In this colloquium Mark Ponte and David de Witt will present preliminary results of their research for the exhibition Black in the Art of Rembrandt’s Time, at the Rembrandt House Museum from March to May, 2020. The exhibition is curated by Stephanie Archangel (Rijksmuseum), Elmer Kolfin (UvA) and David de Witt (Rembrandt House Museum).
Archival sources show the existence of a small Afro-Atlantic community in Amsterdam around 1650. These free black Amsterdammers lived near the Jodenbreestraat, close to Rembrandt’s workshop. Many had a maritime background in (Dutch-)Brazil. Mark Ponte will discuss the social and professional lives of these people, among whom Rembrandt most likely found models for the blacks in his work. Blacks appear with surprising regularity in the art of Rembrandt and his circle, not just where themes call for them, but also where they are not required. They participate in historical scenes, surface in separate studies, and even in a remarkable informal portrayal of two black figures (now in the Mauritshuis). Such instances confirm Rembrandt’s openness towards unfamiliar people and cultures. David de Witt will argue they also show a striking, and valuable, combination of two factors. Through most of his career, Rembrandt championed a “naer het leven” ethos of lifelikeness in his art, which he will also have applied to Africans, to whom he must have had direct access. However, not only did he study individuals, he also used them to evoke the context of the New Testament, probably as feature of life in the Roman Empire.
Drs. Mark Ponte is historian and senior-researcher at the Stadsarchief Amsterdam. His research focusses on migration in the 17th century.
Dr. David de Witt is senior- curator at the Rembrandt House Museum.
Dr. Elmer Kolfin is art historian at the UvA. He specializes in Dutch art from 1500-1800. His research areas are prints and book illustrations, (political) iconography, early modern representations of Africans, and social functions of art.