The Currier Museum of Art recently acquired one of the earliest depictions of free Black people in Europe. Painted in Antwerp around 1650, Black Men and Women in a Tavern shows figures drinking and smoking in a relaxed setting. Produced in the circle of the Flemish artist David Teniers the Younger, the work closely resembles paintings of the period showing White people carousing in taverns.
Black people from Africa appear in European art beginning in the sixteenth century, but they were normally presented as exotic figures in the roles of servants, slaves, or Biblical figures. They almost always wear elaborate foreign attire. In this painting, Black people are the main focus of the scene and wear ordinary clothes of the time.
There were Black communities in the port cities of the Netherlands, including Antwerp, Amsterdam, and Rotterdam. Artists like Rubens and Rembrandt sketched Black individuals in Antwerp and Amsterdam respectively. This genre scene does not appear to record specific individuals, but evokes the daily life of Black people in Antwerp, comparable to scenes of White people in urban taverns.
The painting is a generous gift from the Amsterdam art dealer and CODART Business Sponsor, Salomon Lilian, who visited the Currier in 2022 and was impressed by the diversity of the museum collection.
Antwerp around 1650
The painting is closely related to the tavern scenes painted by David Teniers the Younger (1610–1690) and his workshop, which often show people smoking and drinking, and sometimes misbehaving. These depict White individuals exclusively, except for the Currier Museum’s new painting. David’s younger brother, Abraham Teniers occasionally depicted Black men as servants or slaves, usually in ceremonial dress.
A later copy of the Currier Museum’s painting is now in the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore; it was acquired in 2019 as a mid-seventeenth-century painting from Amsterdam (inv. 37.2941). However, this work is derived from the Currier Museum’s painting, which was made in Antwerp, not Amsterdam.