Preface to The Image of the Black in Western Art
David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
The Image of the Black in Western Art was conceived by the late Dominique Schlumberger de Menil (1908–1997) and her husband, John (1904–1973), fifty years ago. The de Menils were known internationally for their patronage of artists such as René Magritte and Max Ernst as early as the 1930s, and eventually for the size and range of their art collection. Their passion for art led them to set up, among many other things, the Menil Collection and the Rothko Chapel in Houston. They also were widely respected for their commitment to human rights. Dominique de Menil originated the idea of collecting images of persons of African descent in Western art at the height of the civil rights movement in the United States as a subtle bulwark and living testimony against antiblack racism. She also viewed this project as a way to counter, implicitly, the legion of all-too-familiar racist and stereotypical images of black people in American and European popular art by unveiling the fact that for centuries—indeed, millennia—canonical Western artists had included black figures in positive, sometimes realistic, and often celebratory ways in virtually every medium.
In launching this extraordinary project, the de Menils knitted two strands of their family’s passionate interests together into one unusual form. Dominique de Menil once said that she assumed the entire project would take about a year or so to complete, since no one at the time could have had any idea of the sheer scope and astonishing range of the presence of black images in the Western artistic tradition. A half century later, the project exists in the form of a photographic archive initially established in Houston by the Menil Foundation but now located in almost identical form at the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, Harvard University, and at the Warburg Institute, University of London. These twin archives remain the bedrock of the project and contain more than 30,000 images, far more than can be reproduced in a series of published volumes.1Both archives can be consulted by the public by appointment, and the photographs can also be accessed on the Internet by subscription through ARTSTOR. And the search for even more images of blacks in Western art continues.
The de Menils’ idea in launching this project was based on their belief in the benevolent—indeed, transforming—power of art and their alarm at the stubborn persistence of racial segregation in the United States, to which they had both immigrated from France during World War II. It is no accident that the project was born in the heart of the South. After John de Menil’s death, Dominique de Menil became even more actively involved in supervising the research and eventual publication of the initial volumes. In her preface to the first edition of Volume I, reprinted in the Appendix to that volume, she argues that works of art by master artists can reveal the common humanity of all people beyond the limits of conventional racial and social assumptions. Widely disseminated knowledge of and access to the beauty and range of these images could, she and her husband believed, be a source of pride and self-respect for Africans and African Americans, and might simultaneously promote greater tolerance and understanding of black people among white people. Art, in other words, could be drawn upon as another weapon in the fight against antiblack racism, both in America and throughout Europe. Black figures in great works of Western art might provide a window onto times in the past when, as Dominique de Menil put it a little wistfully, “ideals of fraternity blossomed” between Europeans and Africans, a time before the start of the African slave trade to Europe and the New World, a time when race-based slavery and Jim Crow segregation were not the basis of the dominant socioeconomic relationship between them or of the ways in which black people were “seen” and represented in Western culture. It was a noble idea, if perhaps characteristic of a more optimistic era than our own.
The de Menils were not the first to take a systematic interest in the representation of persons of African descent in European art. Grace Hadley Beardsley published a standard work, The Negro in Greek and Roman Civilization: A Study of the Ethiopian Type, in 1929, and she had noted that “the earliest important work on the subject” was J. Löwenherz’s Die Aethiopen der altclassischen Kunst, published in 1861, “an important year in negro history.”2Grace Hadley Beardsley, The Negro in Greek and Roman Civilization: A Study of the Ethiopian Type (Baltimore, 1929), p. ix. Beardsley makes the salient point that Löwenherz’s study was undertaken precisely at the height of the abolition movement in the United States, in the first year of the Civil War. Similarly, publication of The Image of the Black was initiated at a turbulent time in the history of American race relations. Nonetheless, there is nothing explicit in the work of Löwenherz or Beardsley arguing that studying this subject might play a part in counteracting segregation or racial prejudice. At the other end of the scale from such works of scholarship were popular books like J. A. Rogers’s Sex and Race (three volumes, 1940–1944), which used representations of blacks in the history of Western art as evidence, as its subtitle, Negro-Caucasian Mixing in All Ages and All Lands, indicates, to argue against current theories of racial essentialism. Regardless of the intentions of these authors, it had become clear by the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s that representations of black people in Western art could be drawn upon both as another front in the war against racism and to make the case for the inherent equality of freed slaves and their descendants.
The idea that a study of European images of blacks in art could be an antidote to prejudice was first adumbrated in its most sophisticated form by the great African American scholar and critic Alain LeRoy Locke (1886–1954) in The Negro in Art of 1940.3Alain LeRoy Locke, The Negro in Art: A Pictorial Record of the Negro Artist and the Negro Theme in Art (New York, 1968 [1940]). Locke, upon graduating from Harvard College, became the first black Rhodes Scholar. After studying at Oxford University, he eventually returned to Harvard to become the first black person to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy there, in 1918. One of his areas of philosophical interest and expertise was aesthetics. He often wrote about art and its social uses, especially during the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement in part created by the massive anthology The New Negro, which he edited and published in 1925. In several of his own essays, in essays by others, such as the American inventor and art collector Alfred C. Barnes, and in lavish illustrations, many in color, Locke stressed the nature and function of art in society and its potential role in what he termed a necessary “reassessment” of the Negro, which he argued the Harlem Renaissance might effect. He brought various lines of his thought into a theory of art, race, and racial relations in The Negro in Art, the culmination of his thinking about Negro art and the Negro in art in the twenty years since he had completed his doctoral dissertation.
