Rembrandt and slavery: did the great painter have links to this abhorrent trade? | Painting

The title of the present is straightforward and stark: Slavery. Due to open this spring at the mighty Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, this daring exhibition paperwork the significance of this abhorrent commerce in the rise and wealth of the Netherlands, by juxtaposing shackles and slave inventories with artworks. There’s a metallic ring that has been in the Rijksmuseum since the nineteenth century. Beforehand catalogued as a canine collar, it’s now thought to have been used on a human. There are different equally chilling displays in this disturbing present – and at the coronary heart of all of them cling two famend work by Rembrandt.

Their inclusion is surprising. In any case, there is no such thing as a artist extra overflowing with compassion and empathy than Rembrandt. But this exhibition at the Rijksmuseum, dwelling to so lots of his masterpieces, reveals a aspect of the painter’s profession that sits badly with our view of him as an artist with an expansive imaginative and prescient of what it means to be human.

In 1634, when he was a 28-year-old artwork star reeling in commissions by the herring barrel from the Amsterdam elite, Rembrandt van Rijn, the miller’s son from Leiden with a style for the finer issues in life, portrayed a younger couple known as Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit. The works – they got a portrait every – are normally seen as one more instance of the genius of Rembrandt, this most all-seeing of artists whose perception raises portraiture to an existential degree.

His work of married persons are typically casual moments of shared enjoyable. However to painting this rich pair, he posed them aside for separate full-length canvases that have a lot in frequent with the show-off portraits Anthony van Dyck was doing in England. Each put on the sombre black of a Protestant republic, however this nod to morality is undermined by adornments signifying their bountiful wealth. Soolmans has glittering, crinkly silk stockings and huge silvery flounces on his sneakers, whereas Coppit flaunts pearls at her throat and gold on her wrists. Overlook their pasty faces, Rembrandt appears to be saying, get a load of the bling.

However there’s a deeply troubling aspect to this couple’s wealth – and Rembrandt might have wished us to register that there was one thing amiss. Soolmans was inheritor to one among Amsterdam’s largest sugar refineries, and the manufacturing of sugar at its origin level trusted slaves. From the fifteenth century up to the 1800s, Europe’s candy tooth was fed by the captivity, transportation and brutal exploitation of Africans on sugar plantations in the Americas and Caribbean. The “golden age” of the Dutch Republic – when Amsterdam was the world’s busiest entrepôt and Dutch service provider ships traversed the world – noticed the Netherlands muscling in on Iberian dominance in each sugar and slavery.

The Rijksmuseum is filled with the inventive riches of the Seventeenth-century Netherlands. For it to draw consideration to the links between artwork, wealth and inhumanity in that age is a daring transfer. However it’s time “to come clear”, Valika Smeulders, the museum’s head of historical past, advised me – so as to “join the assortment to that historical past”. Parallel to the present, the Rijksmuseum has added labels to 80 objects in its collections that have links to slavery. This goes means past tradition battle cliches, although. The truth is, Smeulders doesn’t see it that means in any respect. Removed from a denunciation of the previous, she argues, revealing this aspect of Dutch artwork can solely make it richer.

It actually offers a brand new perspective on Rembrandt. The museum’s revelations about its twin portraits of this 1630s mercantile couple are actually unsettling. Their focus is on Coppit: to what extent was this younger girl conscious of the cruelty and distress propping up the household enterprise? “Did Oopjen know?” asks Smeulders. The Soolmans sugar manufacturing unit was known as ’t Vagevuur, The Fires of Purgatory (a rival was known as Hell). This was a jokey reference to the warmth of the refining course of – however an actual hell was created abroad, on the Dutch-owned plantations in Brazil, the place slaves not solely grew but additionally boiled cane sugar in enormous vats, whereas being housed in squalor and topic to arbitrary self-discipline.

Unwanted work … Rembrandt’s Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis.
Undesirable work … Rembrandt’s Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis. {Photograph}: Artokoloro/Alamy

Coppit by no means noticed a slave plantation however her connections with slavery grew. After her husband died younger, she herself turned co-owner of The Fires of Purgatory. She then took as her second husband one Maerten Daey, a soldier who had not solely frolicked in the Dutch colonies however was prosecuted for raping an African girl there. She gave beginning to his little one.

So what if the biggest artist of the golden age did painting these folks whose fortune trusted slavery? Portraiture was worthwhile and Rembrandt wanted the cash. In 1634, the 12 months he painted this couple, he married Saskia van Uylenburgh, and that they had rich tastes. Maybe it means nothing that his shoppers included not simply the filthy wealthy but additionally the morally besmirched. A century later, when dominance of the slave commerce had handed to Britain, Thomas Gainsborough would paint faces and frills whether or not his topics have been musicians or slaveowners.

However this is Rembrandt. He’s credited with an ethical perception that goes past the conventions of his day. He portrayed Jewish folks with sensitivity in an age of antisemitism. He crossed borders in his creativeness, drawing impassioned copies of the Mughal miniatures that reached Amsterdam. Certainly he didn’t simply fortunately take the sugar cash and give the couple what they wished?

