People of Color in EMEMH art

NPR had an interesting article on a tumblr blog, People of Color in European Art History. The topic raises some interesting methodological questions about historians’ use of art. And it made me immediately think of this painting:

Hey, John, you forgot your helmet!

“Yo, John – you forgot your helmet!”

I’ve always wondered about this portrait. Not the center of the painting: the Great-Captain-holding-a-marshal’s-baton-wearing-a-fancy-silk-sash-on-a-Rearing-Mount is standard iconographical fare (see a collection here). I mean the black attendant in the left corner. Uninitiated in the arcana that is art history, I wonder why he was included. Did Marlborough actually have (a) black servant(s)? Did most generals? Most English gentry? Did early modern blacks campaign in northern Europe, as later colonial troops would? Did Marlborough pick up some African slaves/servants from his early service at Tangier? I recall that in Caribbean siege capitulations, black slaves were included as property that evacuating garrison troops were allowed to take with them.

Or maybe the artist added this individual to evoke some Spanish (e.g. Moorish) connection or connotation? Or was the African page intended to simply provide variety among Marlborough’s many portraits? Did this insert an element of the exotic into an otherwise monotonous genre of great captain portraiture?

I can’t recall seeing any other black figures in the (admittedly mostly north European) military art I’m familiar with, which makes me curious.

Any thoughts?

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2 responses to “People of Color in EMEMH art”

  1. Wienand Drenth says :

    If I recall correctly, a black page was considered something posh in those days, and you see one often in paitings of those with the proper family tieds and annual salaries. On the Rampjaar blog there is at least one post dedicated to this. Last month this black page got into the news because of the Black Pete discussion in the Netherlands.
    My best guess that this black page should illustrate and underline the grandeur and richess of Marlborough.

  2. Erik Lund says :

    Empire shall be without limit in time and space, and Caesar rides in the German style. There is neither East nor West when… You’re a better man than I am… Wild Croats and Pandours flock to the call of Maria Theresia. The piper, stands, wounded, playing “Cock of the North” as the kilted highlanders storm the heights… Here come the Vandoos in a Gallic quickstep, the band playing “Vive la Canadienne”… Woselely, remembering the Red River campaign, asks for volunteer voyageurs.. The Camel Corps… Zouaves charge the Prussians… Royal American Regiment with tomahawks at their belt…

    What I’m saying is that exoticism is an old martial trope because it exalts the charisma of the commander. Marlborough’s fame is so great that he summons men to serve him out of distant Africa. Meanwhile, it distances the commander from too-close intimacy with his own by suggesting that he has become a man, or leader, for all nations. Pamela Crossley introduced this to me as the idea of the emperor/imperator as a Translucent Mirror but she has moved on and we now have a minor field of historical inquiry directed at the subject in general, signified by the Ab Imperio research collective.

    In more practical terms, the servant is probably supposed to be a “Mameluke,” and the connection would be to crusading war against the Turk. On a guess.

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