In this seminal book, Locke deepened his brief for the role of the arts in the Negro’s attempt to gain social equality and equal treatment before the law, arguing that “the deep and sustained interest of artists generally in the Negro subject, amounting in some instances to preoccupation with this theme, runs counter to the barriers and limitations of social and racial prejudice, and evidences appreciative insights which, if better known, might prove one of the strongest antidotes for prejudice.” Locke’s claim rests on a belief in the artist as vanguard, the artist’s superior aesthetic powers within the social hierarchy, and her or his ability to see beyond ordinary perceptions: “Here in this field, as in others, the eye of the artist vindicates its reputation for having in most instances broader, clearer and deeper vision than ordinary.” On the other hand, Locke argues, art could naturalize racial prejudice at the same time as mitigating it: “This is not to gainsay that art, too, has its limiting formula, or that in still other instances art reflects and even caters to its contemporary social conventions. But even in so doing, the net effect of art is to reveal the bias rather than to conceal it, while the usual course of the best art is to transcend it with a freshly original point of view”4Ibid., pp. 3, 138. In artistic depictions of black figures throughout the Western tradition, Locke was spurred by the formally transforming uses of African art by the cubists to create bold new ways of representing the human form, starting with Picasso’s studies for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Locke maintained that ammunition could be found for deployment in the battle against antiblack racism where it had never occurred to anyone to look before: in the visual arts. As he had argued in The New Negro, if European artists could so fundamentally affect the world’s attitudes toward and regard for traditionally benighted African masks, for example, just think of the implications of the creation of a truly resonant American Negro artistic tradition, and of the adoption of the Negro as a subject for art made by white Americans and Europeans. This is exemplified by the drawings of the German immigrant artist Winold Reiss that pepper the text of his canonical anthology. It was a complex argument, and a subtle one, uniquely Locke’s own.
For Alain Locke, the sheer variety of physical types of blacks in European art acted as a solvent for the prevalent stereotypes that obtained in American society. He drew attention to the crucial importance of the fact that one of the Three Magi who visited the baby Jesus had since the late Middle Ages often been represented as a black man in paintings of The Adoration of the Magi. He pointed to paintings of blacks by Rembrandt, Velázquez, and Rubens, in which he discerned “a degree of virtuosity in technical expression and a penetration of emotional understanding.” He also argued, in a sign that even he was embedded in and valorized certain racialist ideas of his time, that “they caught, in addition to the particular model, that indefinable but tangible something we feel as race.” He saw something almost charming or engaging in paintings in which a great European gentleman or lady is accompanied by an adoring black slave: “Even the late 17th and 18th Century tradition of the Negro page attendant, though grounded in slavery, still preserved something of the glamor of the exotic, investing that frequent figure with gaiety and charm.”5Ibid., p. 139. While art could penetrate the superficial appearance of even a black person’s social station or status, suggesting the universal human core beneath, he seemed unaware that it also had the potential to invest slavery with a certain glamour: a two-edged sword.
The de Menils certainly would have known Locke’s book, if not Locke himself. However, there were more immediate influences on the generation of this research project, in particular the well-known Polish-French author and novelist Jean Malaquais (1908–1998), born Wladimir Malacki in Warsaw, who had been André Gide’s secretary and who moved between Paris and the United States, where he held several academic posts. Malaquais, like Locke, had strong views about the efficacy of art to effect social change. The de Menils also knew the work of the African American scholar Frank M. Snowden, Jr. (1911–2007), like Locke a Harvard Ph.D. (in classics) and a colleague of Locke’s at Howard University. Snowden’s Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience (1970) and subsequent books on this topic made him an obvious choice as one of the authors for the first volume in this multivolume work, on black images in the ancient world.
The de Menils were insistent that the proposed volumes (initially three were envisaged, covering works of art from European antiquity to the early twentieth century) should contain illustrations of exceptional quality, for which they commissioned a number of campaigns by outstanding photographers. They also employed as director of the archive and editor of the proposed volumes a young Paris-trained art historian, Ladislas Bugner, who produced a detailed chronological scheme for the volumes, which has remained the basis for the choice of images in the published books. Some of the volumes would be published in two large parts, and all were originally produced in both English and French editions, a nod to the increasingly troubled politics of race on both sides of the Atlantic, to the provenance of so much of the art being reproduced, and, of course, to the de Menils’ native land. For various reasons, the volumes were not published in chronological order, leaving important historical gaps in the series’ first incarnation. That unfortunate fact, combined with the two-part structure of two of the published volumes, often led to confusion among readers about the scope and organization of the project. The first volume, titled From the Pharaohs to the Fall of the Roman Empire, was published in 1976. Volume II, From the Early Christian Era to the “Age of Discovery,” was published in two parts in 1979, while Volume IV, From the American Revolution to World War I, came out, also in two parts, in 1989. Reviews of these publications were uniformly enthusiastic and unstintingly full of praise. We are pleased that we are now publishing, in three parts, the third chronological volume, From the “Age of Discovery” to the Age of Abolition.6As early as 1980, John Russell had, in commending “the exalted nature of [the project’s] ambitions and . . . its beauty of presentation,” already complained of “the august slowness of its fulfillment” (New York Times, 29 June 1980, p. 7).