Little hint of slavery’s violence … Govert Flinck’s A Young Archer.
Little trace of slavery’s violence … Govert Flinck’s A Younger Archer. {Photograph}: Granger Historic Image Archive/Alamy

That appears too simplistic a studying. Rembrandt seems virtually to have intuited that a great deal of the Netherlands elite’s cash, which bankrolled the proliferation of Dutch artwork in the Seventeenth century, was tainted, maybe even that it got here straight or not directly from Atlantic slavery. Actually, the painter by no means acquired on with excessive society Amsterdam. Their portrait commissions didn’t fulfill him and the outcomes, reflecting his willpower to look past appearances, by no means happy them.

I final noticed the portraits at the Rijksmuseum two years in the past. I knew nothing about the pair besides that it was clear Rembrandt couldn’t discover something to love about them. He’s extra considering their buckles than their personalities. In Rembrandt’s arms, this turns into not flattery, not skilled hackery – however a judgment. This couple acquired the probability to be noticed by the artist with the most penetrating eye in historical past, and all they may muster was lace, silk, pearls and gold. Rembrandt exhibits us precisely what they’re: wealthy non-entities utilizing the veneer of wealth to conceal their vacuity, or one thing a lot worse.

Issues have been very totally different later, in 1661, when he portrayed two African men. By then, Rembrandt was dwelling a way more marginal existence. He nonetheless painted portraits however hardly ever took commissions, as an alternative creating research of struggling and expertise, together with his personal face. Van Uylenburgh was lifeless and he lived with Hendrickje Stoffels. He went bankrupt and had to promote his wonderful home with its collections of costumes, armour and pure wonders. A list of his auctioned items mentions a Portrait of Two African Males, which some historians declare refers to the Rembrandt now housed in the Mauritshuis in The Hague. Its uncooked fashion was typical of the final part of his life.

Intimate … Rembrandt’s Portrait of Two African Men.
Heat … Rembrandt’s later work, A Portrait of Two African Males. {Photograph}: Heritage Picture Partnership Ltd/Alamy

In that very same 12 months, 1661, Rembrandt was additionally engaged on a uncommon public fee that might have made him the darling of the Dutch elite once more. He was requested to paint a patriotic historical past for Amsterdam city corridor. However as an alternative of a hearty scene of triumph, he painted The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis, a determined, Lear-like scene, drawn from an account of the Batavian rebel in Tacitus’s Histories. Displaying rebels agreeing to what appears to be like like a futile suicide pact in an eerie pale mild, the work was hated for its bleak view of Dutch historical past. It isn’t exhausting to think about that those self same disabused eyes, that regarded so unsparingly at the previous, have been additionally directed at the current, and the most shameful secret of Rembrandt’s time: Europe’s exploitation of Africa.


There’s a direct, shocking connection between The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis and Rembrandt’s determination to make a radical portrait of two Africans. He acquired the fee after the first particular person the city corridor requested, Govert Flinck, died. Flinck had been a pupil of Rembrandt however, after his grasp turned odd and unpopular, he equipped an appropriate model of the Rembrandtesque. Flinck’s A Younger Archer, in London’s Wallace Assortment, is a portray of an African that has loads of Rembrandt-like sympathy however can also be imaginary and fanciful. It might not even be a portrait. There’s actually little trace of something untoward, actually not slavery’s violence.

Rembrandt’s portrait of two Africans in Dutch society is way much less dreamy. The 2 males who posed for him have been in all probability free or freed, a part of a black neighborhood in baroque Amsterdam that historians are beginning to rediscover. The truth is, this neighborhood centred on the similar neighbourhood the place many Jewish folks lived and Rembrandt had his home. So they might be his neighbours. Anyway, he portrays them intimately.

Not like the sugar-rich couple he selected to image aside, these males are shut collectively in a picture of friendship and assist. One rests his chin on the different’s arm. They appear to be sticking close to to one another for human heat in a hostile world. Rembrandt captures their anxiousness and loneliness in a metropolis that’s no dwelling. They appear unhappy – however you sense that it isn’t only a unhappiness for themselves. One wears a historic costume, armour redolent of historic empires, as if he’s a fallen king. There’s an overwhelming air of loss, as if these are two males making an attempt to discover their place in a damaged world.

Rembrandt by no means went to Brazil, or Elmina Citadel in present-day Ghana, or any of the different websites of Dutch enslavement. However that did not cease him sensing the stain of slavery on Europe and its ramifications. He might see it in these males’s eyes and captured it in this magnificent work. It’s a portray that exhibits his profound humanism, his alienation from his society’s rulers, and his fellow feeling for the wretched of the earth. It could make an outstanding companion piece to the portraits in the Slavery exhibition.

Slavery opens at the Rijksmusem, Amsterdam, this spring.

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