Curator’s Thoughts: The Black Presence in Western Art

This month, the Rembrandt Museum in Amsterdam opened a new exhibition entitled HERE. BLACK IN REMBRANDT’S TIME. The exhibition overlaps with The Hyde Collection’s presentation of the art of an accomplished, but little known, African American artist, Dox Thrash (1893-1965): Dox Thrash, Black Life and the Carborundum Mezzotint. The Thrash exhibition is the first of three successive winter shows at The Hyde that will highlight African American art.

Dox Thrash (American, 1893–1965), The Champ, c. 1937–39, aquatint, private collection

 

I began this series with Dox Thrash, in part, because, as an artist, he fits neatly into the styles and history of western art that we know so well at The Hyde. He trained at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the western tradition. Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), whose portrait by Thomas Eakins graces the main stairs in Hyde House, was an inspiration to Thrash. Indeed, he may have met Tanner in France following the end of World War I, in which Thrash served and was wounded.

Thomas Eakins, (American, 1844-1916), Portrait of Henry O. Tanner, 1897, oil on canvas, 29 5/8 x 26 x 2 1/4 in. The Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, NY. Gift of Charlotte Pruyn Hyde, 1971.16.

 

Inspired by the Harlem Renaissance, Thrash was driven to make black life – his childhood experiences in rural George, his time on the road “ho-boing” (to use his term) as a vaudeville performer, and his professional life as an leading citizen of the black community in Philadelphia – the subject of art. Almost alone among African American artists of his day, Thrash appropriated the European tradition of the reclining female nude for the black female body. We see this most assertively in Thrash’s print Siesta (ca 1944-48), which was inspired by John Vanderlyn’s infamous painting, Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos (1809–14). Vanderlyn’s painting, although clearly within the European tradition established in the Renaissance by such a master as Titian – think of his Venus of Urbino (1538) at the Uffizi Gallery – scandalized Protestant ,and particularly Quaker, Philadelphia. Thrash’s reclining nude is proudly African American. Images of the black female nude had long be problematic in American art and society because of the country’s history of abusing enslaved women.

Detail: Dox Thrash, (American, 1893–1965), Siesta, ca. 1944–48, carborundum mezzotint, on loan from Dolan/Maxwell

 

John Vanderlyn (American, 1776-1852), Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos, 1809–14, oil on canvas, 68½ x 87 in. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1809–14. © Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

 

A particularly powerful section of the exhibition contains Thrash’s portraits of African Americans. Most are not identified; rather, they have titles such as Woman in Blue (1940s) and Head of a Young Man (1940-50). Yet they are painted with such a powerful sense of character. These are clearly portraits of people Thrash knew personally. Their individualism shines through. Sporting a stylish hat, she is not a mammy; dressed in a tie, he is not a laborer – the two characteristic professions given to African Americans in the overwhelming White, racist media. These are successful, proud, self-confident members of the black urban middle class.

 

Dox Thrash (American, 1893–1965), Woman in Blue, 1940s, watercolor, private collection

 

In that they are without specific identities and represent a type, such images by Thrash relate to a well-established genre in European painting, the tronie. Particularly popular in the seventeenth century, the tronie was a type of genre painting in portrait format. It was an artistic exercise in the depiction and capture of human states and emotions, such as old age, anger, and laughter. The emphasis was upon the realistic portrayal of the particular emotion without necessarily conveying a sense of the individual or the model. Leonardo da Vinci (1454-1519) frequently juxtaposed tronies of old age and youth in his sketchbooks.

 

Leonardo da Vinci (Italian, 1452-1519), Heads of an old man and a youth, 1495, chalkpaper, Uffizi Gallery. © Gabinetto Fotografico delle Gallerie degli Uffizi

 

Both Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606-1669) painted tronies. But both also captured something of the character and identity of their live models.

When Rembrandt first settled in Amsterdam in 1632, he lived on Judenbeestraat (Jewish Broad Street) in a house that is now the Rembrandt House Museum. He not only befriended Jewish intellectuals like Samuel Menasseh ben Israel, whose portrait he etched in 1636, but he drew tronies based upon his Jewish neighbors. These he employed in his paintings of Biblical scenes, as Pharisees, high priests, and the like to lend his images an air of historical accuracy.

Among the neighbors who sat for Rembrandt so that he could develop his stock of characters were members of Amsterdam’s small African community. They too lived in the Judenbreestraat district. Although the Netherlands was heavily involved in the slave trade, Dutch law did not recognize slavery on Dutch soil. Scholars associated with the Rembrandt House Museum’s new exhibition have documented the lives of approximately 100 Africans living in Amsterdam. Most of the women worked as servants, many in the households of Sephardic Jews exiled from Spain and Portugal, two European countries that recognized the state of slavery on their soil. Many of the men were Brazilian sailors, who presumably jumped ship when they arrived in port to claim their freedom.

The exhibition contains seven Rembrandt images and forty-nine works by his contemporaries. The works are noteworthy for their lack of racist caricature and stereotyping. Many of the characters are represented with sympathy and compassion. They are ennobled by everyday jobs rather than disempowered, as so often in eighteenth-century portraiture, by appearing as servants.

In our collection, we have a superb painting that epitomizes this moment in seventeenth-century Europe when Africans were seen and recorded with sympathy and compassion, as individual human beings before the onset of racial stereotyping. The painting is my personal favorite in the collection, Rubens’ stunning Head of a Moor (ca.1618).5.1.2.