Sometime after the death of Dominique de Menil on the last day of 1997—but not before Harvard honored her with an honorary doctorate—the Menil Foundation decided to discontinue the publication of The Image of the Black, though authors had already been commissioned for the remaining volumes. Almost immediately, the director of the Du Bois Institute assumed responsibility for completing the project and fulfilling Dominique de Menil’s original plan. In 1993 Madame de Menil had transferred the archive, under the direction of Karen C. C. Dalton, to the W. Ε. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard, where it was endowed through donations made by the Menil Foundation and various donors recruited by President Neil Rudenstine and by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. In 2005 the Du Bois Institute formally agreed to undertake the publication of the remaining volumes and to republish the existing volumes in the series, under the editorship of David Bindman and Professor Gates and the assistant editorship of Karen Dalton. This essay inaugurates this new series, which includes texts written by a mixture of the original and newly commissioned authors. In addition to the original publishing scheme, a volume covering the twentieth century and a companion volume on the image of the black in African art are part of the Du Bois Institute’s project.
This long gestation period has only served to increase the reputation of the published volumes, now extremely difficult to find, and often shockingly expensive when they are available on the rare-book market. It has also served to make the appearance of the volumes covering the Renaissance and the Enlightenment in Europe and America, from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, all the more desirable and urgent, given the considerable amount of scholarship that has been published over the past two decades by historians and literary scholars on race, slavery, and the presence of historical black figures in European society during those centuries. The volumes already published have become seminal works in the field. They have had a wide influence on scholarship and, though it is difficult to quantify, on racial relations as well, and even in some cases on the creation of art itself. Much has developed subsequently in the scholarship of each field, a great deal of which was stimulated by the impact of the scholarly essays in the volumes themselves. For this reason, in addition to completing the intended scope of this multivolume work and publishing new editions of the previous volumes with an increased number of color plates, we decided to add critical introductions by contemporary scholars, reflecting on the way the study of the subject has advanced since the initial publication. This has enabled Jeremy Tanner to evaluate the impact of the highly controversial “Black Athena” theory of Martin Bernal on the representation of blacks in the classical world, Paul Kaplan to cast new light on the sources of the presence of blacks in visual culture from the thirteenth century onward, and David Bindman to raise more fully the context of popular imagery in the nineteenth century as a necessary preface and transition to the new volume dealing with the explosion of images of black people in the Western art of the twentieth century.
The new volumes covering the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries have inevitably been affected by the interest among art historians in recent years in questions of “representation,” especially the representation of “others,” and by a much more critical approach to the traditional boundaries of the history of art and the historical contexts in which works of art were created. Every noun and adjective in the title of these books, which seemed unproblematic when the series was first mooted in the 1960s, is now subject to contestation or qualification. Image no longer appears to be a neutral term but begs the question of the context and ideological standpoint of each representation. An image is no longer assumed to be “artistic” but can be anything from an allegorical painting or a portrait to an inn sign, an ornament, an engraved tobacco wrapper, or a household object like an Aunt Jemima image on a box of pancake mix. Where once these images were thought best hidden or, at worst, destroyed, today many African Americans themselves and scholars of all nationalities have become collectors of these widely disseminated—and relentlessly racist—images of blacks in American and European popular culture. One can find examples of such images as early as the late eighteenth century and all throughout the nineteenth, but they really exploded onto the market at the turn of the twentieth century as the visual manifestation of Jim Crow. The determination of scholars and collectors (especially African Americans) to gather these seemingly limitless and endlessly demeaning images and make them available for analysis and deconstruction is one of the most exciting developments in this field since the publication of the first edition of these volumes.
From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, there are a few works that depict real black individuals, but the vast majority of images of blacks are purely fictive, playing a part in court, religious, or city life as representations of, say, Africa or the non-Christian world. The latter may be found in wall and ceiling paintings and in ornaments, as part of a fanciful setting paying tribute to the glory of princes or to the spread of Christianity throughout the world, or as signboards or elements of heraldry. Somewhere in between the individual portrait and the personification of Africa is the black page in grand-manner portraiture, acting as an extravagantly dressed foil to his owner, his servitude sometimes emphasized by a silver slave collar around his neck or a silver ring in his ear. In a similar category are the black figures who appear as performers and musicians in pageants and ceremonies. In all cases, these images evoke a world as far removed as possible from the reality of the slave plantation in the New World, even though nearly all of the people on whom they are based were transported as slaves directly from the ports in West and Central Africa documented by the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.7See
The role blacks played in such artistic fantasies derived from and reinforced European attitudes toward Africans in general—Africans who lived among them as well as their ideas of Africa and the human beings who lived there. The scholar Barbara Johnson memorably defined a stereotype as “an already read text.”8Barbara Johnson, The Critical Difference: Essays in the Contemporary Rhetoric of Reading (Baltimore, 1992), p. 3. Indeed, many of the significations attached to the “blackness” of black people preceded familiarity with actual people of African descent, upon whom was imposed a range of imagined attributes and associations: diabolical darkness; propensity to religious enthusiasm, intense piety, magic, and witchcraft; ancient wisdom; primitive innocence; savage ignobility or nobility; childlike wonder; irrationality; and a primeval and insatiable animal-like sexuality. Blacks were the other side of Reason, representing not only the very superstitions that the Enlightenment sought to obliterate but also sometimes the innocence that mankind had lost in its pursuit of material gain. Africans, like South Sea Islanders, could sometimes be Europe’s noble savages, but far more often they served as Europe’s ultimate ideal of ignobility.
