The black servant in portrait, genre and still-life painting in the Spanish Netherlands

  • Bernadette Van Haute Department of Art History, Visual Arts and Musicology, University of South Africa, Pretoria.
Keywords: Seventeenth century, secular art, Southern Netherlands, cultural history, black African, servant


This article investigates the cultural significance of the motif of the black servant in portraits, genre scenes and still-life paintings made between 1640 and 1660 in the Spanish Netherlands. Framing the research in Peter Burke’s (2010) theory of the cultural history of images, I use the images as testimony about the past. The relevant context is the social and cultural history of the black African in the cities of Brussels and Antwerp. The artists active in the various categories are Jacob Jordaens, Thomas Willeboirts (called Bosschaert), David II Teniers and Gonzales Coques. I propose that these artists formed part of an elite network with contacts in the Northern Netherlands that informed their artistic choices. By analysing the surviving artworks certain iconographic patterns are identified which allow interpretation of the motif of black servants as class-related, and of blackness as a marker of the patron’s wealth. Considering all available evidence, this article attempts to explain the lack of popularity of the motif in secular painting, and thus contributes to a broader understanding of the history of blackness in the Spanish Netherlands.