The true colors of the Golden Age

Even people who don’t know much about art are familiar with at least one or two Rembrandt paintings. So picture, if you will, a few of the Rembrandt paintings that you’re familiar with. Who’s depicted in them?

Perhaps you answered some Biblical figure or other, and sure enough, he painted many of those. Maybe you named a particular historical figure who sat for a portrait – or a whole group of them – as were depicted in the renown Night Watch. Or maybe you thought of Rembrandt himself, because he was the first king of the selfie.

The Night Watch, by Rembrandt. aka, the usual suspects

Or maybe you’re more a student of art, history or sociology. Perhaps you’re aware that Rembrandt, during the height of his career, lived in Amsterdam’s bustling Jewish quarter and asked many of his neighbors to act as models. Did you get woke and point out that with rare exception, Rembrandt’s subjects were white (that is, if we’re accepting his Jewish neighbors to be white, which can be rather debatable for that time)?

And here is the heart of the debate over the term “Dutch Golden Age,” which is simmering among the culture class in the Netherlands these days. Some cultural institutions, like the Amsterdam Museum, have decided to move beyond the term, recognizing that at a time that the Dutch Republic was trading with – and enslaving – people around the globe, the “Dutch Golden Age” wasn’t exclusively Dutch, nor was it golden for everyone.

But other venerable institutions, like the Rijksmuseum, are keeping the term. Possibly, it’s because so many people know and use it, and it gets people in the door. Once there, they can be presented with a wider idea of what was truly happening in the world at that time, beyond just the wealthy class running the Dutch East India Co.

Then there’s the Hermitage Museum in Amsterdam, which is doing something altogether different.

Have you ever heard of …

If you know anything about Dutch history, you’ve heard about people like my boys Rembrandt and Spinoza, of course. And Leeuwenhoek and Vermeer and Huygens and, and, and.

William of Orange IV with Jean Rabo by Aved

But what about Jean Rabo, though? Right. Not nearly is known about Jean Rabo anymore. He was a man of African descent, and likely was born into slavery in one of the Dutch colonies. Somehow, he was brought to the household of William IV, the statholder of the Netherlands, where he became the leader’s valet, an important and coveted position.

It was something of a fashion, in those days, for the very wealthy to have a young black man, or even boys, to show off as their valet. After Rabo, two young boys, Cupido and Sidero, took his place. Rabo was with William when he died in 1751, as pictured in one etching, and had important duties at his funeral. He then was honored with a state pension, which he lived on for 10 years. But he died after a night of merrymaking on the Festival of the Three Kings, Jan. 6, 1769. He was found the next day, drowned in a ditch.

Inset of above. Rabo gazes fawningly at William.

The government thought highly enough of him to perform an autopsy to ensure that he didn’t die of foul play, and to pay for his funeral at state expense. What was left of his pension was given to his two survivors (his children?) Given these details, I surmise that his position was something murky – not enslaved, more honored than a workaday house servant, more humiliating than a normal valet. I’m not sure what we might call it. Again, slavery was technically illegal on the Dutch mainland. I say “technically,” because that doesn’t preclude it happening. These young children of African descent were taken from their families and put on display. But Jean was also shown respect in his adult years that I doubt most servants ever enjoyed.

Jose Montoya as Jean Rabo – as Rabo may have seen himself, as compared to the paintings above. Photograph by Milette Raats.

But we don’t know much about Jean Rabo anymore, or Cupido or Sidero, and given how very white a place like the Netherlands is in the imagination, it’s easy to gloss over their memories. Which exactly why the Hermitage Amsterdam is holding the Dutch Masters Reimagined through February 2, 2020.

In its national portrait gallery, the museum has included massive photo portraits of people of color who lived and worked in the Netherlands during the time of the Golden Age. People like Rabo, who have largely been forgotten. To depict them, photographers have used modern-day people of color and dressed them in clothing of that time. Jean Rabo is represented by Jose Montoya, a Colombian-born artist now living in Amsterdam.

A hidden history

White people and people of colour have been living together in the Netherlands for centuries, the Hermitage says in its press release announcing the exhibit. And in the 17th and 18th centuries, Amsterdam in particular was a home to people from all corners of the globe.

