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Road Through Time

by Mary Soderstrom

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Friday, 9 November 2012

Small World Dept: The Walter Art Museum Shows a Portrait of Africans in Europe Long Ago

One of the things that fascinated me in my research for Making Waves: The Continuing Portuguese Adventure was the evidence of contact on a nearly-equal basis between some Europeans and Africans  following the great European wave of exploration. 

For example, after the Portuguese reached Kongo at the end of the 15th century, Dom Affonso, the Kongolese king, sent his son and other members of his family to study in Portugal, and he himself wrote quite acceptable Portuguese.  

And  the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin was the grandson of a man from an African royal family (sometimes recorded as being from Chad, sometimes Abyssinia), who was captured, sent to the Turkish capital of Constantinople in the mid-eighteenth century, and then sold to the Russian Tsar.  His elite status was recognized from the beginning; he was sent to France for military training and ended up marrying into a wealthy land-owning family.

 These contacts left traces in a number of works of art, many of which are on display at recently opened exhibit ‘Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe,’ at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.  The portrait of the  thoughtful woman above dates from 1580: she was a slave but her steady, intelligent gaze says much about her character and about what the painter (probably Anibale Caracci) thought about her. 

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