Dutch, possibly from Delft. Oriental scene with black figures, 1700-20, 179 cm. Polychrome tiles.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

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.

A fanciful vision of an exotic, remote Asian land brilliantly expands across the surface of sumptuously colored Dutch ceramic tiles. At the upper right, an elegantly attired goddess pours the streams of her divine blessing over airy pavilions peopled with courtly figures. These Oriental motifs are derived from imported Chinese ceramics, representative of the trend for the incorporation of this imagery in European art known as chinoiserie.

Within this decidedly Eastern setting, prominently placed figures of African descent unexpectedly appear. Two black women stand together just below the center of the composition. One holds a small jar of fruit, while the other carries a pair of spears. Both wear brightly patterned cloths around their waists and ornate feathered headdresses. In the lower-right zone of the panel, a dancing black woman appears to be attacked by armed horsemen, a threat belied by the significant difference in scale between them.

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The seemingly incongruous inclusion of the black figures in the scene takes on a more disturbing tone when it is realized that these elegantly attired women are actually slaves, whisked to the Orient by the hand of the artist from a tropical land half a world away. As it turns out, a work of visual art intended merely to entertain has much to say about the complex, contradictory realities of trade and politics that lay behind its conception.

Pictorial tile panels such as this one became a popular form of decoration among the European elite during the 17th and 18th centuries. A single scene was formed of multiple tiles, each several inches on a side. After being fired in the kiln, earthenware tiles were covered with a liquid glaze. A panoply of brilliant colors—red, yellow, green and deep black—was then applied and the tiles fired again. The completed tiles were individually marked and shipped to their final destination, to be reassembled in the correct order.

This example is one of several tile scenes with similarly composed Oriental themes, two of which feature black figures. Contemporary scholarship attributes the group to manufacturers in either Rotterdam or Delft. Most likely they were made around 1700-20, when the vogue for this type of exotic imagery was at its height.

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Another tile panel of similar size and theme, now in a museum in Brussels, also features black figures. It resembles the style of this Rijksmuseum panel so closely that it must have been made by the same workshop, and most likely as part of the same commission. Interestingly, the black figures on the two panels are separated by gender, with three women in the Rijksmuseum example, and two pairs of male figures in the panel in Brussels.

Tile pictures of this complexity and sophistication are a comparative rarity within Dutch ceramic production of this period. Quite costly, they were a specialty item made to order as part of extensive programs of interior decoration in some of the most grandly appointed residences of European aristocracy. Two of the Chinese-themed panels mentioned previously are located along the sumptuously tiled walls of the kitchen of the hunting lodge at Amalienburg, part of a complex of imperial buildings outside Munich. Though probably not in their original location, they give a good idea of the intended placement of this kind of ornament.

The imagery adopted by Dutch ceramists for the decoration of their wares provides an aesthetic reflection of the burgeoning social and economic activity of the recently independent provinces of the United Netherlands. The survival of the new nation was staked on the large-scale development of an overseas trading empire.

One of the first initiatives of the government was the chartering of the Dutch East India Co. Founded in 1602, the private mercantile partnership soon established trading bases in far-flung areas of the Far East. From these fabled lands came luxury goods such as silk cloth, exotic wood and spices, as well as the elegantly shaped and decorated porcelain ceramics produced by the imperial potteries of China. 

Less than 20 years after the Dutch entry into the Far East trade, a similar venture was begun in the New World by the corresponding institution of the Dutch West India Co. In addition to settlements in North America, plantation colonies were established in Brazil and the Caribbean. Coinciding with these events was the capture by the Dutch of the major slave-trading post of Elmina on the coast of Ghana, which facilitated the shipment of slaves to the newly established Dutch sugar plantations across the Atlantic.

The introduction of the black figures in the tile panels is directly owed to a short-lived but intense attempt by the Dutch West India Co. to establish a trading colony along the northeastern coast of Brazil. Between 1637 and 1644, the effort was led by the colonial governor Johan Maurits, count of Nassau-Siegen. His most lasting achievement, as it turned out, was the vast survey of the natural wonders and settlements set amid the tropical landscape. Among the artists employed were painters such as Frans Post and Albert Eckhout, and the soldier-turned-naturalist Zacharias Wagener. The wealth of visual information that returned with these artists to Holland largely defined the European view of this exotic new land for some time to come.

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The female figure at center left in the Rijksmuseum panel has a typical Dutch clay tobacco pipe stuck in her sash, similar to that carried by the black woman painted by Eckhout in his series of the indigenous people of Brazil, which in this case included slaves brought from Africa. The dancing black woman at the bottom resembles a figure found in the work of Wagener.

The tile panel in the Rijksmuseum encodes a concise, deceptively picturesque evocation of Dutch maritime trade in both the East and West Indies. Disseminated throughout the artistic vocabulary of European decorative arts, the extensive catalog of naturalistic imagery from Brazil provided a new, preferred face to European colonization, featuring healthy, vigorous people in the fertile, untroubled environments of the New World.

The actual situation of those most disadvantaged beyond the European horizon was far less idyllic, however. The price of sugar and other commodities enjoyed in the pleasure palaces of Europe came at a staggeringly high cost in human lives and suffering. The situation would come to be redressed in part by the more egalitarian views of the Enlightenment. With this change in the European mindset, the elegant fictions of the tile panels lost much of their appeal and gradually disappeared from view.

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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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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.