Art Pick!: New Exhibit Reveals the African in Europe

Art Pick!: New Exhibit Reveals the African in Europe

Imagine being painted out of a portrait only to be “revealed” centuries later. That is one of the backstories of a striking image in Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe, a new exhibition at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. The circa 1539 Portrait of Maria Salviate de’ Medici and Giulia de’ Medici by Jacopo de Pontormo originally featured a little girl believed to be the granddaughter of an African woman and Cardinal Medici (later Pope Clement VII). In the portrait, Guilia was shown with her guardian Maria Salviate. At some point, Guilia was painted over. The rediscovery of little Giulia is fascinating and in itself worthy of a trip to Baltimore. Was it the suggestion of an “African presence” in her face that prompted her erasure? What other factors were in play? The conserved painting, which is part of the Walters Art Museum’s permanent collection, constitutes one of the first formal portraits of a child of African and European ancestry in European art.

According to exhibition curator Dr. Joaneath Spicer, Guilia was one of her inspirations for organizing this exhibition exploring the role of Africans and their descendants in Europe. The exhibition explains that the growing number of Africans entering Europe from the late 1400s to the early 1600s was the result of an age of exploration, with new trade routes into Africa, the Ottoman Empire’s expansion impacting European interests, and the importation of captured Africans supplanting slave labor from the Slavic countries. Maps, fine art, and documents together weave this tale of African presence in approximately 75 works, including some by Renaissance-era heavy hitters Peter Paul Rubens and Albrecht Dürer. Of particular interest is a section on color that cleverly investigates the aesthetics of blackness. Works made of onyx, black marble, or bronze yield figures with gleaming dark skin—what did this mean for artists and their patrons during the Renaissance?

Wings Not Meant to Fly, Jamea Richmond-Edwards, 2012, mixed media collage and oil on canvas, 36 in x 36 in. Image courtesy of the artist and Galerie Myrtis.

A key goal of the exhibition is to identify specific individuals—diplomats and slaves, merchants and rulers—who were part of the European social landscape. In a companion exhibition organized by Myrtis Bedolla of Galerie Myrtis, also in Baltimore, eight of today’s artists respond to these individual stories with new paintings imagining the roles of Africans across time. Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe: The Contemporary Response mixes icons and imagery from then and now, asking questions about presence, absence, visibility, and legacy. Add both exhibitions to your “To Go” list, and plan your trip around one of these upcoming programs for an added bonus.





Programs at Walters Art Museum:
600 N. Charles Street | Baltimore, MD 2120
410.547.9000 | Open Wed.-Sun., 10a.m.-5p.m.

October 14, 2012–January 21, 2013
Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe

Sunday, November 18, 2012
Walk-In Tour: Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe
1:00 PM–2:00 PM
The free with membership or exhibition admission curator-led tour of Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe examines the multi-dimensional role that Africans played in Renaissance society.

Programs at Galerie Myrtis:
2224 North Charles Street | Baltimore, MD 21218
410-235-3711 | Open Thurs. – Sat., 2:00 pm until 6:00 pm, By Appointment: Tuesday – Wednesday

September 27, 2012 – January 19, 2013
Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe: The Contemporary Response

Sunday, November 11, 2012
Presentation: Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe: A Conversation with the Curator on Portraiture and Identity
Presenter: Joaneath Spicer, Ph.D., Curator of Renaissance and Baroque Art, Walters Art Museum
2:00 – 4:00 pm | $20

Saturday, January 18, 2012
Presentation: Portrait of Louise Marie-Therese: the Royal Black Heiress not to be
Presenter: Dr. Diala Touré, Ph.D., Curator of Collections at the James E. Lewis Museum of Art in Baltimore
2:00 – 4:00 pm | $20


Michelle Joan Wilkinson, Ph.D. is a curator and global arts writer that keeps us hip to the Baltimore arts scene. Got a pick for Michelle? Email her here.

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