In the nineteenth century, with the invention of lithography, photography, and other mass-reproduction techniques, images in general increased exponentially in the form of advertisements and popular illustrations. The visual world of Europeans and Americans, in myriad forms of popular culture, was flooded well into the twentieth century with deeply demeaning stereotypical images of blacks that showed them as infantile and bestial, often foolishly aping the ways of their “betters” or ostensible social superiors, people whom they could mimic but never become, never fundamentally be “like” or of a kind with. These images had an incalculable, and often subconscious, effect on the spread of the poisonous ideology of racism developed by scientists in the period. (In fact, science often willingly played the role of handmaiden to a larger discourse of racism.) Such images, reinforced by stereotypes of African “savages,” and in spite of the modernists’ bold new formal uses of African art, also appeared in some twentieth-century works of art as something to be incorporated and exorcised. This occurred implicitly in the work of African American artists as early as the Harlem Renaissance and explicitly in the work of a plethora of contemporary black artists, such as Michael Ray Charles, Kara Walker, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Robert Colescott, Carrie Mae Weems, Yinka Shonibare, Glenn Ligon, Lorna Simpson, Adrian Piper, Chris Ofili, and Betye Saar, among many others.
Since the publication of the first edition of The Image of the Black in Western Art, scholars and critics have increasingly questioned the very boundaries of what constitutes “Western” art. The absolute separation of the “West” from other geographical and cultural entities has been challenged by studies of the correspondences and intertextuality of both writings by black authors and representations of blacks in art and literature in Europe and America during the Enlightenment and throughout the antislavery period, which Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has analyzed extensively, and by theories of “hybridity” and the idea of “the Black Atlantic” in which Paul Gilroy condemns “absolutist conceptions of cultural difference” and argues, for example, that British culture has long been essentially fluid and negotiated through maritime traffic across the Atlantic.9Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, Mass., 1993), 15. The two-way traffic of black artists between America and Europe, and between Europe and Africa, at least since the late nineteenth century, helps to explain not only the emphasis that black artists and writers place on the African roots of their art but why they rightfully sometimes object to being characterized as solely Western. A number of African artists have pursued their art in the United States or Europe, and formal exchanges between black artists and writers in Europe and America have been occurring, we now know, on a regular basis since the colonial period.10See Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (Oxford, 1988), pp. 127-69.
The idea of “art” as a discrete category has also become increasingly problematic. At least since the mid-nineteenth century, many artists have incorporated the iconography and the language of popular culture into their works rather than basing their imagery on the “art of the museums.” The eighteenth-century science of aesthetics came to be applied to art precisely to create acceptable limits and social boundaries. Only the great works of classical antiquity, a few works of the Italian Renaissance, and those of a small number of modern emulators were deemed to be works of ideal beauty. Art that sought a truth-effect, such as Dutch painting, was for the most part thought to be beneath aesthetic notice. “Western art” became gradually more inclusive in the nineteenth century, but it is still conceived of broadly in accordance with criteria established in the early part of that century in the great national painting galleries. The National Gallery in London, for example, exhibits much that would have been regarded as outside the bounds of true art before the nineteenth century: Dutch painting, portraiture, landscape, still life, and the contemporary life painting of William Hogarth. If art in the past one hundred years has enormously expanded its boundaries, this is in reaction to earlier attempts to purge it of all extraneous elements in order to clarify its metaphysical essence.
Yet since the beginning of the printing of images in fifteenth-century Europe, an imperfect distinction has been made between luxury images for the elite in sculptural, painted, or printed form and popular images—usually in woodcuts—that could be distributed in large numbers and copied seemingly endlessly. From the eighteenth century onward, as we have seen, developments in printing technology made it possible to produce caricatures for a large market and to lithograph advertisements for mass markets. There is in practice, however, an unbroken continuum from “high art” to the mass-produced image. It is in the latter that, as the African slave trade came under challenge in the late eighteenth century, caricatures and racist stereotypes of blacks begin to predominate and seriously reinforce or influence popular perceptions and even social policies. Do such egregiously distasteful works belong in volumes such as these? We believe that to omit them entirely would deny their enormous impact in reinforcing racial prejudices in European and American society, both in the era of slavery and especially with the rise of Jim Crow segregation in the United States after 1890. Further, by omitting these astonishingly numerous and deeply offensive images, we would lose an essential part of the meaning that they had for twentieth-century white and black artists as they went about the enormously difficult process of redefining the image of blacks in their own work against the backdrop of such imagery.
