismissals and injuries that the racism of British imperialism has so casually and economically administered.

The ‘negro’ child – she looks pubescent – is one of Reynolds’s most beautiful, dynamic and innovative creations. Astonishingly, her brown skin colour is shared by the marble Term of Hymen that looms over the composition. She sets the tone, and is an emblem of purity, youth, strength, health, fertility. She’s no more exotic than anyone else. In his later portrait, from 1773, of the three Irish Montgomery sisters adorning a Term of Hymen, the youngest sister, aged around 16, performs the black girl’s role. Reynolds found many of his child models in Leicester Fields (now Leicester Square), where he lived. They are never named. Puck was painted ‘from a little child he found sitting on his steps’; one of his favourite models (The Schoolboy) was an orphan ‘beggar boy’ who made and hawked cabbage nets. When he painted Count Hugolino and His Children in the Dungeon (1770-73), Reynolds’s work diary records sittings for ‘child’, ‘Beggar child’, ‘Beggar’, ‘Hugolino Boy’. The designation ‘negro’ is in the same vein. Incidentally, when portraits were exhibited at the Royal Academy or the Society of Artists, the sitter was not named (instead the pictures were entitled ‘Portrait of a Lady’ etc) with the exception of Reynolds’s famous portrait of a Polynesian – Omiah: Whole-Length (1776).

Reynolds, the workaholic son of a Devon schoolteacher, belonged to a cultural and intellectual meritocracy. Race and even class were of little importance. His best friend was another poor but brilliant provincial, Samuel Johnson. Johnson had a facial disfigurement and Tourette’s, and was socially awkward. He had a Jamaican servant, Francis Barber, whom he adored and made his principal heir, leaving him money as well as his books and papers. Reynolds had a liveried black footman who is probably the sitter for one of his most vibrant and dignified head studies, though some believe it to be of Barber (c.1770). The head was copied many times by students. In 1773 Reynolds and his sister, who was a miniaturist, painted portraits of the moral philosopher James Beattie and became friendly with him. Beattie is celebrated for his passionate denunciation of slavery and eloquent refutation of David Hume’s white supremacist beliefs. Finally, Reynolds was actively involved in the establishment of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787. In his history of the abolitionist movement, Thomas Clarkson describes a dinner party held at the house of Reynolds’s old friend Bennet Langton at which ‘Sir Joshua Reynolds gave his unqualified approbation of the abolition of this cruel traffic.’

It is essential that black lives are rediscovered by historians, just as the lives of white women and the poor have been. But judgments need to be made with subtlety, humility and perspective. The condescension of posterity risks turning huge swathes of the past into Dark Ages.

James Hall
London SW12

Vol. 43 No. 3 · 4 February 2021

James Hall points out Joshua Reynolds’s close engagement with abolitionism in the 1780s (Letters, 21 January). One might also add that in the final year of his life he subscribed to the second edition of Ottobah Cugoano’s Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery (1791), the most searing anti-slavery tract of the period, written by a man who had first-hand experience of the subject. What is interesting about the study of artworks and the archival traces that surround them, no less so of Reynolds’s pictures and his sitter book, is the way they continue to exert force today. Whatever Reynolds’s intentions in his use of the indefinite common noun ‘negro’, and however we might wish to historicise it with reference to the language he used for his other models, we must acknowledge, too, that the meaning and agency of historical artefacts exceed their original contexts. They can come to stand for ideas and attitudes in the ‘now’ far beyond the ‘then’. The task for historians and art historians today – as historical materialists in Walter Benjamin’s sense – is to do justice to both.

Esther Chadwick
London N1

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