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Black is beautiful: Rubens tot Dumas

Black is beautiful: from Rubens to Dumas Exhibition: 26 July - 26 October 2008

Museum information

In the summer of 2008 the Nieuwe Kerk will present a journey of discovery though the history of art. For the first time the attractiveness of the black person in the art of the Low Countries will receive attention. Many great masters turn out to have portrayed black people. The fascination with them will be illustrated in about 135 paintings, drawings and manuscripts from collections here and abroad. Black is beautiful presents a remarkable oil study by Rubens, an intimate drawing and etching by Rembrandt, paintings by Jordaens, Mostaert, Breitner, Jan Sluijters, Karl Appel and Marlene Dumas, and beautifully illustrated manuscripts from the late Middle Ages such as the famous Van Maerlant manuscript.

Together these works give an idea of the changing role of black people in Dutch art and culture. They show that for seven centuries black people have been part of Dutch art and history, in which they play an ever more important role. Striking images and new insights take us from the year 1300, via the great masters of the seventeenth century, to contemporary art. Iris Kensmil has made twelve memorial paintings especially for this exhibition; they pay homage to her predecessors in black emancipation. They will be temporarily added to the architecture of the imposing Nieuwe Kerk.

The exhibition is divided into three main sections: the Old World, the New World and the Modern World. These sections are further divided into subjects such as The black king, Strong men, Strong women, Africa and the Africans, (South) America and the slaves and Portraits.

For the first time Black is Beautiful presents a broad and coherent view of the beauty of black people in seven centuries of art in the Low Countries. The exhibition, which fills a gap in the study of Dutch art, is the result of years of research by guest curator Esther Schreuder

Additional background information from the press section of the museum website, 15 July 2008

The Old World

In the Low Countries the first black figures are seen principally in miniatures of the late Middle Ages. In the fourteenth century a whole range of ‘roles’ for black people developed in the Low Countries, following the rest of Europe. In manuscripts we encounter black Moors. They generally represent the Muslims living in Spain (Andalusia) at that time. They are portrayed in scenes of fighting between Christians and black Moors, as in the miniatures of the famous Spiegel Historiael (of c. 1330, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague) by Jacob van Maerlant, one of the highlights of the exhibition. But they also play other roles in the manuscripts.

The black king, one of the best known black characters in the Middle Ages. The Bible (Matthew 2: 1-12) refers not to Kings but to Wise Men or Magi, who gradually change into The Three Kings in Christian literature and art. One of them, almost always Caspar or Balthazar, is depicted as the black king at a certain point. The exhibition present splendid versions of this biblical theme, such as the oil sketch (London, private collection) which Rubens made in 1609 and later incorporated in a painting of The Adoration of the Magi, and the modello by Jacob Jordaens (Kassel, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen). At the same time as the introduction of the black king, around 1450, the biblical story of the baptism of an Ethiopian eunuch came into vogue in the Low Countries. It was often given the title ‘The baptism of the chamberlain’, because the eunuch was a chamberlain or treasurer. Moreover, the States’ Bible of 1637 refers to a chamberlain in this story. It first appeared in miniatures in books of hours, then, from the mid-sixteenth century, in paintings too. In the seventeenth century the subject really caught on and was given an additional meaning. Both the Protestant Northern Netherlands and the Southern Netherlands, which was ruled by Catholic Spain, used this biblical story to express the idea that everyone was welcome to join their true faith. The exhibition includes two paintings of this subject. In the one by Abraham Bloemaert of about 1620 (Amsterdam, ICN, on long-term loan to the Centraal Museum Utrecht) the baptism is shown life-size.

Besides the Bible, classical mythology was also a source of inspiration for sixteenth- and seventeenth-century artists. In the classics all black Africans were referred to as Aethiopes or Ethiopians. Artists in the Low Countries read the classical authors a great deal. Ethiopia also had great appeal for seventeenth-century artists, as shown by two works by Karel van Mander III in the exhibition (Andromeda and Charicleia, Kassel, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen). Other figures from mythology acquired a ‘black version’, such as the black cupids in the illustrated book by Rubens’s teacher Otto van Veen published in Antwerp in 1608 (Amorum Emblemata, Amsterdam, University of Amsterdam).