Needless to say, “the black” as a distinct category is now highly contentious in its use of the singular to represent the general. Black as a noun is now perhaps the most commonly used word to identify persons of African descent. However, though it was often used in earlier centuries, the forms Negro in English (from the Latin niger, meaning “black”), Nègre in French, and Neger in German were at least as common. Moor was also used, as in Shakespeare’s Othello, though often attached to the Muslim peoples of North Africa, as were Ethiopian, blackamoor, and African. As Christopher Miller put it, “The etymologies of Africanist names would . . . seem to be drawn toward meanings of darkness and otherness.”11Christopher L. Miller, Blank Darkness: Africanist Discourse in French (Chicago, 1985), p. 10. Before the modern period, Ethiopian, from the Greek for “burned face,” was commonly used to describe black Africans, a practice often leading to great confusion among scholars, who mistakenly identify it with the people who live in present-day Ethiopia, the former Abyssinia. Guinea also was widely used to signify sub-Saharan Africa, and possibly derives from Berber words that mean “land of the blacks.” Sudan means “the blacks” in Arabic, while Zanzibar derives from zengi or zengj, meaning “black,” and the Arabic barr, meaning “coast.” Africa has a less clear etymology, though it appears to be Roman in origin and was only relatively recently applied to the whole continent. Miller notes ten different hypotheses of its etymology: among others, Afri was the name given to several people who lived in North Africa, but Isidore of Seville suggested a derivation from the Latin word aprica, meaning “sunny,”12Isidore of Seville, Etymologicae XIV, 5.2. while the Encyclopaedia Britannica thought it derived from the Greek word aphrike, meaning “without cold.”13Miller, Blank Darkness, p. 11. Designations of sub-Saharan or black African origins tended to be clearer before the onset of slavery in the New World and the establishment of settled communities in colonial countries. Black (or lowercase black, as is used here), which in the mid-1960s replaced the universally used word Negro, is now an unavoidable shorthand term despite its literal descriptive inaccuracy and its tendentious opposition to white, signifying European descent. Of the two, black has a longer history; white became current, curiously enough, only in the late seventeenth century.14Winthrop D. Jordan, White over Black (New York, 1977), p. 95.
In the early years of the twenty-first century, we now want to challenge the implicit primacy of Western art by taking a wider view of the non-European world. On the other hand, though the intellectual framework of this series might seem unfashionably Eurocentric, we believe that it is flexible enough to provide essential materials for further debate on issues that have become more rather than less topical since it was initiated. As the editors and authors have insisted from the beginning of the project, it is a preliminary study of an enormous field, with ramifications that can in some cases only be touched upon even in the most carefully researched and edited volumes. We hope these will be developed by other scholars, using the Image of the Black Archives at Harvard and at the Warburg Institute in London.
An obvious question undoubtedly arises: what then defines a black person in the context of these volumes? Because so many images, especially in the earlier periods, lack external documentation, the answer is usually that of appearance: a person or persons who look as if they are of black African descent. Many are simply identifiable by the black or brown pigment applied to the representation of face or body with varying degrees of precision. They are also identifiable even in objects of white marble and terracotta from stereotypical features, such as thick protruding lips, flared nostrils, and kinky hair, that can be traced through European art history over thousands of years and that have been identified by repetition, though they may have little correspondence to the appearance of actual African human beings. These features are summed up in Sir Joshua Reynolds’s eighteenth-century description as “thick lips, flat nose, and woolly hair,”15Joshua Reynolds, The Idler, no. 82, 10 November 1759 (1816 ed.), p. 332. and the first and last of those features might be deemed sufficient for identification. In certain examples, such as the kantharos in the form of conjoined heads in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Vol. I, fig. 160), the head is not only painted black but has stereotypical facial features, and furthermore is contrasted with a head of a “white” woman. In other cases, the features may be much less emphatic or even quite ambiguous, in conformity with the widely varying physical characteristics of actual sub-Saharan African people.
It goes without saying that very few of the many thousands of representations of blacks throughout the ages are of “real” people. In the first place, only in limited periods has art concerned itself with depicting observable reality, and even then artists have only rarely chosen to focus on representing real black people. Only a tiny number of images from the whole of antiquity can be tied to identifiable contemporary people, though realistic portrait sculpture was practiced in certain periods. Moreover, in the Middle Ages there were almost none, except perhaps the obviously schematic representation of the legendary king of Ethiopia, Prester John (Vol. II, pt. 2, fig. 59), and Mansa Musa, the fabulously wealthy king of Mali (Vol. II, pt. 2, figs. 93-95), who famously made the pilgrimage to Mecca with a vast entourage, dispensing enough gold to depress the worlds gold market for several years. Yet there are examples of art from all historical periods that show an acute awareness of black African physiognomies. Medieval representations of the early Christian saint Maurice as a black warrior in soldier’s garb are obviously fictitious or idealized recreations, but it is inconceivable that, for example, the great sculpture at Magdeburg (Vol. II, pt. 1, figs. 114-16) could have been made without some experience of black physiognomies or the use of a black model. With the exception of the second-century Roman bust of Memnon (Vol. I, figs. 336-38) and fanciful images of African rulers, we really have to wait until 1521 for Albrecht Dürer’s wonderful portrait drawing of Katharina (Vol. II, pt. 2, fig. 263) to be able to put a name to a carefully delineated black face. Actual formal portraits of blacks—an implicit recognition of social status—are very rare before the eighteenth century and not especially common afterward. One should, however, note that in India there were several contemporary portraits of Malik Ambar (1549–1626), an Ethiopian who rose to be the effective and highly creative ruler of Ahmednagar.16See, for example, the full-length watercolor in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 17.3103. (P.1)
Description: Possibly Fath Khan, son of Malik Ambar by Unknown
Anonymous. Portrait of Malik Ambar. Southern India (Dekkan Amednagara), 1610–1620. Boston, Museum of Fine Arts.