“I was amazed to discover this vibrant community of people with non-Western roots living in 17th-century Amsterdam. They could be found in all walks of life. A lot of people aren’t aware of this. So far, these individuals’ stories have been left untold,” said theatre maker Jörgen Tjon A Fong of Urban Myth, who curated the exhibit. “It’s important that we start doing so – to paint a more complete picture of our past. In the photo exhibition Dutch Masters Revisited, various historical people of colour who so far have remained hidden from view are given a face. By doing so, this part of our history can become visible to all citizens of Amsterdam and the rest of the Netherlands.’’

Typhoon as Elieser, dignity restored. Photo by Humberto Tan.

Another one of those people is Elieser, no last name given, who worked as a servant for Paulo de Pina, one of the most notable Portuguese Jewish families in the city of Amsterdam. I said servant, because that’s how he’s identified in the New York Times article about this exhibit, but that’s a bit shady. To be honest, on his grave, he’s called “the good slave.” Yes, I said slavery was illegal in mainland Netherlands, but there you have it.

That said, he was also considered a good Jew, because he was buried inside the gates of the Beth Haim cemetery, right along with all the other members of the Jewish community in good standing. That means he was considered to have had a mother who was Jewish as well, or at least had a proper conversion. That’s notable, because in later decades, rigidity between black and white in the Sephardic community would set in, segregating white and black in the pews and in the cemetery as well.

Jonathan Schorsch, a researcher who has studied the Sephardic community in Amsterdam and particularly its relationship with people of African descent, has hypothesized that Elieser may have worked as a translator in Africa before coming to Amsterdam to work as a servant.

These facts are interesting, but who was he really? What did he think about his new home in the cold and damp land he was brought to? Or the religion he had likely been made to convert to? How did his heart ache for home? How did he cope with the many losses that he carried with him through his life? We don’t know. “The grave of the good slave Elieser, the brown person who belonged to Paolo de Pina.” That’s all that was thought worthy of recording in his own day.

It’s a couple centuries delayed, but Elieser is getting another chance to be heard. He has been portrayed by the Dutch rapper Typhoon. He looks out from a portrait that denotes wealth in every detail. Wearing a ruffed, ivory-colored silk shirt and brocade breeches, he holds his wide-brimmed hat, chin held high: he is seen as his own person at last, the master of his own story.

We are our stories

“We believe that the Golden Age is, in a way, the story of the winners, and it hides the colonial past of the country,” Hermitage Museum Artistic Director Margriet Schavemaker told the New York Times. “It hides slavery, but also it covers up poverty more generally. Not everyone participated in the Golden Age, not at all.”

And that’s the point of the new exhibit – to get to know some of these other stories. The ones that have gone unheard for so long.

Ruud Gullit as Jacob Rühle by Humberto Tan.

We should know about Jacob Rühle, who lived from 1751-1828. His father was a slave trader in the Dutch West India Co., and his mother was an African woman, Jaba Botri. Jacob took over the family business and in 1798, he moved to Amsterdam, where he lived very well. In the exhibit, he’s portrayed by Ruud Gullit, a footballer, or if you’re like me, a soccer player.

And there’s Elisabeth Samson, a freeborn black woman born in Suriname in the 1700s, who became one of the richest women in her time by growing and exporting coffee. But to make things problematic, she used slave labor to do it.

And then there’s Sychnecta, a Native American who was actually put on exhibit in a human zoo in 1764. Just stop. Stop and think about those words for a minute. (I’m happy to be able to say that a British diplomat intervened and brought him back to the New York Colony so he could return home.)

We are our stories, and our stories don’t just deserve to be told, they need to be heard. It’s more than a shame that so many of these stories were never heard during the time their storytellers were alive. But we have a chance to hear some of them today.

I’m truly disappointed that this exhibit will be closed by the time we get to Amsterdam in May. There will be another interesting exhibit on the Dutch Republic and slavery coming to the Rijksmuseum, but that opens in September 2020.

It makes my heart and my head happy to see a growing interest in knowing a fuller version of history.

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