n De Arte - Black in seventeenth-century Flemish art and the African presence : research

Volume 2015, Issue 91
  • ISSN : 0004-3389
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In this article I examine the production of tronies or head studies of people of African origin made by the Flemish artists Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, Jan I Brueghel, Jacob Jordaens and Gaspar de Crayer in an attempt to uncover their use of Africans1 as models. In order to contextualise the research, the actual presence of Africans in Flanders is investigated. Although no documentation exists to calculate even an approximate number of Africans living in Flanders at that time, travel accounts of foreigners visiting the commercial city of Antwerp testify to its cosmopolitan character. A general perception of black people in those days can be extrapolated from the notebooks of Rubens and contemporary theological views. The examination of black tronies starts with the studies of Rubens, made after live models first in Italy and then in his workshop in Antwerp. By comparing various African head studies and considering them in the context of contemporary studio practices involving assistants (Van Dyck) and collaborators (Brueghel), a historically more accurate picture emerges regarding the production of such studies. Jordaens and De Crayer also made black tronies for use in history paintings, and by tracing their appearance in a select number of works it is possible to distinguish their respective models. Assumptions regarding the extent of the influence of Rubens are thus put in perspective while giving credit to contributions made by Van Dyck, Jordaens and De Crayer to the study of African people.

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