The Human Object:
Exploring Representations of Black Servants in Dutch Still-Life
By Eline Koopmann
This piece was written for the course “Political Iconology: Art & Diversity (1600-1800)” in April 2022, at Leiden University College in The Hague, where the author is a student.
In 17th century Europe, the Dutch Republic was known for its unique tolerance of religious belief, and the resulting co-existence of diverse religious and cultural groups. This notion of tolerance and its consequent diversity was fundamental to forming a united sense of “Dutch” identity in the newly formed Republic, which was visualized by artists like Gerrit Berckheyde, who painted people from different ethnic backgrounds. However, such paintings misconstrue the extent to which tolerance was practiced towards certain diversity groups in the 17th century, particularly black people. Thus far, the research on black people in the Dutch Republic has focused on notions of discrimination and slavery resulting from colonial endeavors, investigating individuals rather than black people as a diversity group. It has been pointed out, however, that the experience of black people was much more complex. Legally, slavery was outlawed, although many were servants and were brought to the Republic as a result of the slave trade. Black servants are frequently depicted in Dutch genre paintings. Hence, this essay will explore the question of what the visualization of black servants in still-life genre painting can tell us about the practice of tolerance towards black people as a diversity group. Three paintings of the still-life genre will be analyzed: Still-life with a Moorish Servant [Fig.1] and Still-life with Porcelain Vessels and a Servant [Fig.2] by Juriaen van Streeck, and Black Servant and a Laid Table [Fig. 3] by his son, Hendrik van Streeck. It will be argued that these paintings diminish the agency of the black subject, demonstrating that black servants were considered exotic attributes who were used to self-fashion by elite classes.
Firstly, it is necessary to contextualize the importance of trade and colonialism in the Dutch Republic. At the turn of the 17th century, fragility of the new political system in the Republic incentivized values of peace and prosperity. Along with expert nautical knowledge and a uniquely large shipping capacity, this paved the way for a successful trading system. The creation of the United East Asia Company (VOC) in 1602 and the West India Company (WIC) in 1621 essentially monopolized trade in the East and West Indies. To retain their economic superiority in the Atlantic throughout the century, the Dutch engaged in naval wars, and colonized northeastern Brazil between 1629-1654, as well as North American territory which became the New Netherland. Later, the Dutch took a “middleman” position by trading between English, French, and Spanish colonies.
After the establishment of the Dutch East and West Indies in the early 17th century, the presence of black people in the Netherlands first becomes evident. Although little is known about their lives in Dutch society, scholarship shows that they were an “integral (if largely unacknowledged) part” of Dutch life. There is evidence that black people were brought to the Republic on ships used for slave trading, although these people were “set free” upon arrival. There are also accounts of black maritime communities living in Amsterdam, as well as immigrants who brought their black servants to Amsterdam. However, the numbers of black people living in the Dutch Republic are unclear, firstly because race was not a delineated concept in the early Republic, and secondly, because the status of black servants was ambiguous. The “terminology of slavery appears to have been avoided,” even though it is probable that many black people were brought to the Dutch Republic as servants, questioning their degree of freedom. Throughout European upper-class households, young black servants were frequently “handed as gifts to others,” and were considered “rarities.” It was a common phenomenon to have a “favorite Black servant,” and indeed research shows that black servants were gifted to the regents of the Dutch Republic, family Van Oranje-Nassau, who frequently included these servants in commissioned paintings. The literature suggests that black servants in white homes were considered status symbols, a notion which is encapsulated by the concept of “exoticism”: the tendency of Europeans to perceive Africans and Asians as “extraordinary, fascinating, exciting, beautiful, endearing, attractive, and adorable, with a hint of danger.” In essence, it is the inclination to project “fantasies about profound cultural differences,” constructing the colonies as the “archetypical location of otherness.” However, Hondius (2014) points out that exoticism is “more than a white European fascination for ‘other’ people; it includes a whole material world.” Here, looking at 17th century Dutch art becomes particularly relevant for this essay, as the representation of black people in relation to this “material world” provides an insight into how black servants were perceived and treated by Dutch patrons and artists.
Black subjects occur in history and allegory genre paintings, but also as attributes in portraits and still-life genre painting. Black boys dressed in fine fabrics and accessories occur in portraits particularly of white women, to contrast and accentuate the pure, white beauty of civilized Dutch women. In addition, black subjects were an allusion to the consumption of luxury goods like sugar and tea, which were brought to the Republic through its prosperous trading network. The presence of black subjects in still-lives is especially noteworthy, as this genre of painting typically occluded people. Still-life genre painting was first popularized and produced in large numbers in the early Dutch Republic. Typically, still-lives portray a disparate array of objects and commodities which are grouped into compositions on tabletops. The types of objects included in still-life painting, however, varied throughout the 17th century.
