Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

Picturing Race: Early Modern Constructions of Racial Identity

Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

Picturing Race: Early Modern Constructions of Racial Identity

Article excerpt

David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., eds. The Image of the Black in Western Art. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010-11. Volume 3. From the "Age of Discovery" to the Age of Abolition.

Part 1. David Bindman, ed. Artists of the Renaissance and Baroque. 408 + xxi pages. $95.00.

Part 2. By Jean Michel Massing. Europe and the World Beyond. 496 + xxvi pages. $95.00.

Part 3. David Bindman, ed. The Eighteenth Century. 365 + xxvi pages. $95.00.

Elizabeth McGrath and Jean Michel Massing, eds. The Slave in European Art: From Renaissance Trophy to Abolitionist Emblem. London: The Warburg Institute; Savigliano: Nino Aragno Editore, 2012. 386 + x pages. £55.00.

Agnes Lugo-Ortiz and Angela Rosenthal, eds. Slave Portraiture in the Atlantic World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. 500 pages. $99.00.

In her introductory statement, "Acknowledgments and Perspectives," in the first volume of The Image of the Black in Western Art, Dominique de Menil traces the moment of inception of this ambitious project with an admirable combination of humility and conviction:

The decision in 1960 to launch a systematic investigation of the iconography of blacks in Occidental art did not proceed from any clear plan. It was an impulse prompted by an intolerable situation: segregation as it still existed in spite of having been outlawed by the Supreme Court in 1954. . . . The past is heavy. To face it, to assume it, facts must be brought candidly to light. The making of a more human world requires rigorous studies. (1: 291-92)1

In a similar spirit, John de Menil records his justification for supporting the purchase of Christian van Couwenberg's The Rape of a Negress (1632) for the Museé des Beaux-Arts, Strasbourg: "'We are happy . . . to have been able to aid in the acquisition of an important painting which depicts us, whites, in a manner which we would prefer to ignore.'" 2

Volumes 1, 2, and 4 of The Image of the Black in Western Art (consisting of five books) were completed in a thirteen-year period as follows: From Pharaohs to the Fall of the Roman Empire (1976) on classical art; From the Early Christian Era to the "Age of Discovery" (1979), part 1, From the Demonic Threat to the Incarnation of Sainthood, and part 2, Africans in the Christian Ordinance of the World, on medieval art; and From the American Revolution to World War I (1989), part 1, Slaves and Liberators, and part 2, Black Models and White Myths, on nineteenth- century art. However, the series remained incomplete because of the glaring absence of the third volume intended to cover the early modern period.

Not until fifty-one years after the initial commitment in 1960, and thirtyfive years after the appearance of the first volume, has the gap at last been filled by the publication in 2010-11 of the three books-volume 3, parts 1-3-focusing on the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. The arrival of this rich resource is a cause for scholarly celebration. The scope of the visual material is vast; its accumulation and coordination a massive achievement. So long awaited, it has been well worth the wait. The new addition provides a broad, solid base that begins to answer Dominique de Menil's call for "rigorous studies."

Although the new volume 3 goes far toward definitively constituting and establishing a visual field for early modern race studies, it does not have the field to itself but rather shares this moment with the other volumes under review and hence is part of a much wider, ongoing process of growth and expansion. Nor did the field stand still during the prolonged delay in the emergence of the missing piece of The Image of the Black in the Western Art. The past two decades, beginning in the early 1990s, have witnessed concerted efforts and major critical developments in formulating the issue of race in early modern culture. A pressing question has been whether, beyond its archival value, The Image of the Black in Western Art project would be fully capable of adjusting to, and engaging, the significant changes that had occurred in the interim and had perhaps overtaken its own original approach. …

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