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.

The Menil Collection, Houston

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

Moving rapidly to the left, the dynamic figure of a black man turns his head to scrutinize an unseen presence behind him. He carries a bow and arrows and holds one arrow, ready to string it and shoot. The archer is shown in half-length, a pose often used for figures at rest. Here, however, the artist has entirely recast the static nature of the format by dynamically turning the figure in space. The elimination of his lower body from view concentrates attention on the head and hands as the locus of resolute action.

The sumptuous print measures almost a foot square and must always have been considered a true collector’s piece. It was engraved by the Dutch artist Jan de Visscher, following a drawing by his older brother Cornelis. It is undated, but the original design was most likely produced at some point during the decade before Cornelis’ death in 1658. It was published at least twice, both times in Amsterdam, suggesting a date late in the artist’s career, after he had settled in that city.

The two Visscher brothers were most likely born in the northern Dutch city of Haarlem, where Cornelis may have been a pupil of Pieter Soutman, himself a student of the great Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens. Born in 1628 or 1629, Cornelis had an extraordinarily productive career that lasted hardly more than 10 years.

After his training, Cornelis matriculated in the Haarlem painters guild in 1653, though he soon moved to nearby Amsterdam. His brother Jan worked primarily as a printmaker, developing his skill to the level of consummate mastery required to coax the subtle descriptive effects and rich tonal range of his brother’s design from the surface of the copper printing plate.

In this example of the print, the image is missing an inscribed text that appears below it on other copies. A rhyming couplet evokes in measured tempo the man’s dependence on his weapons for safety and sustenance. Translated from the Dutch original, they read: “Thus with bow and arrow the Moor has his eye on the enemy or the wild [beast].”

The textual complement to the image reinforces the feeling that the black archer inhabits a remote, primeval environment, in which success depends on martial skill and a perennial state of awareness. The sheer drama of a man captured in a state of heightened tension rivets the eye as the mind tries to fathom more fully the precise nature of his situation.

For all of its calculated effect, the highly individualized subject is clearly derived from observable reality. To the left of the couplet, Cornelis declares in a standard Latin phrase that the figure was “drawn from life” (delineavit ad vivum). An early biographer took pains to note that the artist excelled at making rapid charcoal studies from the living model. A similarly detailed rendering of the black archer quite likely served as the intermediary between the figure drawn from life and the print as executed by the artist’s brother. When posing for the artist in his studio, the model was probably clothed as he appears here.

Cornelis lived during a period of great social and cultural change ushered in by the independence of the Protestant-dominated northern Netherlands from Spanish Hapsburg rule during the late 16th century. The largely secular environment that emerged from this bold liberation from absolutist control led to a profound revision of Dutch society and culture, often characterized as the country’s golden age.