By mid-century, the pronkstilleven became popular; a form of “luxury still-life” painting depicting objects which were known to be lavish by contemporary audiences. Such still-lives were utilized as wall-decorations, either of upper-class patrons who commissioned them, or of middle-class people who used still-lifes to gain access to “voorwerpen en gewoonten die financieel buiten hun bereik lagen” (objects and customs that were financially out of their reach). In this way, pronkstillevens functioned as “a dialogue between this newly affluent society and its material possessions,” as they both depict luxury goods – which were brought to the Republic through Atlantic trade – and acted as luxury goods in themselves. There has been some scholarship which addresses specifically the presence of black subjects in pronkstillevens, most notably by Julie Berger Hochstrasser. In Still Life and Trade in the Dutch Golden Age (2007), she analyzes the works by Juriaen van Streeck, which are also the focus of this essay, arguing that the black subjects are tronies – character types, rather than portraits – that function as luxury objects which are added to paintings to enhance meaning and visual appeal. However, by drawing a comparison between Juriaen and Hendrick van Streeck’s images, this essay will take Hochstrasser’s argument a step further.
This will be done by applying Panofsky’s iconological method to the three paintings. Panofsky’s method consists of the pre-iconographical, iconographical, and iconological levels. Respectively, these encompass a primary level analysis of the painting at hand, a secondary level analysis which compares the painting to others of its time, and a tertiary level at which meaning is derived from considering the painting as a whole, and in its historical context. Including Hendrik van Streeck in this analysis makes for a valuable comparison because he painted slightly later than his father, and includes similar as well as different objects in his paintings. In addition to Panofsky’s method, this essay will also employ concepts of agency and self-fashioning. Agency can be understood as having the capacity to “[initiate] causal sequences … events caused by acts of mind or will or intention.” In art, the subject thus never has full agency, and they are to a lesser or greater degree an extension of their maker’s or patron’s agency. Agency is a pre-requisite for self-fashioning, a term coined by Greenblatt (1980) which encapsulates the 17th century trend of utilizing art as a means to represent and shape ones identity in desirable ways. This development emerged in response to changing institutional structures, which more clearly delineated what it means to be a good citizen. In the following analysis, these concepts will be used as a lens through which to shed novel light on how black servants were perceived as a diversity group in the Dutch Republic.
On the primary level, Still-life with a Moorish Servant shows a table in the foreground on which there is, from left to right, a filled glass, a silver plate with fruit and nuts, a silver jug, a branch of grapes, and a blue-patterned dish containing fruits, which is placed on a carpet with golden fringes. Behind the table is a black male standing to the right, wearing lustrous clothing, a golden earring, and holding a glass similar to the one on the table. In the background is an orange-colored curtain. Still-life with Porcelain Vessels and a Servant similarly shows a table on which there is a silver plate fruits, a half-filled glass containing a peeled fruit, a jug with blue motifs, a tall glass half-filled, a large white jar with blue motifs, a copper-colored plate with seafood placed on a patterned carpet in the right-foreground, and a large shell and a peeled fruit in the center-foreground. A black male is holding a white and blue patterned dish with fruit behind the table, directly above the jar. He is wearing lustrous, orange-colored clothing, a headpiece, and golden earrings. Black Servant and a Laid Table depicts a table with a patterned carpet, a musical instrument, glassware, a blue-patterned dish with fruit, a silver plate with fruit and nuts in the table’s center from which a blue ribbon with a cross pendant is dangling, and what looks like a watch in the right foreground. There is a cage hanging from the ceiling in the painting’s center. In the background, an arch opens to another room in which parts of three paintings are visible on the wall, and a large jar with blue motifs. A black boy is carrying a tray with a jug in the archway, wearing blue and orange clothing with a towel draped over his right shoulder.
To analyze the black subjects through a lens of agency and self-fashioning, it is firstly important to recognize that all three paintings are still-life paintings despite the presence of a human subject. All three paintings portray a tabletop with an array of items that are compositionally placed towards the viewer, as was typical in still-life painting in the early 17th century, for instance in works by Clara Peeters [Fig. 4]. Additionally, these specific items would be associated with luxury and prosperous trade to contemporary audiences, suggesting these paintings are pronkstillevens. For instance, the white-blue dishes which are present in all three images can be identified as Chinese porcelain from the late Ming dynasty. Such porcelain was popularly imported by the VOC, but became rare after the 1640s with the fall of the dynasty. Especially Juriaen Van Streeck depicts similar dishes in other still-life paintings later in the century [Fig. 5], suggesting a deliberate emphasis on the value of rare items. The carpets in the three paintings resemble Persian carpets, such as Ushak carpets [Fig. 6]. These were displayed on tables in still-life painting, as they were too expensive to put on the floor; it was often cheaper to own a painting of a carpet, than the actual carpet. All three paintings also depict lemons brought to the Netherlands through trade, a frequently recurring element in genre painting. Lemons were “highly exotic commodities,” imported from the Mediterranean and traded in Europe, and their abundant appearance in genre painting symbolizes the supremacy of the Dutch trading network. Hence, these paintings are pronkstillevens, comparable to those painted, for instance, by Willem Kalf [Fig. 7]. Considering the frequency of such still-life images at the time, it is striking that pronkstillevens – generally recognizable by their illustration of still, lifeless objects – should include humans, as is the case in the three paintings by Juriaen and Hendrik van Streeck.