Given the sorry history of the North African, Middle Eastern, and European enslavement of blacks and the persistence of racism toward them well beyond abolition, does the art of the past give evidence of times when relationships between Europeans and Africans were based on mutual respect, as Dominique de Menil so ardently hoped? Art historians are naturally circumspect about drawing general historical conclusions from images that might have had little to do with the actual appearance of blacks or the circumstances in which they lived, though it would appear that some black persons were almost always a part of European society—throughout ancient Egypt, of course, but also in ancient Greece. The Sahara Desert, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean have often been represented in the works of European historians as insurmountable barriers to black African communication and interaction with the larger world, especially the world of Europeans. Africans, we have been told, were too unenlightened to think of intercontinental travel, doomed to wait to be “discovered.” But we now know that these natural barriers were highways or avenues of communication, commerce, and the exchange of cultures and ideas between black Africans and the northern and eastern worlds. Black figures and Africa appear in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Important references to blackness are the famous one of Solomon’s lover in the Song of Solomon—”I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon” (1:5)—and the less well-known case of Moses’ Ethiopian wife, mentioned in Numbers 12:1,17“And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: for he had married an Ethiopian woman.” who was the subject of a rare and fascinating seventeenth-century painting by Jacob Jordaens (see Vol. III, pt. 2). The Nubian pharaoh Taharqa (who ruled Egypt’s Twenty-fifth Dynasty between 690 and 664 B.C.) is mentioned in 2 Kings 19:9 and Isaiah 37:9, and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-38. Psalms 68:31’s admonition that “Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God” signifies an awareness of a distant land where black people lived. In addition to the many images of blacks in Greek and Roman art, writers as early as Homer identified Africa and Africans such as Memnon in their works, and the constellation Cassiopeia was named after the queen of Ethiopia, who was the mother of Andromeda. Homer reminds us in the Iliad of the high regard that Zeus and the gods bore for the sacrifices and reverence of the Ethiopians. As early as the first century A.D., a book called The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea18Lionel Casson, The Periplus Maris Erythraei: Text with Introduction, Translation, and Commentary (Princeton, N.J., 1989). served as a practical guide to mariners for navigation from the Mediterranean down the Red Sea and through the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean, as far south as the coast of modern Tanzania. Moreover, the revolt of 500,000 black slaves called the Zanj in and around Basra between A.D. 869 and 883 attests to the large presence in the Middle East of black African slavery in the early Muslim world.19David Brion Davis, Challenging the Boundaries of Slavery (Cambridge, Mass., 2003), p. 12. In fact, many historians estimate that the trans-Saharan Arab slave trade exported at least as many black Africans to North Africa, Europe, and the Middle East as the transatlantic slave trade did to the New World. The Afro-Indian community called the Sidis, in the northwestern Indian state of Gujarat, almost bordering on Pakistan, is testament to early contact between India and sub-Saharan Africa, commencing approximately in the twelfth century. And the extended expedition by Admiral Zheng He (1371/75–1435) during the Ming Dynasty included contact with East Africa (modern Tanzania) in 1421–1422 on behalf of the Chinese Yongle emperor, demonstrating that black Africa was not unknown even to the Far East.20Louise Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433 (New York, 1994). Also, while black Africans were enslaved by the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Arabs, they were only a part, though often a prized part, of slave populations. Before the sixteenth century, it was the Slavic peoples who were widely enslaved, enough to give slavery its name. Until the rise of the African slave trade under Arab domination in the early Middle Ages, followed by its eventual European adoption in the fifteenth century, slaves were generally derived from the ranks of conquered enemies or of debtors of whatever ethnicity, which might include Christian Europeans. But contrary to popular belief, it is difficult to imagine a time since antiquity when parts of sub-Saharan Africa and its variety of black inhabitants remained unknown to some part of the larger European, Middle Eastern, and Asian worlds.
George M. Fredrickson has argued that most Africans during the early years of the West African slave trade were regarded as infidels, but were preferable to Jews and Muslims in being ignorant of Christianity rather than having rejected it.21George M. Frederickson, Racism: A Short History (Princeton, N.J., 2002), pp. 27-28. This view is contradicted by the fact that prior to the rise of the West African trade, black Africans were linked to Islam and to the ancient Christian kingdom of Ethiopia, going back to the fourth century.22Charles Verlinden, L’esclavage dans l’Europe médiéval, 2 vols., Rijksuniversiteit te Gent. Werken; uitg. door de Faculteit van de Letteren en Wijsbegeerte, 119e, 162e afl. (Bruges, 1955, 1977). Though Africans were often associated with Satan because of their dark skin and Africa was thought of as the home of fantastic humanoid creatures, some at least were regarded with respect for recognizing the truth of Christianity, while others were notionally ripe for conversion. Of course, “Africa” itself was sometimes a rather vague concept, occasionally identified with or subsumed in India. But the emergence in art of St. Maurice as a black legionary and the identification of one of the Magi as a black king—departures created in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, respectively—show that blacks could be seen as actual or potential Christians in the lands outside Christian Europe.
