Master Baiting

Rembrandt never left the Netherlands in his life, but the recent Rembrandt in Amsterdam exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada still managed to obsess, in the style of our times, over slavery, colonialism, and racism. The Ottawa museum announced, with a straight face:

The Dutch Republic of Rembrandt’s time had a very clear connection with the history of Turtle Island via contact between Indigenous peoples and Dutch settlers and through the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade.

Indeed, in the exhibition materials, it’s Turtle Island all the way down:

Rembrandt’s life coincided with many significant developments in the early contact period with Turtle Island…


As they approach the exhibition space, visitors will walk through Longhouse of the Future, 2019, a glowing aluminum longhouse structure embraced by a five-row wampum belt wall design by artist Skawennati (Kanien’keha:ka and Italian-Canadian, lives and works in Tiohtia: ke [Montreal]), upon entry they will see a replica Two-Row Wampum Belt, 1992, by Cayuga Chief Jacob Ezra Thomas (1922–1998) loaned by the Woodland Cultural Centre of Six Nations of the Grand River, Ontario.

But, of course, as important as the First Nations of Turtle Island are to understanding Rembrandt in Amsterdam, blacks cannot be ignored either. As The Globe and Mail explains:

At the heart of the gallery’s new Rembrandt exhibition, half a dozen portraits of beautiful 17th-century ladies in black white-collar dresses confront a collection of everyday stainless steel teaspoons recently assembled by the Congolese-Canadian artist Moridja Kitenge Banza.

Granted, hanging up spoons in straight rows isn’t quite as impressive as the oeuvre of Rembrandt. But if we pretend hard enough, maybe it will seem as if it were?

The fundamental problem facing art museums in the Age of George Floyd is that history’s designated bad guys—white men—produced vastly more of history’s best art than did the official good guys, such as blacks and New World Indians.

To assuage the wounded amour propre of the presently privileged, the National Gallery put up a placard announcing that the historical shortage of Old Master paintings by blacks is the fault of white men:

Slavery and colonialism caused immense human suffering and loss of life. These practices also had other, less obvious repercussions. For instance, while artists flourished in cities such as Amsterdam during the era of slavery, producing a rich culture and leaving wonders to behold centuries later, the opportunity to do the same was stripped from the enslaved. Although Black subjects exist in European art from this period, few artworks were actually created by Black diasporic people during this time due to slavery and anti-Black racism. What might have been if chattel slavery had not taken place? How many “master” artists were lost during those centuries?

In reality, causality actually runs in the opposite direction: Without Europeans, no sub-Saharan would have become a master easel painter.

This is illustrated in the life of the part-black 17th-century painter Juan de Pareja, whose The Calling of St. Matthew has long hung in the Prado museum in Madrid. Pareja had been the slave assistant of Velasquez, who emancipated him and helped him on his subsequent career as an independent professional artist.

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