Flemish School, mid-17th Century
An African with a sword
- oil on canvas
Acquired by Saam and Lily Nijstad by 1974.
Amsterdam, Nieuwe Kerk, Black is beautiful: Rubens to Dumas, 26 July-26 October 2008, no. 73.
CINOA Exhibition catalogue, New York 1974, p. 14, cat. no. 8, reproduced, as Albert Eckhout, dateable to 1637;
S. Nijstad, `Johan Maurits, Albert Eckhout en de gezant van Sonho', in Tableau, 2, 1979-80, p. 2;
P.J.P. Whitehead & M. Boeseman, A portrait of Dutch 17th century Brazil: animals, plants and people by the artists of Johan Maurits of Nassau, Amsterdam 1989, pp. 172-3;
E. Kolfin, in E. Kolfin & E. Schreuder, Black is beautiful: Rubens to Dumas, exhibition catalogue, Amsterdam 2008, pp. 269-270, no. 73, reproduced, as Anonymous, possibly Flemish, circa 1640-50;
R. Parker Brienen, Albert Eckhout. Visões do Paraíso Selvagem, Sao Paulo 2010, p. 335, reproduced (under rejected attributions to Albert Eckhout, but as dated 1637).
This work is something of an enigma. Its subject and author are unknown, and the only thing about which there is agreement is that it is a work of considerable quality. As Kolvijn wrote in the catalogue of the 2008 Amsterdam exhibition: "What is certain, however, is that the painter of [it] was extremely competent.," concluding "One thing is clear ... this is a portrait of a black man, whose strong confident pose is unique in its period."
It was formerly thought to be by Albert Eeckhout, on the basis of a comparison with three paintings depicting Africans in European dress, two half-length and one bust-length (believed to be the Congolese Don Miguel de Castro and his two servants), in the National Museum, Copenhagen. All of Eeckhout's securely attributed works were made during or in connection with his visit to the North-East coast of Brazil with the expedition of Prince Johan Maurits between 1637 and 1644, but the three paintings in question have also been attributed to Jasper Beckx, as was this one.
They do not however appear to be by the same hand as the present work, which has more recently been attributed to Jacob Jordaens and Jan Boeckhorst. Portraits and studies of Africans occur in works by Rubens and Jordaens and their followers, including Boeckhorst and Van den Hoecke, and it seems plausible that this picture is Flemish, mid 17th Century, as was the consensus at the time of the exhibition in Amsterdam.
With his hand resting on a substantial sword, the Nijstad portrait has been identified as a slave trader, or a Congolese envoy. The former is feasible, but there is nothing to confirm it, while the latter is unlikely, on the basis of his dress.