The New World

From the sixteenth century the world was truly discovered by Europeans, so that black people were seen ever more often in allegories, as personifications or in ethnographical prints. In art the Dutch overseas activities in West Africa, Brazil and Surinam were referred to in different ways. This often took the form of allegories of the Four Continents (Europe, Africa, Asia, America), first with white women seated on their own symbolic animal, usually a crocodile for Africa. But this changed at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Africa was personified by an African man or woman. In the exhibition there is a ceiling painting of 1715 by Pieter Ruyven showing Africa as a black woman with a scorpion, a horn of plenty and an elephant’s trunk as a hat (Leiden, Stedelijk Museum de Lakenhal). Yet images of Africans do not refer exclusively to overseas trade or universal power. In cosmological compositions they also stood for the night because of their dark colour, or for the element Fire because of their association with the heat of the African sun. Night can be seen in two prints from the series on the biblical story of the Creation by Jan Harmensz. Muller after a design by Hendrick Goltzius (Amsterdam, Rijksprentenkabinet). In the print The separation of Light and Dark an angel divides light and dark with two staves. Although Goltzius seems to depict his black women as white, coloured dark only by shading, it is evident from the physiognomy of the face of Darkness that she represents an African.

Thanks to Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen, who governed Brazil in the name of the Dutch between 1637 and 1644, and brought artists there who documented the country, the people, and the flora and fauna, the South American world was also introduced in the Low Countries. It became the subject of the decoration of the Mauritshuis built for Johan Maurits in The Hague (1640). One of the artists involved was Albert Eckhout, and a number of spectacular paintings by him from the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen will be at the Nieuwe Kerk. If in a painting by Eckhout man and woman are shown standing together, that is a reference to the relationship between Africa, Brazil and Europe. African traders sold slaves and ivory to Europeans. The slaves were transported to Brazil, where they had to work in the cane fields or the sugar mills. In seventeenth-century Holland in still lifes, genre scenes and portraits black boys were popular as the pages or slave-servants of rich whites. The exhibition presents remarkable examples, such as the Portrait of Margaretha van Raephorst by Jan Mijtens (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum) and the Portrait of the Friesheim family by Philip van Dijk (Utrecht, Centraal Museum). The black servants were always depicted in the same way: they adopt a subservient pose and look up submissively or admiringly at their master. Apart from these portraits in which black servants are depicted as status symbols, there were also portraits of black people, ‘tronies’ or heads, in which they were shown alone. In addition there were a number of portraits of black men who had spent some time in the Low Countries as diplomats or students. One example is the Portrait of Jacobus Capitein (1742) by Pieter Tanjé after Philip van Dijck. Here Capitein wears the dress of a preacher. The remarkable thing is that Capitein had been a slave; he came from Ghana. An early portrait of an anonymous person by Jan Mostaert is spectacular; it is one of the most publicised recent acquisitions by the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.

Artists also often copied ‘types’ from other artists in their work. Seventeenth-century artists made, or collected, studies of black models which helped them when designing or executing their paintings. They were mainly concerned with the head, the skin and the clothes, even though these works were not intended as portraits but as representations of an anonymous figure that could later be incorporated in a larger painting. Thus Gaspar de Crayer made a Study of a head (1631-1635, Ghent, Museum voor Schone Kunsten), which he later used in several paintings. Lastly, blacks also regularly formed part of the retinue of diplomatic missions, often as drummers. Rembrandt’s celebrated coloured drawing of such drummers (London, British Museum) can be seen in this exhibition.

Around 1800, black people increasingly came to be seen in art as victims of slavery. This was dramatically exemplified by the now world-famous book Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe. It was a bestseller all over the world and was quickly followed by verse and stage versions and by illustrated versions for children, including in the Netherlands. The compelling but sentimental story centres on the figure of Tom, a pious slave with a heart of gold. The Dutch translation was sold in Surinam too, and of course the book was seen in relation to slavery there. The Netherlands did not abolish slavery until 1863. Almost all the book versions were illustrated with prints. A number of these prints, by various makers, can be seen in the exhibition. While on the one hand first the slave trade and then slavery were abolished, on the other the Netherlands and the rest of Europe were extending their colonial power. This required a large and strong army. Some of the men for the Dutch army were taken from the old slave trading centre of Elmina on the Gold Coast between 1831 and 1872. About 3000 men from modern Ghana and Burkino Faso went as soldiers of the Royal Dutch East Indian Army (KNIL) to fight against the insurgent people of Aceh among others. They proved to be exceptionally brave and were widely respected, soon acquiring the name Belanda Hitam, Black Hollanders. Several black KNIL veterans were later portrayed by Conrad Leich and Isaac Israëls. Examples of the work of both painters can be seen at the exhibition (Leich: Arnhem, Museum Bronbeek; Israëls: Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum).

