Vicente Albán, Patrician Lady and Her Black Slave, from a set of six paintings, 1783. Oil on canvas, 109 by 80 cm.
Museo de America, Madrid

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black Archive & Library at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

Dominating a tropical landscape filled with an array of sumptuous fruit, a splendidly dressed noblewoman of colonial Spain evokes the power and privilege of a regime entrenched for well over 200 years. However, it is another, quite different, figure who provides the richest insight into the mechanics of power and the elaborate fictions devised to legitimize the rule of the many by the few.

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Dressed in the same lavish finery, a young black woman stands just behind the patrician lady in a position of discreet subservience. A complex web of meaning supported by gesture, stance and dress defines the relationship between the two figures. The girl looks up at the older woman with an animated gaze and slightly parted lips. The lady, on the other hand, turns away to regard the viewer with an air of practiced formality.

The relationship between the older woman and her young companion is made clear by the letter “A” appearing over the lady’s head. On the corresponding descriptive key, the pair is identified as a “Señora Prinsipal[sic] con su negra esclava.” From this we learn that, despite her elegant dress, the young black woman is held in bondage by a leading lady of society.

The highly detailed painting is actually the first of a series of six canvases. Collectively they record the typical levels of upper-class life in the town of Quito, Ecuador. The set is dated 1783 and signed by the prominent Quiteño artist Vicente Albán. At that time, the region of Quito formed part of the Spanish viceroyalty of Nueva Granada. The city is nestled in a spectacular setting high among the north central sierra of the Andes Mountains.

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The series was intended to convey the great wealth and influence driving the success of the colony’s production of agricultural products, cloth and precious minerals. In each painting, the flourishing natural bounty of the land surrounds a centrally placed human figure. The series was most likely commissioned by a high-ranking official of the audiencia, or province, of Quito.

The strongly formalized nature of these half-dozen images seems especially fitting given their status as presentation pieces to the distant Spanish court in Madrid. In keeping with the Enlightenment’s interest in the natural world, their purpose was to put before the eyes of Carlos III and his court a visual catalog of one of Spain’s royal possessions in the New World.

The set has often been characterized as a type of casta painting, similar to the large number of serial images made in the colonial state of Mexico, then called New Spain. Despite the inclusion of a black figure in Albán’s work, however, the intention of his series was altogether different. His concern was not with the miscegenation of black, white and Indian inhabitants—that is, the mixing of the three main racial groups living in colonial Spain—but instead with depicting the place on the social scale of the white and indigenous people who populated the urban areas and wild Amazonian forests of Nueva Granada.

Dressed in attire of the finest materials and workmanship, the señora represents the pinnacle of colonial Spanish society. The young black slave holds a platter of sliced papayas, their red flesh and black seeds symbolizing fecundity, love and faithfulness. The bare feet of the young woman stress her connection to the earth. She serves as a trope of abundant nature sprouting from the ground like the plants around her.

An aspect of untamed nature and distant origins is signified by the pearl earring worn by the maidservant. Another distinction between the two women emphasizes the slave’s existential otherness. Clearly, each is what the other is not, as is patently clear from the absolute contrast between the colors of their skins. The extremely dark complexion of the slave girl is intended to set off the whiteness of that of her mistress, a calculated aesthetic conceit, as well as a clear affirmation of dominance.

The possibility of a real flesh-and-blood existence for the young black woman invites speculation on the nature of her arrival in Quito. At the time the series was painted, the colony saw a renewed influx of slaves provoked by a series of catastrophic epidemics and natural disasters. So great was the increased trafficking of slaves during the 18th century that the phenomenon has been termed the re-Africanization of Ecuador. In the case of this enslaved female attendant, the bestowal of a human being as an article of favor was enmeshed in the subtle play of social politics found only within the highest stratum of colonial society.

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As was the case with her European counterparts, the young slave woman could expect to remain in her role of favored indulgence until some point around the onset of puberty. Her departure from this position was a necessary dictate of social protocol. As an adult woman, had she stayed through her physical and intellectual maturity, she might have given the unsettling impression of social or even racial parity. Her original duties, therefore, would have been shifted to other responsibilities, perhaps to a key role in the management of the household. Alternately, she could have been manumitted and paired with a socially suitable mate.

Whatever her eventual destiny may have been, she was certainly one of the last of her kind. The emerging disdain in the enlightened countries of Europe for the keeping of enslaved black pages and young girls, coupled with the growing abolitionist movement, would soon make the practice seem as antiquated as the notion of the divine right of kings. Further, the very expense of maintaining such an ostentatious artifact of luxury would soon become prohibitive during a period wracked by the near-total economic collapse of Nueva Granada as the colonial period came to a close.

In retrospect, Albán’s catalog of the splendors of Ecuador and its people documents a state of affairs already obsolete and soon to vanish forever. The abolition of slavery, however, would be achieved only in 1851, long after the founding of the independent nation of Ecuador. Today, about a half-million people of African descent live in the country, once a considerable part of Nueva Granada. Among them, at least in the ideal sense, may be the descendants of the young slave girl. They struggle even today to claim the fruits of the land symbolized by her elaborately dressed body. 

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The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also chairman of The Root. 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.