This portrait of an African slave was painted during the 1580s. Tiny pins in the front of the subject’s dress indicate that she was a dressmaker. The original painting was likely damaged, leaving the master cut out of the picture and the slave now framed as its primary subject. “Portrait of an African Slave Woman,” Annibale Carracci (attributed), Tomasso Brothers, Leeds

Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe, an unprecedented exhibition, explores the world of Renaissance art in Europe to bring to life the hidden African presence in its midst. During the first half of the 1500s, Africa became a focus of European attention as it had not been since the time of the Roman Empire. The European thirst for new markets already in the mid 1400s drove the Portuguese (and subsequently the English and Dutch) to explore the establishment of new trading routes down the west coast of Africa and, by the turn of the new century, into the Indian Ocean. At the same time, the expansion of the Ottoman Empire in North Africa brought the Turks into military and political conflict with European interests. These elements, along with the importation of captured Africans as slaves, primarily from West Africa, increasingly supplanting the trade of slaves of Slavic origin, resulted in a growing African presence in Europe.

The first half of the exhibition of approximately 75 works explores the historical circumstances as well as the conventions of exoticism that constituted the prism of “Africa” through which individuals were inevitably perceived.

In the second half, attention shifts to individuals, focusing on portraits. These often very sensitive images underscore the role of art in bringing people from the past to life. While some Africans played respected, public roles, the names of most slaves and freed men and women are lost. Recognizing the traces of their existence is a way of restoring their identity.

Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe was first shown at the Walters Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. For further information about the exhibition and its catalog, click here.

Source: The Walters Art Museum |

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