Black History Month 2020

Wallace Connections

Black History Month 2020


To honour Black History Month in October 2020, #WallaceConnections focused on works of art that reflect significant moments in Black history.

This was a way to commemorate overlooked stories and to shed light on areas of ongoing research.

Govaert Flinck, A Young Archer, c. 1639–4 (P238)

The young model in a green velvet jacket holds his bow in his right hand. An ornate quiver hangs from his shoulder. He is dressed as an archer but his identity remains unknown. Is he an imaginary model, conjured up to evoke an exotic fantasy world? Or is this an individualised portrait? Govaert Flinck lived and worked in Amsterdam, the Dutch Republic’s wealthiest city. Here merchants and migrants from all over the Dutch colonies intermingled. Flinck studied in Rembrandt's studio in the Jodenbreestraat, the neighbourhood where most of Amsterdam's black community was concentrated.

An etching of Amsterdam
Rembrandt, View of Amsterdam from the Northwest, c. 1640. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (29.107.16).

Although the slave trade was of major importance to the Dutch economy, slavery was not strictly legal on Dutch soil. Black immigrants in Amsterdam — predominantly sailors, soldiers or servants who had accompanied repatriated Dutch families from the colonies — were technically free, although low in status. We might imagine that this is the backstory of the man shown here, that he was a neighbour of the Jodenbreestraat who agreed to pose for the artist.

- Natalia Muñoz-Rojas, Enriqueta Harris Frankfort Curatorial Assistant of Paintings

Manufacture de Vincennes, Cup and saucer, 1753 (C360)

Writing in 1769 from Mauritius, the French writer and botanist Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre passionately denounced the attitude of his fellow compatriots towards slavery in the French colonies. From the cold indifference of philosophers to the complacent blind eye of consumers, Bernardin openly addressed the moral dilemma associated with many fashionable items, including the production of coffee by black slaves. Coffee had become a fashionable breakfast drink in France during the first half of the eighteenth century.

The Vincennes porcelain manufactory, later Sèvres, made many cups and saucers like this gobelet ‘litron’which were usually intended for tea drinking but were also used for coffee or chocolate. Decoration incorporating the leaves and fruit of tea and coffee is known on Sèvres useful wares, but on this cup and saucer nothing in the elegant decoration alludes to the production of coffee or the tragedy of the slaves whose fate Bernardin de Saint-Pierre so movingly described.

- Félix Zorzo, Curatorial Assistant

Asante Gold in the Wallace Collection

The Wallace Collection houses an important group of gold artefacts from the Asante Empire (present-day Ghana). They include ceremonial swords, rings, finials for a state chair and a trophy head. The latter, a tour de force of Asante art, depicts a defeated warrior. The Asante people controlled large gold resources and were renowned goldsmiths, supplying the king, his family, and designated courtiers with regalia and ornaments.

During the Third Anglo-Asante War of 1873–74, the royal palace in Kumasi was looted and destroyed by British forces. Many gold artefacts were brought to England. Some had been seized by the troops; others formed the war indemnity that the Asante were forced to pay. Asante gold rapidly appeared on the British art market. Although a discerning collector by the standards of his time, Sir Richard Wallace nonetheless bought his Asante treasures from Crown Jeweller Garrard & Co. in 1874.

- Ada de Wit, Curator of Works of Art and Sculpture

Antoine Watteau, Les Charmes de la Vie (The Attractions of Life), c. 1718–9 (P410)

Dressed in the French fashions of the late 1710s, the majority of people shown in Les Charmes de la Vieconverse, flirt, and listen to music without a care in the world. Paintings like this one, showing well-dressed individuals enjoying themselves, were known as fêtes galantes.

They were made after the death of the dictatorial Louis XIV left the French nobility free to break away from a regimented existence at Versailles. They glorify not just leisure but the freedom of choice — over where, how, and with whom free time is spent.

There is a more sinister side to the story. Such paintings celebrate the nobility’s liberation from the very monarch who, in 1685, enacted the Code Noir, the decree that defined the conditions of slavery in the French colonial empire. This brutal policy was reinforced in 1718, the year in which this work was made, by a colonial mandate that compared the status of enslaved people to that of pieces of furniture.

Was the artist, Watteau, aware of any of this? The figure of the young black attendant who kneels, watchful and isolated, on the right-hand side of the painting suggests that the harsh realities of slavery and servitude were not far from his mind.

- Dr Yuriko Jackall, Head of Curatorial and Curator of French Paintings

Titian, Perseus and Andromeda, c. 1554–6 (P11)

Those who know their Greek mythology may recognise the damsel-in-distress shown here. Andromeda’s plight has already triggered the epic battle between the hero Perseus and the ferocious sea-monster. Ultimately love will win out: Perseus rescues Andromeda and carries her off to Greece to reign as his queen.

But should we see Andromeda in the body that Titian has given her? After all, she was the daughter of Ethiopian rulers. And the famous poet Ovid clearly described the 'dark Andromeda.' Instances of ‘white-washing’ — of figures such as the Queen of Sheba and Cleopatra — are all too common in European painting and texts. In the Old Testament, the Queen of Sheba, speaking in the original Hebrew, declares proudly: 'I am black and beautiful.' But by the 4th century Latin Vulgate, her statement has been diminished: 'I am black but beautiful.'

An etching of Perseus and Andromeda
Workshop of Bernard Picart, Perseus and Andromeda, 1731. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (RP-P-1906-2809).

As for Andromeda, viewers can meet the true princess of Ovidian mythology in Bernard Picart’s etching of 1731. With her skin colour in contrast to the whiteness of the rock behind her and the gulls around her, this Andromeda is clearly a black woman. With her flowing hair and sensuous pose, she is also unmistakably the beautiful princess of legend.

- Dr Yuriko Jackall, Head of Curatorial and Curator of French Paintings

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