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Harvard University’s W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research hosts a powerful new exhibit “The Image of the Black in Western Art”

Susan Saccoccia
Susan Saccoccia
Harvard University’s W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research hosts a powerful new exhibit “The Image of the Black in Western Art”
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(Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn’s “Baptism of the Eunuch” (1641), courtesy of Harvard Art Museum, Fogg Art Museum, Gray Collection of Engravings Fund)

Harvard University’s W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research hosts a powerful new exhibit “The Image of the Black in Western Art”

Seen together, art works can tell a larger story. A narrative that spans four millennia informs a small but stirring exhibition at Harvard as well as the monumental research and publishing project that is its inspiration.

In 1960, art patrons Dominique and John de Menil began a project to photograph works of Western art from antiquity to the present day that portray Africans and the people of the African Diaspora. Entitled “The Image of the Black in Western Art,” the enterprise yielded an archive and multi-volume catalog that John de Menil described as “an archeology of race relations.”  

The archive is now housed at Harvard University’s W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, where the exhibition “Africans in Black and White: Images of Blacks in 16th- and 17th-Century Prints” is on view until December 3 at the Institute’s Rudenstine Gallery.  

Curated by Anna Knaap, visiting fellow at the Jesuit Institute of Boston College, and David Bindman, emeritus professor of the history of art at University College London, the exhibition is a prelude to the fall release of updated and new volumes of “The Image of the Black in Western Art.” Its editors are Bindman and Henry Louis Gates Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard and director of the Institute.

Its 20 Renaissance and Baroque images, all but four from the Harvard Art Museums, concisely survey an important chapter of a story that began in the age of the pharaohs.

Except for one, the prints were made between 1503 and 1742, a period that spans the rise of the European slave trade. The era also coincided with a peak era in printmaking, which enabled artists to engrave images on stone, metal or wood and produce multiples of their works that could reach a far broader audience than their paintings.

In prints as in paintings, European artists showed Africans as they saw them in society — as slaves and servants and occasionally as freedmen, scholars and diplomats. Blacks also play a part as allegorical figures standing in for fecundity, sensuality and the wilderness.  In depictions of Bible stories — often encounters that bring people together across borders — African figures are protagonists rendered with great dignity and humanity.

Although some images are more historic records than art, the exhibition includes exquisite works by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) and other artists of less renown.

Dürer’s woodcut, “Adoration of the Magi” (1503), shows the African magus at the moment of arrival, with a meandering road in the background. Already on their knees, the other magi are elders, with thickly draped cloaks and beards. The African is youthful, beardless and athletic, and wears a short cape. Horizontally aligned with a protective, sorrowful Mary in the far right, he bends to kneel, his hat in hand. A marvelous series of welcoming gestures unite the composition: the infant’s hand extends to an elder magus, whose hand in turn beckons the newcomer.

Another treasure is an engraving by Dutch printmaker Allaert Claesz, “The Baptism of the Eunuch” (1524). The image depicts a roadside encounter between St. Philip and the treasurer of Ethiopia, a eunuch en route to Jerusalem in service to his country’s queen. After hearing Philip preach, the official asks the saint to baptize him.  

The print blends formal elegance with a sensuous naturalism. Curves abound in the composition, from the saint’s mane of rococo curls to the arched bridge and cylindrical towers in the background. With delicate precision, Claesz renders the lush riverbed foliage, feeding waterfowl and the eunuch’s ornate carriage as well as the human drama.  

The eunuch’s attendant watches the baptism while holding the cape of his master, who has a face of serene beauty and a muscular body that is nearly naked but for a great necklace and a loincloth. Below him, a large lizard hunkers by a leafless bush, perhaps a subtle symbol of a thwarted Satan.

Rembrandt’s “Baptism of the Eunuch” (1641) portrays the eunuch as an older man clothed in a long robe. A few deft strokes evoke the contours of a distant town and the furrowed brow of a waiting horse. The etching’s delicate lines mass in intensity in the figure of the attendant, a boy who solemnly observes his master’s baptism.  

Nearby is Rembrandt’s “The Beheading of John the Baptist” (1640). King Herod has ordered the execution to keep his promise to Salome, who demands the Baptist’s head on a platter. John, a frail apparition, and the large, sword-wielding executioner hovering over him are both conjured with a light, fluid touch. But the black serving boy who holds the platter and innocently watches them is drawn in thick strokes.

Amid the small black-and-white prints, a poster-size watercolor by British art critic John Ruskin is an eye-catching oddity. Ruskin’s early Art Nouveau concoction, “Detail of ‘Solomon and the Queen of Sheba’ by Veronese” (1858) zooms in on a small figure in a Renaissance-era painting by Paolo Veronese. The original painting shows the African queen — depicted as a bejeweled Caucasian in Venetian dress — arriving in the court of Solomon, king of Israel.

Ruskin’s copy focuses on her black servant girl. In his painting, Veronese accents the girl’s profile with the curves of her earring and hair comb. Ruskin illuminates her face by dabbing white gouache on the tip of her nose and cheekbone and frames her profile in a spiral of swirling colors. His artful extraction transforms the girl into a figure as regal as Veronese’s queen.

The show includes portraits of bewigged African diplomats and scholars. Two honor Jacobus Capitein, a Ghanian churchman. Born a slave but educated in Europe, he wrote a doctoral thesis that both defended slavery and asserted the right of slaves to baptism.  

 An antidote to these contrived portrayals and their suggestion of uneasy alliances is a sensitive portrait by Prague-born Wenzel Hollar, “Head of a Black Boy” (1635), an image of timeless humanity.

“The Image of the Black in Western Art” is the subject of the 2010 M. Victor Leventritt Symposium, on Nov. 15 from 2 to 5 p.m. in Harvard’s Barker Center, 12 Quincy St., Cambridge.  The Du Bois Institute [http://dubois.fas.harvard.edu] is at 104 Mount Auburn St. (floor 3R).