 

Peter Paul Rubens, (Flemish, 1577-1640), Head of a Moor, ca. 1620, oil on panel, 29 3/4 × 26 1/2 in. The Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, NY, Gift of Charlotte Pruyn Hyde, 1971.40.

 

Like any other tronie, this is an artistic exercise for Rubens. He is trying to solve the question, as a master colorist: How do I convincing render the face of an African man? It will not do for him to simply warm up a brown, add some white for highlights and black for shadows, as European artists had done in generations past.  Compare Ruben’s head with the African magus in The Hyde’s Adoration of the Magi by an Antwerp Mannerist, ca. 1520. Rubens uses a stroke of red to define the underside of his African sitter’s chin. Red warms his skin tones in lighted areas. The shadows on the side of his face are made up of strokes of blue-grey and deep blue and black.

 

Antwerp Mannerist, after Jan de Beer (Flemish, ca.1475 – ca.1528)Adoration of the Magi, ca. 1520, oil on oak panel, 29 x 25 1/4 in. The Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, NY, Bequest of Charlotte Pruyn Hyde, 1971.2.

 

Rubens knew this man and this was not the first time that he had painted him. The Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Belgium has an oil study in which Rubens examines the same man from four different angles.

Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577-1640), Four Studies for the Head of a Moor, 1613-15, oil on canvas, 51 x 66 cm. The Royal Museum of Fine Arts Belgium, inv. 3716. Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Bruxelles / photo : J. Geleyns.

 

That Rubens brought a black man in his studio to sit for him was such a significant event that others in the studio made their own studies. One, by an unknown hand, now hangs at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Anthony Van Dyck, who worked briefly in Rubens’ studio, included a profile drawing of this man smiling on the lower right of a sheet of eleven pen and ink head studies now in the Chatsworth Collection in Britain.

Anthony Van Dyck (Flemish, 1599-1641), Records of Eleven Head Studies, 1618-20, pen and ink, Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth.

 

Who the man was and how Rubens came to know him and to invite him to his studio at least twice over the course of a few years is not known. In the first half the seventeenth century, Antwerp was Europe’s leading port. Portuguese and Spanish merchants sent their ships directly there from their African and New World colonies. The man may have been a servant or have arrived as a sailor off one of those vessels.

This unknown African was not even the first Rubens painted. While in Rome in 1609, Rubens executed an oil study of an African man wearing a turban. The work is now at the Getty Museum. Shortly thereafter, he used the head to make a free copy of a famous portrait by Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen (1500-1559) of a Tunisian king, Mulay Ahmad. Rubens’ version survives at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, though Vermeyen’s is lost.


Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577-1640), The Head of an African Man Wearing a Turban, 1609–11, oil on paper laid down on panel, 21 1/4 × 15 1/2 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2018.48. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

 

Rubens employed the image of this turbaned African as the model for the Black King in several altarpieces depicting the Adoration of the Magi. A popular subject for altarpieces at the time, the Adoration of the Magi afforded artists one of their few opportunities to paint non-Europeans. In the later Middle Ages, the three kings had come to represent the three known continents. In Counter-Reformation theology, black Africans represented the Gentiles; those around the world willing to receive the Word and become Christians.

 

Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577-1640), The Adoration of the Magi, 1609, 1628-29 oil on canvas, 355.5 x 493 cm. The Prado Museum. © The Prado Museum.

 

Africansalso appeared as attendants in mythological and historical paintings. Rubens used two of the heads from the Brussels oil study in classical paintings: The Drunken Silenus, (1618-25) at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich and Nature Adorned by the Three Graces (ca. 1615) at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow. No surviving work has been found that specifically uses the head from The Hyde’s study.

 

Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577-1640), The Drunken Silenus, 1618–1625, oil on canvas, 212 x 214 cm. The Alte Pinakothek, Munich, 319. © Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen.

 

Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577-1640) and Jan Brueghel the Elder (Flemish 1568-1625), Nature Adorned by the Three Graces, ca. 1618, oil on panel, 42 x 28.5 in., Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow. Commons.wikimedia.com.

 

At The Hyde, we will explore the works by African American artists again in the winter of 2021 with the exhibition THE HARMON & HARRIET KELLEY COLLECTION OF AFRICAN AMERICAN ART: WORKS ON PAPER. Dox Thrash will make a return along with other artists who sought to insert the black experience into the European art traditions in which they had been schooled. There will be others, like Horace Pipin and Jacob Lawrence, who used African rather than European models to create a discernibly black art. In the following winter, we will present ROBERT BLACKBURN & AMERICAN PRINTMAKING. This exhibition will highlight the work of this under-represented abstract printmaker, while also placing him in the context of his contemporaries, many of whom were white and are, thus, better known.

The Hyde’s Rubens and Eakins paintings discussed here are on permanent display in Hyde House. In addition, we frequently put on view in the Education Wing Sam Gilliam’s Asking. I hope it will not be too much longer before we can welcome you back to The Hyde and you can explore our works discussed here, in person.

 

Sam Gilliam, (American, born 1933), Asking, 1972, Acrylic on canvas, 82 x 76 1/4 in. The Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, NY, Gift of Dr. Robert and Jane Lewit, 2010.17. ©1972 Sam Gilliam.

 

Written by

Jonathan P. Canning
Director of Curatorial Affairs and Programming

Find more blog posts from Jonathan Canning at Tumblr, @hydecurator.