The full European entry into the African slave trade, which lasted a little over three centuries, of course, changed everything. It would be an exaggeration to say that slaves flooded into Europe. On the other hand, about 12.5 million were shipped directly from Africa to the colonies, and they most certainly flooded into the Middle East and North Africa early on through the trans-Saharan slave trade. But black people from the fifteenth century became an increasingly visible part of the urban scene throughout Europe, especially in port cities and at ruling courts. The European sense that Africans were not only different but inferior beings derives from the use of Africa as a source of slaves to be transported to work on plantations in the West Indies and America. Plantation slavery was irredeemably inhumane for two interconnected reasons: it involved the uprooting and separation of individuals from their own families, cultures, and societies, and it simultaneously represented their commodification—in Moses Finley’s words, their reduction from “a person to a thing.”23M. I. Finley, “Slavery,” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, vol. XIV (New York, 1968), pp. 307-8. Yet there has been an increasing awareness among historians that slavery, as Hegel first put it, could involve negotiation between slave owner and slave.24G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by A. V. Miller (Oxford, 1977),p. 111. Slaves were not solely victims of coercion but could in some circumstances possess a certain degree of agency on plantations as foremen, trusted supervisors, and even passively as laborers. As chattel or domestic slaves they could be the object of affectionate or humane treatment by individual masters or mistresses. Conditions were infinitely various, but there are many examples of mutual dependency and a ~slowly increasing recognition among some masters that treating slaves well and promising them eventual freedom could be the most efficient method of increasing production. Still, brutality and dehumanization ruled the world of the slaves, in spite of these exceptions. As Ehud Toledano has noted, “Slavery must be studied . . . as a relationship between master/mistress and slave, a relationship far more complex, mitigated and mutually dependent than a mere legal proprietary context can explain.”25Ehud R. Toledano, “Representing the Slaves Body in Ottoman Society,” Slavery and Abolition 23, no. 2 (August 2002): 58. Yet one should be extremely wary of sentimentalizing the relations between master or mistress and slave. However affectionate the relationship might be, the slave still suffered forcible uprooting from ties of family and place, and what Orlando Patterson, after the former slave William Wells Brown, has called “social death.”26Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, Mass., 1982). The slave collar, inscribed with the name or coat of arms of the owner, was a response to the fact that slaves frequently attempted to run away.
Of course, not all blacks in Europe were slaves. There were honored visitors from African kingdoms to European courts, such as Antonio Manuel Ne Vunda (d. 1608), the Congolese ambassador to the Holy See at the beginning of the seventeenth century (Vol. III, pt. 1, figs. 81-85). There were also free blacks in Europe, people who had been freed from slavery or who were descendants of free blacks. Some even earned university degrees early in the eighteenth century; Jacobus Capitein in Holland (Vol. III, pt. 3) and Wilhelm Amo in Germany27Peter Martin, Schwarze Teufel, edle Mohren (Hamburg, 1993), pp. 308-27. both published books in Latin, and several other Africans, like Olaudah Equiano (Vol. III, pt. 3), published books in English and became active in the antislavery movement in the last quarter of the eighteenth century.
As we might expect, there were also immense numbers of children of mixed relationships, particularly in slave colonies, where women did not accompany men from the home countries. Mixed-race children in a slave-owning culture could find themselves in a profoundly vulnerable and highly ambiguous social and familial position. Sometimes they were treated as slaves, but in other cases they might be treated as family by their father but not allowed the social status of their white siblings. In the notorious case of Thomas Jefferson, who conceived five children with his slave Sally Hemings, the children were brought up as slaves and denied a role in the family but were treated differently from Jefferson’s other slaves and given enhanced opportunities to become skilled craftspeople.28Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (New York, 2008), p. 31. Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of a black woman and Sir John Lindsay, a nephew of the judge Lord Mansfield, had a position in the household as both servant and family member, but in the anonymous portrait formerly attributed to Zoffany of Lady Elizabeth Murray (Vol. III, pt. 3), though affection is expressed by Lady Elizabeth’s outstretched hand, her formality and bookishness are contrasted with the wild and exotically turbaned “natural” figure of Dido.29Gretchen Gerzina, Black London: Life Before Emancipation (New Brunswick, N.J., 1995), pp. 88-89. Hierarchies based on degrees of color mixture tended to be an essential part of the social structure in slave colonies; this is recorded in a fascinating series of paintings by Brunias and the whole genre of casta painting that grew up in eighteenth-century Mexico (see Vol. III, pt. 3).
It did not follow, as is often assumed, that Africans in the age of slavery were always thought by Europeans to be less than human. It is true that there were writers in the eighteenth century, like David Hume and the West Indian slave owners’ champion Edward Long, who in effect justified slavery on the grounds that “the White and the Negroe are two distinct species.”30Edward Long, The History of Jamaica, or, General Survey of the Antient and Modern State of That Island: With Reflections on Its Situation, Settlements, Inhabitants, Climate, Products, Commerce, Laws, and Government (London, 1774), vol. II, p. 336. Nevertheless, the predominant European assumption well into the nineteenth century rested on monogenesis, the Christian belief that Adam and Eve were the original parents of all humanity, though that did not make blacks equal in the political or social sense or save them from being openly bought and sold. Even though monogenesis had from earlier centuries created an undertow of ecclesiastical wariness, and sometimes direct rejection, of the institution of slavery, there were always clergymen, both Catholic and Protestant, ready to reassure slave owners that it was not un-Christian to own and exploit slaves. For reasons that are still debated, there emerged in the 1760s and 1770s, through the voices of blacks themselves and among English religious and political dissenters and French philosophers, a passionate call for the abolition of the slave trade. This call grew into a Europe-wide movement, achieving with the support of governments its aim of the total abolition of slavery in most countries in the course of the next century, first in the British colonies in 1838 and then, most famously, with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution following the Civil War.