What is immediately noticeable is that the black subjects are dressed in lavish clothing. Particularly in Juriaen van Streeck’s images, the lustrous stripes on the sleeves draw the viewer’s attention, suggesting they are ornamented with gold. Furthermore, the loose cut bears semblance to Turkish clothing. The oriental reference is also evident in the use of vibrant orange and blue colors, which frequently recur in paintings showing oriental costume [Fig. 8]. Such clothing was not commonly worn in the Dutch Republic and would be considered excessive. Thus, the costumes of the black subjects signify a sense of exoticism and serve as a reminder of trading relations with the East, but also evidence a form of othering that disconnects the black males from Dutch identity. Most importantly, however, their attire indicates that the black males in these paintings are tronies, which are modified to fit the patron’s wishes, or for the artist’s experimentation. The subjects are doubly stripped of any agency in representing themselves; they are first impoverished of their identity, and then dehumanized through their placement in a still-life setting. The particular setting of a pronkstilleven, and the orientalist costume, indicates that the obliteration of agency allocates power to the patron and/or painter to self-fashion their own identities. The excessive adornment of the tronies emphasizes the respectable, somber tones which generally connotated wealth and respectability in Dutch society. Through objectification, the black tronies also indicate that the painting’s owner is essentially the owner of the black subjects as well.
This notion of ownership is emphasized by the tronies’ gestures. In all three paintings, the black subjects are carrying objects, albeit different ones. The glass held by the subject in Still-life with a Moorish Servant can be identified as a roemer – a Dutch wine glass. Notably, his glass is empty, distinguishing it from the other filled roemer on the table and frequently recurring roemers in other still-life paintings, which are usually filled. This could suggest that the subject has cleaned or replaced the roemer, indicating his role as a servant. It also shows that the wine is not to be consumed by the black subject, emphasizing that the wine is to be consumed by the viewer, further delineating difference between the black subject and the (white) patron. The dish held by the subject in Still-life with Porcelain Vessels and a Servant is likely a Chinese porcelain dish, containing fruits such as lemons. Placing the black servant from the West Indies in relation to the porcelain from the East and the lemons from the Mediterranean positions him within a narrative of interconnected exoticism, supremacy, and wealth. In Hendrik van Streeck’s image, the subject is carrying a silver jug on a platter. Again, the act of carrying signifies his position as a servant, and the silver jug connotes prosperity, as silver was an essential trading good for the VOC.
However, the compositional placement of the black subject in Hendrick van Streeck’s image differs from the position of the subjects in Juriaen van Streeck’s paintings. Whereas the latter are placed immediately behind the tabletop, the former is located at a distance to the table. Here, it becomes relevant to consider the cross pendant and watch underneath the hanging cage; none of these objects are found in Juriaen van Streeck’s paintings. They are, however, emblematic of “vanitas” genre painting. This genre attaches symbolic meanings of transience and moral warnings to objects. Objects telling time, like the watch, connote temporality of sensuous pleasures, and a need to prepare for “hereafter.” The bird cage alludes to “the dangers of lax moral behavior,” which, in van Streeck’s painting, compositionally and symbolically connects the cage to the cross pendant – a religious symbol for the Christian faith, in which lax behavior is condoned. Considering these vanitas elements together with the distance between the servant and still-life composition, it could seem as though the painting is signaling that wealth and prestige enjoyed through the ownership of luxurious items, including black servants, should be enjoyed with caution. In the historical context of the painting, this is a valid interpretation. Due to a series of wars in the Atlantic, by the 1678 “the Dutch were no longer the power they had once been in the Atlantic world.” However, the black subject is standing in an archway leading to a room which can be identified as a kunstkamer. These were lavish display rooms of art, used by house owners to self-fashion by exhibiting their wealth. Hence, although the servant is located further away from the still-life set-up, his proximity to a realistic kunstkamer arguably further reduces his agency, making him a trophy of the patron’s wealth in the settings of both a pronkstilleven, and a kunstkamer.
