Object focus: Jan de Bray Paints Winter

  • Posted: Nov 25, 2013

As a national flagship, the Iziko museums have a central role to play in making connections between people. Our collections hold heritage assets of the South African nationthat both record our rich history and tell our stories. We aim, through the display of our permanent collection and temporary exhibition programme, to create spaces to reflect, appreciate and learn fromthe challenges and achievements of the past andfrom each other. Embracing our interconnectedness through our collections mediates and permeates every aspect of what we do. As such, old and new collections occupy our museums, connecting the past and the present, and giving direction to the future.

In the Drawing Room at Groot Constantia hangs a portrait labelled, on a small brass plaque, "A Negro". With the dark features of the unnamed man against a light background, the details of the painting are difficult to make out. Upon close study, one notices the comfort that the man draws from the embers in the brazier in front of him, as he pensively gazes into the smouldering coals with his hands held close for warmth. The painting could simply be a realistic depiction of everyday life. But experts see it as an allegory of winter, since, from the 9th century onwards, the European winter months of December and January had been symbolised in art by an old man sitting by a fire. In this case, typical to 17th century Dutch style, the old man is replaced by a young black man who, presumably being used to warmer climates, would be all the more sensitive to the European winter cold.

Dutch painter Jan de Bray (c.1627–1697) painted the portrait in 1662. He was born and lived most of his life in Haarlem in the Netherlands, and was the most famous of three brothers who had learned to paint from their father, the architect and poet Salomon de Bray. Jan outlived most of his family during an outbreak of the plague in 1664, to which he lost his father and four siblings (two of them within a month of each other). He specialised in historical allegories, and was for many years the dean of the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke, a guild for painters.

Looking through the lens of a social historian the depiction of a black person by a respected 17th century Dutch artist raises questions which relate more to the artist and viewer than to the subject of the painting. Was it De Bray's fascination with the subject's "otherness" that caused him to paint his self-contained dignity with such great attention to detail? How "other" did De Bray experience him in the port city of Amsterdam, where travellers and traders from all over the world (including Africa) must have gathered? At what level did the artist and his subject engage with each other? And were the black subjects in some of De Bray's other works (notably his versions of the Adoration of the Magi[1]of 1658 and 1674) inspired by the same man?

Even without concrete answers, questions such as these offer insights into a time when the nuances of racial difference were coloured by mystery and distance, and clouded by a ‘certainty’ of European dominance.

More than three hundred years on, depictions of racial difference have moved from the sensitive and fascinated portrayals of De Bray and his contemporaries – Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck and others – through to slavery and subordination, abolition and freedom, caricature and anthropological study and ultimately European imperialism and political analysis. Looking at this painting begs to question, “how could we today, as this artist did so many years ago, transparently  view each other's racial differences in such a way as to treat  the dignity of whoever might be regarded as the "other" in a normal way?”

[1]The inclusion of a black Magus in representations of the Adoration of the Magi emerged gradually during the Middle Ages.

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