Portrait of a wealthy African living in Europe in the 1500s presents a puzzle

Walters curator Joaneath Spicer finds subtle clues that explain the subject's social status and role in court

  • “Portrait of a Wealthy African” which was painted around 1530-1540 by an unknown artist.
“Portrait of a Wealthy African” which was painted… (Bruno Vandermeulen, Handout )
September 26, 2013|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

The man in the red turban is a mystery, and not only because his expression is grave, alert and slightly anxious.

He is richly dressed, which clearly makes him a person of some importance. There weren't a lot of black people living in Europe in the 1600s, and even fewer displayed, as this man does, signs of princely favor. It's even more unusual that he was singled out for a painting of his own instead of being included as part of a larger group.

Joaneath Spicer, the curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum, thinks she might have uncovered subtle clues in the painting itself that might explain, if not the man's name, then his role, social status and even where he was born.

"I learned about the painting's existence from a Belgian curator who saw the painting in the home of a private collector in Antwerp," says Spicer. "He immediately recognized it as something that I would be crazy about."

The painting in a circular frame is titled "Portrait of a Wealthy African" and is on loan at the Walters through June, 2014. It is thought to have been painted in the 1530s by an unknown artist who is either Flemish or German.

The artwork was featured in the Walters' recent exhibition, "Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe," which Spicer curated.

The portrait, she says, is full of informative details: The elaborate gold chain around the man's neck often was a gift from a royal ruler for service at court. The pearl earring suggests that the man was born in Africa and was holding on to a remnant from his youth.

Spicer compared the portrait to a German tapestry called "Wedding of 1547 at the Court of Duchess Elizabeth of Saxony at Rochlitz."

The tapestry also depicts a richly dressed, watchful black man with a pearl earring. That courtier is carrying a rapier, and Spicer speculates that they are the same person.

"He could have been the duchess' chamberlain, who managed the functioning of her court," Spicer says. "There were documented precedents for this in southern Europe. Some Africans rose high in European courts in positions requiring intelligence and loyalty but little formal education or previous social standing."


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