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A portrait that survives the test of time

By Jonathan M. Square - 25. June 2021
Scholar of black fashion and visual culture Jonathan M. Square responds to an unusual fragment of a painting by Annibale Carracci.
#Food for Thought is a series in which tastemakers from different fields consider their knowledge in relation to Old Masters, asking how they might offer a fresh perspective in the way one engages with the art of the past.

Who is this woman who holds a clock? What is her name? Many Renaissance-era painters did not grant subjects of African descent the power to confront the viewer head-on, but she makes direct eye contact, her gaze commanding. For that reason, she does not appear to be ancillary or subservient; there is no indication that she is impoverished, enslaved, or even a Kammermohr (“a German term for a black court servant”). Her portrait was part of a larger tableau that did not survive the test of time. Her torso is crossed by the arm of another sitter whose body was part of the larger painting. Why was her fragment saved? The portrait’s subject was clearly esteemed. The fragment’s intriguing qualities may be a reason for its survival.

Annibale Carracci, Portrait of an African Woman Holding a Clock, oil on canvas, 60 x 39.5 cm., collection of the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Photo © Nicholas Hall Gallery

As a scholar of black fashion and visual culture, I have spent my career doing close analyses of portraits of people of African descent. For many of these images, all we have are the visual elements of the works themselves. Scholars are left to consider how we can imagine our way into lives that archives barely record. In the case of this portrait of an unidentified black woman, we must rely on old-fashioned detective work with a touch of speculation. It is easy to simply assume that she was an attendant to some noble, but she may have been a noble herself, or a relative of a noble European family—a not unheard-of occurrence. From Alexander Pushkin and Dido Elizabeth Belle to Alessandro de’ Medici, there are several examples of people of African descent marrying into European nobility. She may be some yet-to-be-discovered personage who figured prominently in the Medici court. I hope some enterprising scholar in the future will explore a new archive or document and uncover her identity.

Agnolo Bronzino workshop, after Pontormo, Portrait of Alessandro de’ Medici, after 1553, oil on tin, 16 x 12.5 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.
David Martin, Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, ca. 1778, oil on canvas, Collection of the Earl of Mansfield, Scone Palace, Perth, Scotland © Alamy

This sixteenth-​century painting, titled Portrait of an African Woman Holding a Clock, is attributed to Italian artist Annibale Carracci (1560–1609). It dates from the 1580s and is a clear indicator of the presence of people of African descent in Renaissance Europe. The appearance of people of black people in European portraiture arose partially from the so-called “Age of Exploration” that jump-started slavery and other exploitative European ventures. At the time this painting was created, current associations between blackness and a battery of negative stereotypes had yet to be solidified. People of African descent in Europe were minorities, but their presence was not insignificant, as evidenced by a number of portraits of them from the era, like Jan Mostaert’s Portrait of a Moor (1525-30).

Jan Mostaert, Portrait of an African Man (Christophle le More?), ca. 1525-30, oil on panel, 30.8 x 21.2 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

These portraits exist because these black folks were associated with or related to European nobility, but in most cases, the nature of their relationships has been obscured or forgotten. Renaissance Europe would come to be associated homogeneously with white Europeans, while people of African descent would later become associated with slavery, the slave trade, and colonial exploits. In drawing our attention to black figures, portraits like Carracci’s force us to shift these figures from the margins of the artistic canon and emphasize their centrality to constructions of the West. Unfortunately, Carracci’s subject is now remembered as merely an “African woman,” a “black woman,” or, despite indications to the contrary, a “slave.” Though clearly she was a woman of import, given her fragment of the painting remains while the rest was discarded or lost.

Detail of the present painting

All elements of a sixteenth-century portrait resulted from careful planning; portraiture at that time was a privilege reserved for the most elite, and most people only had the opportunity to sit for a portrait once in their lives. It is not accidental, then, that Carracci’s subject holds an engraved ormolu table clock. Clocks like these were objet d’art of extreme luxury at that time, not least because they represented cutting-edge technology. Was she a timekeeper of some sort? Much of her outfit is not visible in her 23⁵/₈” x 15¹/₂” fragment, but based on what we can glean from her bodice, the gown is sensible, yet fashionable. Its saturated inky black indicates her elite status, as black dyes were very pricey and rare in Renaissance Europe. Kenna Libes has posited that she was a seamstress, a conclusion drawn from the presence of pins and a needle stuck into her bodice. The fashion scholar in me is delighted by the prospect of her being a sixteenth-century fashion maker.

She wears pearl earrings and a red necklace, most likely made from coral. Pearls and coral, two gems harvested from the sea floor, had associations with far-flung luxury and exoticism. It is not unusual for images from this era and later to depict people of African descent wearing or offering corals or pearls. For example, in a portrait by Pierre Mignard of a Kammermohr alongside Louise de Kérouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth, the black subject offers Kérouaille red coral and a nautilus shell filled with pearls. The painting replicates Marian iconography, which mirrors the imperial notion of a metropole and the “childlike” colonies. The proffering of gems is a visual metonym for the promise of colonial bounty through the exploitation of people of African descent.

A visitor examines a Portrait of an African Woman by Annibale Carracci during an exhibition opening at Nicholas Hall, 2017 © Nicholas Hall Gallery

Portrait of an African Woman Holding a Clock has survived for nearly five centuries, thanks to the efforts of a series of caretakers, whose motivation to preserve the painting may stem, at least in part, from its intriguing qualities. The simple elegance of her dress and frankness of her gaze exudes a sense of timelessness, which is why this painting has been used to humanize historical work—most recently Jennifer M. Morgan’s Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship, and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic (Duke University Press, 2021). Its subject inspires art and dress historians and costumers who recreate her look and imagine how her life might have been, and why her visage—and no others from the larger painting—survives. Like some of the most alluring works by Old Masters, the picture at present raises more questions than it can answer.❖

Jonathan M. Square is a writer, historian, and curator specializing in fashion and visual culture of the African Diaspora. He currently teaches at the Parsons School of Design.
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