The Agnes Etherington Art Centre is a research-intensive professional art center and internationally recognized public art gallery at Queen’s University. The center has adapted to deliver many virtual interactive experiences during the pandemic, including lecture series and digital exhibitions. On Friday, June 4, 2021, the center will host an online public lecture titled “Out of the shadow and into the light: Black figures in the art of Rembrandt’s time” for the 2021 Isabel and Alfred Bader lecture in European Art led by Dr. Elmer Kolfin.
“This lecture series was created to draw connections between exhibitions of the Bader collection and important developments in related international scholarship,” said Dr. Suzanne van de Meerendonk, Bader Curator of European Art, Agnes Etherington Art Centre.
Dr. Kolfin teaches art history at the University of Amsterdam. He has published widely on Dutch art of the seventeenth century and has a special interest in images of Black figures. He recently co-curated the acclaimed exhibition Black in Rembrandt’s Time at the Rembrandt House Museum (Amsterdam, 2020). Dr. Kolfin will briefly reference seven paintings in the Bader Collection that include Black figures, and Rembrandt’s Old Man in a Cap and Old Man with Curly Hair. His work examines why Black figures recur so frequently in Dutch art and whether and why Rembrandt’s approach differed from that of his contemporaries.
“In 2020, Dr. Kolfin co-curated the exhibition HERE: Black in Rembrandt’s Time, which I was fortunate enough to see at the Rembrandt House in Amsterdam last year,” van de Meerendonk said. “This exhibition was groundbreaking in several ways: not only did it bring a spotlight to the Black presence in the art of Rembrandt and his contemporaries, but also connected this to the historic Black presence in the Republic, including a community of free Black people who lived right in Rembrandt’s neighbourhood (these findings were based on archival research by historian Mark Ponte).”
“When considering speakers for this year’s lecture, I immediately thought of Elmer, as I thought this exhibition project was among the most important and exciting recent developments in the study of Dutch art of the seventeenth century, and particularly Rembrandt’s circle, which is the focus of the Bader collection,” she continued.
Dr. van de Meerendonk explained that we also see frequent representations of Black servants in both history paintings and portraits. While slavery was officially prohibited in the Dutch Republic, it was allowed and widely practiced in its vast colonial territories. Enslaved people were undoubtedly brought back to the Netherlands as personal servants by trading company officials and others who had lived there or other places where slavery was practiced. She added, “While technically ‘free’ once they arrived, many of the men and women who came to the Netherlands under such circumstances will not have seen any other option than continuing to live a life of servitude. So representations of Black servants could be based on enslaved and formerly enslaved Africans who actually existed but were also sometimes inventions included by artists to allude to the status of the person commissioning the portrait, even if the Black servant did not in reality exist. So then the Black figure is even further dehumanized and reduced to functioning as a prop.”
The Agnes Etherington Art Centre is home to over 17,000 artworks, including contemporary art and fine examples of Canadian historical art, Indigenous art, historicized ancestors, and material culture, including the Collection of Canadian Dress and the Lang Collection of African Art. In addition, The Bader Collection, comprising over 500 works, focuses on seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish painting, including one portrait and three exquisite character studies by Rembrandt. Learn more about this upcoming lecture on their website.