Exploring Rembrandt, we hit upon a hidden treasure in his legacy. Little known until today, the Dutch master reserved an interesting role for black people in his paintings. These portraits are exhibited from March 6, 2020 at The Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam. Although, in all fairness, the museum shows no more than one painting of Rembrandt featuring black people.

Other portraits of black noblemen, displayed in the museum, are made by lesser painters, in later time. ‘Although’, curators point out, ‘these artists were of course influenced by Rembrandt.’

Painful confrontation

One of these curators, Stephanie Archangel, always thought that black people were missing in Dutch Golden Age painting: ’And if they ever did figure in Dutch portraits, they usually took on obedient roles, being either slave or servant.’ Wondering around in a museum was difficult for Stephanie because painted black models didn’t resemble her: ‘For a black person it’s painful to see blacks only portrayed negatively. Especially since more roles are out there.’

Taking on the concept of racial role-giving on the canvas, the exhibition kicks off with sixteenth and seventeenth century examples of how Dutch artists depicted Africans. The black man is usually portrayed as a noble savage at best, walking around naked, retaining limited intelligence and hungry for human flesh.

‘Native Africans’, in: Carel Allard, ‘Orbis Habitabilis Oppida et Vestititus’, 1685

 ‘Even though cannibalism isn’t even mentioned in travel lodges’, says curator Epco Runia: ’Idealising racial prejudices and projecting stereotypes in painting were commonplace. Except, of course, for Rembrandt and his contemporaries. Between 1620-660 these Dutch masters tried closely to depict reality. Therefore they portrayed landscapes and people true to life.’

Always searching for new challenges, Rembrandt made at least 26 designs (of a total of 800 works) featuring black models. These men and women were depicted by Rembrandt in the same way he portrayed any other citizen of Amsterdam. Full of emotions, doubts, sorrows and longing for companionship. 

Being black in Golden Age Amsterdam

Rembrandt painted them in a time before slavery took a flight on an industrial scale. ‘Therefore’, clarifies Epco: ’Dutch citizenry didn’t already associate black people with slavery, as they would do later.’ In the seventeenth century, Amsterdam’s population rose to a mere 200.000 inhabitants. Of them, up to a hundred were black, including Rembrandt’s neighbours. These men, sometimes accompanied by women and children, usually tagged along as seamen on Dutch marine enterprises and wound up in Amsterdam. This city offered them jobs in the household. In some cases, black soldiers of the Dutch West Indian Company climbed up to senior ranks and could afford decent living in the capital. Whether these officers still remained in the black community, or integrated into more well-to-do urban society, is not sure. Overall, marriage registers show that black residents of Amsterdam (together with Asians) generally stood together.

Turning our attention to the iconic piece of Two African men (1661), Epco points out that Rembrandt didn’t try to make a statement against racism, nor that he tried to support the city’s black community in any way: ’It was just in his nature to portray people he found interesting. Therefore I find that this painting should be called ‘Two Amsterdam men.’

Rembrandt van Rijn, Twee Afrikaanse mannen, 1661. Mauritshuis, Den Haag