To conclude, this essay has emphasized Hochstrasser’s argument by showing that the objectification of black subjects in Juriaen van Streeck’s pronkstillevens act as exotic trophies for contemporary patrons. However, drawing a comparison with Hendrick van Streeck’s Black Servant and a Laid Table suggests that black subjects in pronkstilleven and kunstkamer genre painting function not only as objects of possession, but also as objects with a purpose, namely, to serve their owner – the patron – by symbolizing Dutch wealth and success. Thus, by employing a conceptual lens of agency, it has been demonstrated that the black subjects in these paintings have a multi-layered function of self-fashioning on part of the painter, patron, and Dutch society as a whole, by simultaneously embodying difference, exoticism, and material wealth, and, paradoxically, agency over others. These ‘others’ comprise the diversity group of black servants in the Dutch Republic. By dispossessing black subjects of any form of agency in representation, people in more powerful positions can reinforce their own agency to self-fashion using representation. Agency, in this context, proves a zero-sum game. In effect, this exploration has demonstrated that iconological analysis can provide a novel, more nuanced view on the meanings in Dutch 17th century painting. It has proven an essential method to help fill the long overdue knowledge gap on the experience of black servants in the Dutch Republic.
Figure 1. Still-life with a Moorish Servant, Juriaen van Streeck, 1636, oil on canvas, private collection.
Figure 2. Still life with porcelain vessels and a servant, Juriaen van Streek, ca.1670-1680, oil on canvas, Alte Pinakothek, Munich, inv./cat.nr 6599.
Figure 3. Black Servant and a Laid Table, Hendrik van Streeck, 1686, oil on canvas, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.
Figure 4. Still-life with Cheesestack, a Bun and Pretzels, Clara Peeters, ca.1615, oil on oak panel, Galleria Lorenzelli, Bergamo.
Figure 5. Still Life with Nautilus and Ginger Pot, Juriaen van Streeck, ca.1675-1699, oil on canvas, Kunsthistorishes Museum, Vienna.
Figure 6. Ushak carpet, made in Anatolia, 1600-1699, wool, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, BK–1975–195.
Figure 7. Still-life with a Late Ming Ginger Jar, Willem Kalf, 1669, oil on canvas, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis.
Figure 8. Boy in a Cape and Turban (Portrait of Prince Rupert of the Palatinate), Jan Lievens, ca. 1631, oil on panel, The Leiden Collection, New York, JL-104.
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 Kaplan, Reformation, 204-5.
 Ibid., 225.
 Ponte, “Al de swarten,” 37.
 Ibid.; Hondius, “Black Africans,” 88-9.
 Hondius, Blackness in Western Europe.
 De Jong, “The Dutch Golden Age,” 47.
 Ibid., 51.
 Noorlander, “The Dutch Atlantic.”
 Ibid., 7.
 Hondius, “Black Africans,” 87.
 Laughlin, Race, Class and Gender, 59.
 Hondius, “Black Africans,” 88-9.
 Ponte, “Al de swarten.”
 Hondius, “Black Africans,” 89-90, 94-5.
 Ibid., 88-9, 94; Ponte, “Al de swarten,” 47.
 Hondius, Blackness in Western Europe, 185.
 Hondius, Blackness in Western Europe, 183; Haags Historisch Museum, Afrikaanse Bediende.
 Ibid., 3; Hondius, Blackness in Western Europe, 4, 184.
 Encyclopedia.com, “Exoticism.”
 Hondius, Blackness in Western Europe, 4, 185.
 Van Haute, “Anthony van Dyck,”; Laughlin, Race, Class and Gender, 27, 39.
 Laughlin, Race, Class and Gender, 37.
 Buis, Homeliness and Worldliness, 257-8.
 Loughman, “De markt voor Nederlandse stillevens,” 87.
 Jansen, The Flourishing of Truth and Beauty, 3.
 Ibid., 21; Silver, “Still Life,” 31.
 Loughman, “De markt voor Nederlandse stillevens,” 88.
 Buis, Homeliness and Worldliness, 109.
 Laughlin, Race, Class and Gender, 40.
 Panofsky, “Iconography and Iconology,” 221-23.
 Ibid., 228-29.
 Layton, “Art and Agency,” 451.
 Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning, 1.
 Ibid., 3-4.
 Burns, Chinese and Japanese, 17.
 Ibid., 2.
 Burns, Chinese and Japanese, 30.
 Gerritsen, “Domesticating Goods,” 235; Perdahci, “Lotto Type Ushak Carpets,” 69.
 Piepmeier, The Appeal of Lemons.
 Ibid., 15-6.
 Gerritsen, “Domesticating Goods,” 233.
 Laughlin, Race, Class and Gender, 44.
 Laughlin, Race, Class and Gender, 42.
 Buis, Homeliness and Worldliness, 250; Burns, Chinese and Japanese, 57.
 Ibid., 38.
 Ibid., 43.
 Moreno, Music, iii, 31, 35.
 Ibid., 133.
 Ibid., iii.
 Moreno, Music, 35.
 Noorlander, “The Dutch Atlantic,” 4.
 Schwartz, “Love in the Kunstkamer,” 43.