Black Archer Eyes an Unseen Enemy

Image of the Week: A print by a Dutch artist proves captivating because of what we don’t see.

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These small-scale works, however, were primarily intended for inclusion in more complex, finished works, and not for sale or display in their own right. The generation of Dutch artists before the de Visschers, on the other hand, had created a number of variations on the bust and half-length single-figure image. The most notable of these was the tronie, or character impression, in which the artist presented a living model, often posed as a well-known type from popular culture.

The image of the black archer may bear some superficial resemblance to the tronie, but in fact it goes beyond this simple format to evoke a more complex, nuanced development of the subject. Cornelis has imagined a role for the black man as an African warrior or hunter, negotiating his wild native land on his own terms.

Scholars have searched for a literary basis for the image, but in vain. The artist most likely had the insightful urge to develop the trope of the noble savage, conjuring the ideal state of man living in an uncorrupted natural state. Though commonly associated with 18th-century Enlightenment social theory, the concept was already under development well before this point. One is reminded of the lines from John Dryden’s heroic play, The Conquest of Granada, written in 1672:

I am as free as nature first made man,
Ere the base laws of servitude began,
When wild in woods the noble savage ran.

Our engagement with the artistic process by which this image was created leads us back once again to the model himself, this time to wonder just who he was and how he came to be living not in Africa but in the jarringly different environment of 17th-century Holland. His availability to the artist took place within the context of Dutch involvement with the burgeoning African slave trade. Its practice in Holland was carried out by the Dutch West India Company, chartered to a consortium of merchants in 1621, the same decade that saw Cornelis’ birth.

By the 1640s the Dutch had wrested control of all Portuguese slave-trading posts on the Gold Coast of West Africa, including the important base of Elmina. With the establishment of colonies and slave markets in the New World, the Dutch became one of the chief suppliers of slave labor to European overseas possessions.

Although slavery seems never to have been officially recognized in the Netherlands, the young African man so memorably portrayed as a far-ranging archer in the print had almost certainly come from Africa against his will and, once abroad, had no real hope of ever returning to his native land. His actual situation adds a poignant note of irony to the fictional attitude of freedom and agency bestowed on him by the artist.

From the evidence of the Black Archer discussed here, as well as other works by Rembrandt and his associates, black people were a fairly common sight in the early modern Netherlands. Some may have worked as domestic servants, perhaps in the very households of the artists who painted them. Others were effectively slaves, at least in origin. In the case of the young archer here, the innately noble character of a son of Africa was given a chance to survive, if only held within the ripe fantasy of the European imagination. 

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.

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