Last January, I went to Holland with my art history class. We spent an afternoon in Haarlem visiting the Frans Hals museum, and at the time there was an exhibition on called “Emotions : Pain and pleasure in Dutch painting of the Golden Age.”
The exhibition focused on the way the Golden Age (Seventeenth century) artists would represent specific emotions and the way those depictions would become more subtle as time went by. Now, the exhibitoon was divided into multiple sections focussing on one or more similar – or, at least, visually similar – emotions, and there would be approximately 10 paintings per section, if I remember correctly.
The last section was about “Surprise and Fear”, and I was taken aback and utterly disgusted by one of the paintings shown there. After seeing the painting, I had a horrible sick feeling in my stomach all through the afternoon, and the worse thing about it was I had the feeling I was the only visitor to feel that way.
The painting in question was a 1632 oil on canvas by Christiaen van Couwenbergh, and its title was Rape of the negro girl. You can view the painting at the Fine Arts museum in Strasbourg.
Rape of the negro girl – Christiaen van Couwenbergh, 1632
At the time van Couwenbergh painted this, Holland had been at war for approximately the last 90 years, in order to gain its independence from Spain. The Dutch Golden Age’s main figure was Rembrandt, and van Couwenbergh was quite a minor artist, or, at least, he has become a minor artist in the eyes of today’s art history.
I suppose you can guess the fact rape has always existed is problematic to me, and it should be problematic to anyone in their right mind. I can’t really criticise the use of the term “negro” in the title, since it was quite likely the usual name for coloured people at the time. However, I must emphasise the fact that van Couwenbergh depicted this woman as an animal, or as some kind of a beast, as something – more than someone – which is not human. That, of course, is racist, and it does bother me that people who were fighting for independence and who abode by the Scripture – van Couwenbergh became a deacon in the late 1640s – would show such intolerance. The fact the word “girl” was used in the painting’s title shows the painter aswell as the characters in the painting knew she was just as human as any one of them, but still, they treated her with no respect, no human dignity whatsoever.
I tried to find out if van Couwenbergh was some sort of a human rights advocate or if he painted this scene in order to denounce these practices and behaviours, but all I found out about him was he was a Golden Age painter. And that’s it. He probably knew there was something wrong with this but I believe he painted it as a random observer, as if he were the man on the left, pointing at the scene – and who seems way too happy about what he is pointing at – or, perhaps, the fully clothed man at the back, looking sort of suprised, but I doubt he is reproaching anyone for what is going on.
Christiaen van Couwenbregh was 28 when he painted Rape of a negro girl, and I believe this was simply meant to be his way of practicing painting human bodies and facial expressions. It is, indeed, a very academic piece, and its theme was nothing more than a pretext to prove his talent and his artistic skills. Therefore, I believe the theme of the painting was pretty much irrelevant at the time. This could justify, to some extent, the fact that this particular painting was chosen by the Frans Hals museum for their “Emotions” exhibition, because, unlike the characters’ facial expressions, the subject matter was irrelevant.
However, the difference between 1632 and 2015 is that nowadays, this particular subject matter IS relevant, and in my opinion, it is WAY MORE relevant than whether or not the coloured woman in the painting looks scared. The people who organised this exhibition and who chose which works of art they would use chose them all with a reason, and they decided to look at these paintings through the eyes of a Dutch Golden Age citizen, not through our twenty-first century eyes. And as brave or clever a decision that might be, I do not think it was right. By wanting us to focus solely on the emotions shown by the characters’ facial expressions, they asked us to condone the things we were really looking at, for art’s sake, or for the “social experiment’s” sake. They asked us to be the silent observer who is standing, fully clothed, behind the bed. They asked us walk by and to be okay with it.
I am still not okay with it.
I think it is UNACCEPTABLE for anyone, in this day and age, to condone acts of racism, sexism, and violence, and worse, to condone the fact someone painted this just for academic reasons. Moreover, I believe it is unacceptable to use such a painting for the wrong means. Since the painting exists, they might as well show it to the world, but not in such a context : it SHOULD be used, but as a means to educate people : not only have these practices existed since the dawn of time, but they were never acceptable, and condoning any type of discrimination or violence is JUST AS BAD as perpetrating it. And laughing at it, or shaming the victim – like the character on the left -, are worse attitudes still. This painting should be put under the spotlight for a good cause, that of denouncing these horrors, that of denouncing terrible situations like the Steubenville High School rape case which took place just a few years ago, in August 2012, in Ohio. Laci Green tackled the issue brilliantly in this video, so please watch it : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z86oaQ4aLcM
That is why I called my article “Emotions vs. Education” : if you use this kind of document or art piece, you need to use it in the right way, to serve educational means. Using Rape of the negro girl for the “Emotions” exhibiton was a wrong move and, unfortunately, I believe people might’ve been mislead by this very casual use of a painting which tackles very important issues. Education and communication are ever so important, and that painting could’ve served a much better purpose if only it had been used correctly, by human rights advocates or sex-positive thinkers.