Art, Politics & Society

The presence of Black people in the 17th and 18th century art world

Top Image: a portrait of author Phillis Wheatley, widely believed to have been done by enslaved Black artist Scipio Moorhead. 1773.

History is written through the eyes of those in power. This is especially true when considering the history of Africans in the context of the Western art world. When we think of artists from the 17th-18th century, or even people depicted in their artworks, we often conjure up images of white, affluent aristocrats. Even when a commoner was depicted, they would often be white, albeit in less extravagant clothes.

But of course, that doesn’t mean people of African descent did not exist in these European homes. They were slaves that involuntarily served the rich and powerful, and these slaves do make it into these early paintings. Often, they would blend into the background, as slaves were expected to be. There are a few existing portraits of a singular Black slave, but don’t think for a moment that these were the results of kind owners. Instead of sending their slaves to portrait painters to be painted, they were sent to still-life painters. They were not being kind and gifting a portrait to their slaves. They were proud of the “item” that they owned and wanted a record of said “item.”

Édouard Manet, "Olympia", 1863.

A writer for The ARTery went to an exhibition of Dutch paintings from the era of Vermeer and Rembrandt at the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. He started to count the number of people of color he saw amongst the 75 paintings on show. The writer could only spot three paintings with a Black person, all in the section of the exhibition reserved for depictions of "the political and social elite—princes, nobles, regents, and merchants, the Dutch Republic’s 1 percent.”

It’s important to note that at this point in history, slavery was illegal in most parts of Europe. But the fact that this was a relatively recent ruling, and that the Dutch were one of the main players in the Transatlantic slave trade, made the freedom status of the Black people in these paintings questionable. In short, even if these Black people were technically free, they were still often treated as less than human.

But the Black people of this era were not completely removed from the creation of art. Many artists of these eras employ apprentices and other helpers that were crucial in the construction of their artwork. An exhibition at the Chrysler Museum showcased some of the slave labor that went into the creation of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, like enslaved metalsmith Isaac Jefferson and woodworker John Hemmings. Though not much record has survived, it’s not difficult to imagine enslaved Black people had a hand in creating some of the centuries-old paintings we see today.

Prince Demah, "Portrait of William Duguid", 1773.

While Black slaves in America did not have much artistic freedom, there were a few exceptions. Of note is Prince Demah, a former slave who later in his life became a free man. While he was still the “property” of Scottish merchant Henry Barnes, he showed his talent as an artist and was even brought to Robert Edge Pine to briefly study painting. Decades after Demah’s passing, Joshua Johnson, who was born a slave, became the first professional artist in the United States, with 13 paintings currently attributed to him.

These early artists set the first stone that would become the path that many Black artists nowadays follow. They are among the first people to show the Western world that yes, people of African descent can create beautiful artworks that move the heart and set ablaze the soul.


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