This project analyzes images of Black Africans by selected white European artists of the fourteenth through the seventeenth centuries. The works chosen for study are primarily if not exclusively from Italy and the Low Countries, for artists working these areas produced some of the most richly layered, culturally complex images of race in this period. Through an analysis of selected images from sacred and profane traditions, and case studies of double portraits, the project demonstrates how figures of Africans illustrate and helped to reinforce racist biases that rendered black figures comparatively inferior to white Europeans. In particular, these images blur the line between person, object, and aesthetic to define the black characters as “Other.” The result was a marginalization of these figures and, conversely, the elevation of the white figures portrayed with them. Black Africans were reduced in these works to the status of ornamental accessory, much like the pearls, gold buttons, and polished armor that were used to convey and advanced white hegemony 

The urban centers of Venice in Italy and Antwerp in the historical Low Countries (in the modern nation of Belgium) comprise the core if not the exclusive focus for this project. These two cities were powerful political centers, a status attributed in part to their geographic locations and mercantile success enabled through trade. Both successfully built significant commerce routs and cultural connections within and beyond Europe, and both were thriving centers for the production of art, including images of Black Africans.  

François de Troy, Portrait of Elizabeth Charlotte of the Palatine with her Slave, detail, circa 1680. Oil on canvas. Château de Versailles, France. 

Race as a Subject of Scholarship 

Race has only recently surfaced as a subject in the scholarship on this period. Among the few authors who have pursued this subject are David Bindman, Robert Davis, Paul H. D. Kaplan, Kate Lowe, Sally McKee, and Joaneath Spicer.[1] While their publications have begun to reveal ways in which works of art conveyed and perpetuated, if not consistently, stereotypically racist views of Black people, not nearly enough has focused on signifiers used to depict Black Africans. While Davis, Kaplan, Lowe, and McKee focus more on the history of slavery in Europe, Bindman was influenced by Dominque Schlumberger de Menil,[2] who gathered European racist images of Black Africans. Although not all images of Black Africans express the kinds of biases about race to which the present project attends—a neutral and perhaps even positive representation, by the German artist Albrecht Dürer, is discussed later—many works collected by Schlumberger de Menil reveal that sartorial signifiers such as striped garments and earrings were often used to subtly but effectively convey a lesser status for persons of color. These visual images of and references to Black Africans provide evidence for European conceptions about them, to the extent that the artists were products of their environments.

A Note on Terminology 

The term “Black African is used here to signify a geographically dependent systemic construct in which a depicted person’s value is defined first and foremost by their skin tone. Set in opposition to “white European, it denotes first-, second-, and third-generation dark-skinned persons of African descent, and it encompasses the range of individual skin colors that were of interest to white Europeans. The term Other” denotes a representational practice in which individuals and groups of people were conveyed to be different from and inferior to white elites (not discounting the complex ways in which intersectionality played a part in structural hegemony). This “othering” took form in verbal, textual, and visual expression, with the latter as the major focus of the present project