Earliest European portraits of African men on show together for first time

By Daniel Boffey

The two earliest portraits of men of African descent in the history of European art are being exhibited together for the first time in their 500-year history, reflecting a change of focus championed by the Black Lives Matter movement, curators at the Rijksmuseum have said.

Among more than 100 portraits by Renaissance artists being showcased by the museum in Amsterdam from Tuesday are Albrecht Dürer’s 1508 sketch, discovered in the German painter’s workshop at the time of his death, and Jan Jansz Mostaert’s portrait, dating from about 1525.

One explanation for the works not being shown together in the previous five centuries is the delicacy of Dürer’s chalk-drawn portrait, loaned from the Albertina Museum in Vienna, and shown only sporadically to protect it from degradation.

But Friso Lammertse, the curator of 17th-century Dutch paintings at the Rijksmuseum, suggested a relative lack of interest and curiosity about the pieces had also played a part in it not occurring to institutions that such a combination could be a selling point of a major exhibition.

“Things have changed only really recently, with the Black Lives Matter movement,” he said.

The Renaissance has typically been seen as a purely European phenomenon, with a largely homogeneous ethnicity, but a number of recent studies including African Europeans: An Untold History by Olivette Otele have offered compelling evidence that this was not the case, with the Mediterranean in particular being a place of cross-cultural interaction.

While the identity of the celebrated Renaissance masters responsible for the two pieces of art is well known, tellingly the names of the sitters in both works have been lost to time despite the efforts of researchers.

Of Dürer’s drawing of a young man with a small beard and wearing a simple cloak, Matthias Ubl, the Rijksmuseum’s curator of early Netherlandish and German painting and stained glass, said: “We don’t know who he was or where they met but they must have met in either [his home town] Nuremberg or [on a trip] in Venice.

“We also don’t know why he drew him – for his own memory or to give it to the person in question? But it is so true to life, with no prejudices, just true to life, and this is so rare.”

More is known about Mostaert’s small panel portrait – the only individual painted portrait of a black African from the late middle ages and Renaissance period.

Portrayed as a Christian through a pilgrim’s badge on the sitter’s blood-red bonnet of Our Lady of Halle, a popular shrine near Brussels, there are signs of wealth in his appearance. He carries a bag on his hip decorated with pearls and gold thread. His hand rests on his sword’s embellished hilt. Some have suggested the painting is a depiction of Saint Maurice, born in AD250 in Thebes, an ancient city in Upper Egypt.

But, Ubl said, again the lack of stereotype in the “true to life” facial features suggested this was “a real portrait”. There are also signs in his dress that he was of lower social status.

He said: “We don’t know who he is but we have an idea. There are some clues which can help. We know he did a pilgrimage to Halle which was very, very important for the Habsburgs and Mostaert is a Harlem painter, but he is also documented to have worked around the Habsburg court in Brussels and in Mechelen near Brussels.

“It is very likely that this African man must have been somewhere in Flanders. There were very few African men in the north at the time, documented four or five. There is one person in the lifetime of Emperor Charles V, which is Christophle le More, a bodyguard”.

Ubl added: “We see this man with his hand on his hilt, so proud. But something is missing. He doesn’t wear a coat and in this time you didn’t have trousers as we know them today. You had leggings which were attached by tint threads to your shirt. So in a portrait of a nobleman it would have been covered. Here we are looking at a soldier. Religious. I think we are looking at the bodyguard of Emperor Charles V.”

The Remember Me exhibition, running until 16 January, features works made between 1470 and 1570 and examines the reasons that lie behind portraiture, an art form that bloomed in the 1500s. For the first time since 1994, Portrait of a Young Woman by Petrus Christus of Bruges, one of the world’s most celebrated paintings, has also travelled from Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie for the show.