Why Is a Black Man in a French Family Portrait?

Image of the Week: The musician functions as an emblem of status and upward social mobility during the golden era of Louis XIV.

Attributed to Master of the Games, The Dance Lesson, circa 1650. Oil on canvas, 85 by 115 cm.
Attributed to Master of the Games, The Dance Lesson, circa 1650. Oil on canvas, 85 by 115 cm. 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.

Taken for granted today, the pictorial commemoration of the family was just coming into vogue in the 17th century. The prominent inclusion of a black musician in this domestically scaled oil painting enhances the affirmation of French bourgeois values as it sheds light on the presence of people of African descent during the golden era of Louis XIV, who reigned from 1643 to 1715.

Rarely is the impression of individual personality and candor of expression more freshly or memorably presented than in this work. Traditionally it has been attributed to one of the Le Nain brothers, three artists active in Paris toward the middle of the century. In the case of this painting, however, the work has recently been attributed to a highly original painter who emerged from the ambient of the Le Nains’ collective style. He has been dubbed the Maître des Jeux, or the Master of the Games, a provisional name derived from his canvases depicting scenes of card players.

Although working in the French capital of Paris, he may have emigrated from the Netherlands. This would logically account for the Dutch sense of realism in his work, with its distinct characterization of middle-class life. In addition to this canvas, he painted at least two other group portraits of young people being instructed in the social art of dancing. These paintings also include a violinist, but only here is he a black man.

The painting functions as a kind of engaged group portrait in which the sitters perform a task intended to represent their aspirations for a life of relative ease and refinement. In a rather reductive and rustic setting, five young women dressed in their best clothes stand with clasped hands in front of a seated black musician in the open air. They wear modestly trimmed, one-piece dresses covered in front by full-length white lace aprons. By contrast, the older girl at left is attired in more adult fashion. All of the girls have the same facial features, and therefore probably represent the female children of a relatively well-to-do middle-class family.

Standing behind the musician, the oldest sister rests one hand upon his shoulder, while in the other she holds a slender, sticklike object resembling a baton. His bow at the ready, the musician turns to her as if in anticipation of her cue to begin the lesson. His clothing is appropriate to such company: neither the ostentatious display of the nobility nor the humble dress of the lower class. He wears a collarless jacket over a shirt with wide white lapels, along with calf-length baggy pants covering more closely cut trousers. This ensemble is often found in contemporary Dutch scenes of prosperous rural folk.

The musician plays a small violin known as the violon de poche, or pocket violin. Rarely seen today, the diminutive instrument was commonly used by musicians for informal performances at small venues such as country taverns and for teaching the art of dance. The first violons de poche appeared around the time this painting was made—not coincidentally, just when the first instruction manuals for popular dances were being published. The figure of the black man performs the presiding role of the dancing master. He sits prepared to begin the lesson, his young female pupils holding hands and waiting attentively at the right.

At this point it is necessary to look behind the apparent reality presented by the painting in order to gain a better idea of the role of the black man within it. Crucial to this insight is the understanding of the portrait as a document of the newly emerging bourgeois, or middle-class, segment of society. In addition to his literal role as an instructor, he also functions as an ideal emblem of status and upward social mobility. This distinction is borne out by the quite different origin of his figure from that of the young women. The charming likenesses of the sisters were derived from portrait sketches made specifically for this painting.

The face and figure of the musician, on the other hand, were almost certainly taken from a body of general types previously sketched and kept on hand by the artist for eventual use in his finished works. Broadly painted on a small sheet of canvas, one group of such images survives.

Among several bust-length studies of heads, two represent the same black woman. She is dressed in a white kerchief and broad collar, suggesting her role as a domestic servant. Another head represents a young black child wearing a feathered turban, of the sort seen in portraits of the upper classes with their enslaved attendants. From such studies was derived the range of supporting figures, in this case the black musician, required to establish the notion of the family portrayed here as a consumer of services provided by others.