Yet the peculiar discourse of nineteenth-century racism, which lasted well into the twentieth century, based as it was on supposedly unimpeachable scientific data, only reinforced the stereotypes of the behavior and appearance of blacks. This is evident from the art of the century, even by artists sympathetic to abolition. Blacks were seen as inherently different from other races, and skull and bodily measurements were brought in to “prove” it. Stereotypes were now given enormous authority and dominated artistic representations of blacks, who were seen as one link in the physiognomic great chain of being from ape to European, and according to some scientists much nearer to the former than the latter. While all European nations produced deeply demeaning images of blacks in the nineteenth century, the Jim Crow era in the United States used improvements in the technology of reproduction to produce floods of offensive images of blacks, to the extent, in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s words, that “to begin to escape, each black person would have to dig himself or herself out from under the codified racist debris of centuries of representations of blackness as absence, as nothingness, as deformity and depravity.”31Quoted in Guy C. McElroy, Facing History: The Black Image in American Art, 1710-1940 (Washington, D.C., 1990), p. xxix.
Racial hierarchy was inadvertently reinforced by Darwin, who believed in human evolution from the savage to the most civilized, though he was himself fervently opposed to slavery, and by Darwin’s bastard child, social Darwinism, which argued that “inferior” races were a demographic threat to the Anglo-Saxon races natural supremacy. The effects of this dichotomy between “civilized” and “savage” can be seen in art in a concern with the distinctiveness of black physiognomy and a growing emphasis on the “primitive” nature of Africans, expressed often in a prurient concern with black sexuality, even in the avant-garde art of the early twentieth century, and in art created by black artists and white artists during the Harlem Renaissance. Yet the twentieth century also saw the gradual emergence of black artists who were able to take charge of their own representations. And it is for this reason that we have conceived of a final volume for this project, of images of blacks most of which were created by black artists themselves—a fitting and perhaps ironic conclusion to a marvelously diverse history of the representation of persons of African descent in art of more than four and one-half millennia.
1     Both archives can be consulted by the public by appointment, and the photographs can also be accessed on the Internet by subscription through ARTSTOR. »
2     Grace Hadley Beardsley, The Negro in Greek and Roman Civilization: A Study of the Ethiopian Type (Baltimore, 1929), p. ix. »
3     Alain LeRoy Locke, The Negro in Art: A Pictorial Record of the Negro Artist and the Negro Theme in Art (New York, 1968 [1940]). »
4     Ibid., pp. 3, 138. »
5     Ibid., p. 139. »
6     As early as 1980, John Russell had, in commending “the exalted nature of [the project’s] ambitions and . . . its beauty of presentation,” already complained of “the august slowness of its fulfillment” (New York Times, 29 June 1980, p. 7). »
8     Barbara Johnson, The Critical Difference: Essays in the Contemporary Rhetoric of Reading (Baltimore, 1992), p. 3. »
9     Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, Mass., 1993), 15. »
10     See Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (Oxford, 1988), pp. 127-69. »
11     Christopher L. Miller, Blank Darkness: Africanist Discourse in French (Chicago, 1985), p. 10. »
12     Isidore of Seville, Etymologicae XIV, 5.2. »
13     Miller, Blank Darkness, p. 11. »
14     Winthrop D. Jordan, White over Black (New York, 1977), p. 95. »
15     Joshua Reynolds, The Idler, no. 82, 10 November 1759 (1816 ed.), p. 332. »
16     See, for example, the full-length watercolor in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 17.3103. »
17     “And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: for he had married an Ethiopian woman.” »
18     Lionel Casson, The Periplus Maris Erythraei: Text with Introduction, Translation, and Commentary (Princeton, N.J., 1989). »
19     David Brion Davis, Challenging the Boundaries of Slavery (Cambridge, Mass., 2003), p. 12. »
20     Louise Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433 (New York, 1994). »
21     George M. Frederickson, Racism: A Short History (Princeton, N.J., 2002), pp. 27-28. »
22     Charles Verlinden, L’esclavage dans l’Europe médiéval, 2 vols., Rijksuniversiteit te Gent. Werken; uitg. door de Faculteit van de Letteren en Wijsbegeerte, 119e, 162e afl. (Bruges, 1955, 1977). »
23     M. I. Finley, “Slavery,” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, vol. XIV (New York, 1968), pp. 307-8. »
24     G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by A. V. Miller (Oxford, 1977),p. 111. »
25     Ehud R. Toledano, “Representing the Slaves Body in Ottoman Society,” Slavery and Abolition 23, no. 2 (August 2002): 58. »
26     Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, Mass., 1982). »
27     Peter Martin, Schwarze Teufel, edle Mohren (Hamburg, 1993), pp. 308-27. »
28     Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (New York, 2008), p. 31. »
29     Gretchen Gerzina, Black London: Life Before Emancipation (New Brunswick, N.J., 1995), pp. 88-89. »
30     Edward Long, The History of Jamaica, or, General Survey of the Antient and Modern State of That Island: With Reflections on Its Situation, Settlements, Inhabitants, Climate, Products, Commerce, Laws, and Government (London, 1774), vol. II, p. 336. »
31     Quoted in Guy C. McElroy, Facing History: The Black Image in American Art, 1710-1940 (Washington, D.C., 1990), p. xxix. »
Preface to The Image of the Black in Western Art
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