A black boyhood friend of Michiel de Ruyter played a modest but surprising role in the nineteenth century. In this age of nationalism and Romanticism painters were given the task of recording glorious events from national history on canvas. The national hero Michiel Adriaensz. de Ruyter received a great deal of attention. A painting by Johannes Hendrikus Egenberger (Amsterdams Historisch Museum, on long-term loan in Vlissingen, MuZEEum) depicts the meeting between Michiel de Ruyter and Jan Kompany. The peculiarly dressed African man must be the local ruler Jan Kompany. He had once been De Ruyter’s playmate and shipmate, and they saw each other again on the African coast 46 years later.

At the great world exhibitions of the nineteenth century one could learn about the art, architecture and populations of non-Western lands. In 1883 the Netherlands organised a Colonial Exhibition on Museumplein in Amsterdam where peoples and cultures from both the Dutch East Indies and Surinam were presented. A coloured drawing by Charles Rochussen (Rotterdam, Wereldmuseum) which can soon be seen at the Nieuwe Kerk gives an impression of the Surinamese village in the Colonial Exhibition. This encounter with ‘exotic’ peoples, music and art had a deep impact on several artists and inspired them to move in new directions and to choose new subjects.

The orientalism that was all the rage in Paris from the beginning of the nineteenth century spread to the Netherlands around 1880. The fascination of such artists as Breitner, Isaac Israëls and Bauer with the Orient and Africa led to a new type of work, often with a hint of eroticism.

Abraham Janssens, The Agrippine sibyl. Düsseldorf, Kunst Palast

Abraham Janssens (ca. 1575-1632), The Agrippine sibyl
Düsseldorf, Kunst Palast

The Modern World

In the 1920s and 1930s new art movements followed each other in rapid succession. The many group exhibitions presented Cubism, Surrealism, Expressionism, Magic Realism, New Objectivity and renewed Impressionism. For artists, among others, these were revolutionary times. Most Dutch artists sought innovation in style, colour, form and content through large movements in other countries. In the 1920s the Groningen collective De Ploeg was inspired in its search for colour and form by the principles of the German group Die Brücke, and particularly by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938). The exhibition includes examples such as the vividly coloured paintings by Johan Dijkstra and Jan Wiegers (both Groningen, Groninger Museum). Others such as Jan Sluijters looked more towards Paris and the Fauves. Sluijters received glowing reviews for his painting Negress with red scarf (private collection, on long term loan to Assen, Drents Museum), in which he depicted the model Tonia Stieltjes, one of three portraits of her in the exhibition. The rage for jazz also swept across most big cities in Europe, including those in Holland, and every city had its own ‘Negro club’ where jazz was played. In Amsterdam Casablanca and the Kit Kat Club opened, along with others. In Paris the club Le Bal Nègre was where the international art avant-garde met from the beginning of the 1920s. Around this time it was extremely modern for avant-garde ladies to dance with a black man. A relationship was not necessarily ruled out. Black music, black forms, black dance, black history and black people were hot in Paris, Amsterdam and other European cities.

Africa in the subconscious, 1920-1960

‘The African’ and African art came to play a significant role for Western artists early in the twentieth century. It was an aid in their attempts to retrace the original meaning of art. For the Surrealists the art of Oceania, the Inuit, Aboriginals and outsiders such as the mentally disabled provided a ‘dream space’ that was dramatic and narrative. The Surrealists wanted to get away from the old European establishment. Charles Roelofsz is seen as one the few Dutch Surrealists: his Fantastische Voorstelling of 1930 (Utrecht, Centraal Museum) is an excellent example. Straight after the Second World War the principles of the Surrealists were recognised and embraced by the Experimental Group and Cobra. The 1945 exhibition at the Rijksmuseum Art in freedom, which showed various works from New Guinea and Surinam, was a major influence on a number of artists who would later come together to form these groups. This applied particularly to Anton Rooskens, Eugène Brands and Corneille. They wanted to create an entirely new culture, and ‘primitive’ culture could help, in particular African culture. In 1959 the poet and artist Lucebert wrote a well-known poem which began with the line ‘A big gruff negro has landed inside me’. This expresses the sense artists had at the time of wanting to find ‘the African’ in themselves. Cobra member Karel Appel painted a Negro portrait as early as 1945; it will be in the exhibition (The Hague, Gemeentemuseum).

