“Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe”

“Adoration of the Kings.” Girolamo da Santacroce, circa 1525–30 , oil on panel, 67.7 x 81.2 cm. Acquired by Henry Walters with the Massarenti Collection, 1902.
The Walters Art Museum


If you’re near Baltimore, this is an important exhibit to see at the Waalters Art Museum, and here is a review by Philip Kennicott, Washington Post, October 25, 2012.

“Head of an African Man Wearing a Turban,” Peter Paul Rubens, circa 1609, oil on paper, laid down on panel, 54 x 39 cm,
Private collection, courtesy of Jean-Luc Baroni Ltd., London

10 thoughts on ““Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe”

  1. Hannah Sweeney

    This is very interesting. I never considered the role of Africans and their descendents in the pre-colonial era. I think the discovery of the young girl in the Jacopo da Pontormo painting is the best example of the complexities of race in this time. I like the idea of this exhibit because it makes the invisible visible and elevates them to a higher level than they might have been considered to be in their time.

  2. Duncan Beavers

    I believe that these paintings depicting African-Americans in the Renaissance arose to combat the religious justification of slavery. Because “blackness” was know to society (through religion) as a representation of evil, it was easy to gain public acceptance of this malpractice. To show these people in art was unheard of before, because no one would be patron to such work as it would question their faith. I think that showing African American presence during this time questioned why they were thought of as different; they had the ability to think and feel emotion just like every other human. While many artists simply wanted African American presence known, however, “…some of the exhibition’s highlights demonstrate a profound sensitivity to the beauty of African features and color.” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/museums/at-the-walters-revealing-the-african-presence-in-renaissance-europe/2012/10/24/5f96845e-1a01-11e2-aa6f-3b636fecb829_story.html).

    1. maoch Post author

      Keep in mind that these images were not of African Americans, but of Africans.
      I hope you’ll get to see the exhibit, or look at how black Africans are depicted in works in other exhibits. Ancient Greeks and Romans were much interested in (curious about) people from other parts of the world, as were Europeans in the Middle Ages, and one finds all kinds of races and ethnic groups depicted in the visual arts from antiquity through the baroque, as this exhibit shows. It wasn’t until the late 16th-c. and the growth of the slave trade in Africa that negativity (as opposed to curiosity) toward blackness intensified. Before the 16th-c. trade in black slaves from Africa grew, slaves in Europe were predominantly from central Europe (white Caucasians). It’s quite a history.

  3. Robbie O'Donnell

    I found this article disproving my own beliefs in that it was my original thought that Africans wouldn’t be as pronounced in European art around this time. After reading the article, however, it makes sense that they would be in some pieces of art considering Europeans were just starting to discover the continent of Africa and the people inhabiting it. This could explain their presence in the art because the people of Africa were so new to European culture that they were included in the art as well.

  4. Michael Perdue

    I find the different treatments of Africans very interesting. In European countries at this time, Africans were often slaves, but they were still allowed a vast number of rights and status in society. Many of these rights were completely erased when they were brought to the New World. The Europeans clearly thought highly enough of them to include them in their artworks. This showed their interest in their origins and their culture as much as their use and contributions in society.

  5. Jack Hamilton

    Both paintings were depictions of African Americans and other races in the Reniassance era. Most paintings were of white people, so painting other races was risky at the time because the painters didnt know if the paintings would be popular. The painting, Head of a African Wearing a Turban by Peter Paul Rueben, stood out to me because it mixed to two races a cultures together in one. The painting had a African American in a Arab turban. It was a interesting mix to say the least, because it was one of the first times that a painting had races mixed and religious connotation. The religious aspect comes with the turban with resembles the muslim religion. Overall the paintings recognized and brought attention to other races.

  6. Khadijah Johnson

    I am quite pleased to see an African presence in the renaissance period. Growing up my studies were more focused on the African Americans and their triumphs in the United States. To see Africans in Renaissance is outstanding because now we may have more clues as to what role they played during this period. What other cultures were Africans a part of? The painting is a great representation of the African culture during this time. this just shows how art can reach many cultures and to describe a person or religion without words. Many other artists do this as well, like John Van Eyck “The Arnolfini Portrait”. Except this shows an Italian married couple in the High Renaissance period. It does a great representation of its time.

  7. Celina Neal

    I find it interesting that although there were depictions of Africans in Europe that were a part of renaissance society, there was still a separation between the Europeans and Africans, or even those from Middle Eastern countries. The Washington Post article states how Africa and the Middle East were seen in a mystical light, as places full of wonders and culture and history, yet people from those cultures were for the most part accepted into society in their organic form. I think that depicting Africans in art shows how they were accepted, yet were expected to behave relatively like those “true Europeans” around them.


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