Mixed identity, beauty

These days black culture has become part of European culture. For the exhibition, among others, black artists who appropriate white icons have been chosen: Gillion Grantsaan gives Queen Beatrix an Afro haircut with a simple intervention (artist’s collection). Remy Jungerman transforms a garden gnome into a Surinamese god of the woods, a bakru (artist’s collection). Other black artists, such as Iris Kensmil, add black history to the Dutch visual culture like contemporary history painters. She uses unmistakably African-Caribbean colours, with lots of yellow, green, red and black. Especially for this exhibition Kensmil has made twelve new memorial paintings for the Nieuwe Kerk; they pay homage to forerunners in black emancipation. Indigenous Dutch artists mix ‘black’ and ‘white’ identities from the media and club and street culture to make hard, blown up realities. Erik van Lieshout would like to join the black scene and provokes in order to get a reaction. Charlotte Schleiffert reinforces hiphop through appealing, new, mythical and erotically charged black figures. Berend Strik decorates his erotic black women fantasies with embroidery, making them more accessible.

In addition, two white artists have been chosen who are comparable to the black ‘diaspora’ artists and have moved from South Africa to the Netherlands. They are Marlene Dumas and Ina van Zyl. Black/white relations play an important part in their works. Dumas gets under the skin of the mother, the supermodel, the baby, the teenager and the sex object. Black people and their beauty are dominant themes. Her models are often beautiful, but also sad and sensitive. Ina van Zyl turns her attention to details of the body. It is notable that her objects become darker during the painting. White hands and white breasts become brown by themselves. On completion the feet of a white Cinderella turn out to have become brown (Cinderella, 1999, Amsterdam, De Nederlandsche Bank).


The exhibition has been organised following years of research by guest curator Esther Schreuder for the Nieuwe Kerk which were made possible by the VSBfonds, the Mondriaan Stichting and the Amsterdam Fonds voor de Kunsten. She was assisted in her work by among others historians and art historians at the University of Amsterdam, the Free University, the University of Utrecht and the Warburg Institute in London, and by several museums. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue with international contributions in a Dutch and an English edition made possible by the Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds.

During the preparatory research for the exhibition and the catalogue it became increasingly clear that Dutch and other European museums contain a priceless art-historical treasure of paintings, sculptures, drawings and graphics with superb images of black people. The field was so extensive and so little explored that some restrictions were necessary. To begin with, foreign art has been excluded: we are concerned solely with art made in the Low Countries from the late Middle Ages (c. 1300), when as far as is known the first images of blacks appeared. Up to c. 1830 the Netherlands and Belgium are discussed together, but after that date only the Netherlands is covered. In 1830 Belgium separated from the Netherlands not only politically but also in the arts, and when it came to the depiction of black people the two countries went different ways. Another restriction is the almost complete absence of photos, film and new media; this is because they have their own dynamic which it is impossible to do justice to within the larger whole. The applied arts, which also have their own dynamic, have been included only when there was a clear relation to the visual arts. Furthermore, none of the images is a caricature. There is a tendency to portray black people as vigorous, independent characters which begins in the late Middle Ages and continues to this day. Choosing to emphasise this means that less attention than has been customary up to now is paid to black people as devil, servant or victim of slavery.


An important issue that came up almost at the beginning was: how to define black people? Every country, every continent has its own definition and historical sensitivities about people of African origin. For the exhibition it was decided to deal only with people (and images of them) from Africa south of the Sahara and their descendants (or mixed descendants) elsewhere in the world. In the distant past these people were sometimes referred to by the now outdated designation ‘Moors’. This term was and is ambiguous. Sometimes it indicated colour, sometimes religion (Islam), sometimes both. In the nineteenth century the word ‘Moor’ referring to a black African was gradually replaced by ‘Negro’. For the nineteenth and a large part of the twentieth century this was the normal term with which to describe people of black African origin. But it is now generally regarded as distasteful, although some choose to use it as a badge of honour. In the exhibition and the accompanying catalogue it has been decided, in accordance with the present consensus, to use ‘black’ as an adjective and sometimes as a noun, alternating with terms that indicate areas or countries of origin, such as African, Surinamese or Antillean.


De Mondriaan Stichting
Het VSB fonds
Het Amsterdams Fonds voor de Kunsten


Black people in the art of the Low Countries
Esther Schreuder
Catalogue of an exhibition held in 2008 in Amsterdam (Nieuwe Kerk)
336 pp., 200 illustrations in color
Zwolle (Waanders) 2008
ISBN 978-90-400-8497-3 (English edition, paperbound)
ISBN 978-90-400-8496-6 (Dutch edition)

Related event

Amsterdam (Meertens Instituut), symposium De kleur zwart, 27 June 2008

News about this exhibition