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Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Jonathan Jones and The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam - On Not Looking at the Paintings

To read the updated and better organised version of this Blog, please use the side bar to navigate to my Blog for 10 January 2016. Thanks. A later version now appears in my book The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016) available online at or 

An article in The Guardian  by Jonathan Jones (15 December 2015) reports the fact that the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is busy re-titling paintings to remove the word “Negro”. So far, they have removed the word from 132 paintings. Jones thinks this is a jolly good thing. I am not sure: anachronism is never a good thing and the appreciation of a painting is not served by whitewashing its history if that history is known.

The article is illustrated with a cropped version of the first image below, which used to have the Rijksmuseum Gallery title “Young Negro Girl”  (or "Young Negress") and now has the title “Young Girl Holding a Fan”. The portrait is attributed to a Dutch painter and art dealer, Simon Maris (1873 – 1935), who appears to have spent his whole working life in The Netherlands. He had his home and a studio on Keizersgeracht in Amsterdam from 1904 to 1927.  The painting is assigned dates between 1895 and 1922, when it was acquired by the Rijksmuseum. Two other versions of this painting can be found on the Internet and are illustrated below: 

Above: The Portrait in the Rijksmuseum now titled "Young Girl with a Fan"

"Portrait of Mrs Allwood with a Fan" [Artnet], signed "Simon Maris"bottom right
This painting was offered for sale in 2008 by Glerum Auctioneers in Amsterdam; estimated at 8000 - 12000 euro, it was unsold. Provenance given as from the De Visscher family in Zeist who acquired it from the artist in the 1920s

portret van een spaanse schone met waaier in de hand en mantilla by simon maris

" Portret van Eene Spaanse schone met waaier  in de hand en mantilla"  [Artnet] signed "Simon Maris" bottom right

Artists do not always title their works and, if they do, it may only be for the purpose of inventorying them. The title may not be designed to guide an audience – in which case, it is in no sense part of the work. Even gallery titles may be no more than Inventory titles.

Curiously, galleries don't indicate the status of titles they give to works. They should. The labels could and should read: 

 - “Not Titled by the Artist”
-  “Artist’s Title Lost”
-  “ Titled by the Artist: …” 
-   “Given the title  … by this Gallery in the year …”
-   “Re-titled by this Gallery Young Girl Holding a Fan in 2015; previous Gallery title Young Negro Girl" 

It sounds a bit cumbersome but then those bits of labelling are meant to be informative – they tell you things like “Oil on Canvas” and “90cm  x 150 cm” so why not tell you who is responsible for the title?

On the Internet, the three versions of this painting accumulate the following titles, mostly with no indication where they came from:

       Little Negress
-          Portrait of a Young Black Woman
-     Young Woman in Hat
-          Portret van eene Spaanse schone met waaier in de hand en mantilla [Portrait of a beautiful Spaniard with a fan in her hand and wearing a mantilla”]
-          Portrait of Mrs Allwood with a fan”
-          Portrait of Mrs Allwood / Mrs Alting …”. 

In the present instance, in their haste to get rid of the word “Negro” – and as if all you need to do is run a Political  Correctness app. over your gallery’s inventory of titles – the Rijksmuseum seems simply not to have done any art historical research even of a preliminary kind, including research into its own history.

Is she a “Young Girl ... ” - as in the new Rijksmuseum title - or a married woman?  

[Well, look at the Rijksmuseum painting: Her hand is held so that you can clearly see what appears to be a gold band wedding ring. However, on the Rijksmuseum website the portrait appears grouped with children's portraits (Kinderportret)]. 

Is she Black or Spanish?  One Internet source suggests she is of Moorish descent; another source points out that "Alting" [ or "Alting Siberg"] is a  surname taken by freed Surinamese slaves. They took their surnames from their colonial masters who included Alting Sibergs. Google yields numerous results for Alting and Alting Sibergs in The Netherlands.

[Either way,  if it's a Mantilla that could indicate that this is a wedding portrait. But in the Rijksmuseum version, the "Mantilla" is clearly a bonnet - you can see the reflection of the back of the bonnet in the mirror at left of the portrait ]

In new Internet discussion of the painting, it has been argued that "Young Girl with a Fan" is a whitewash since the most important feature of this painting, for its historical period, is that it depicts a black woman. Even before the Rijksmuseum change, it had been informally retitled as "Young Black Woman" in Internet reproductions deriving from Esther Schreuder's work for a 2008 Black is Beautiful exhibition and book, though Esther Schreuder used"Young Woman in Hat" at the same time drawing attention to the fact that this is a portrait of a named individual

So, Is this a generic painting or a portrait of a named individual? And if it is not generic, is it the same person in each portrait?

The possibility that this is a portrait of a named individual is intriguing and perhaps the most important issue for an understanding of what the artist is up to in this work. 

I went back to Google and I got this:

“Portrait of Mrs Allwood / Mrs Alting. Given to the Rijksmuseum in 1922 [ as part of a bequest from the diamond dealer Andries van Wezel.] The museum renamed it “Little Negress”.

If this is true, then the Rijksmuseum is right to get rid of its old title, which is racist not so much because of the word "Negress" but because it takes away her identity from this individual. 

That is something which probably would not have happened if she had been one of Maris' wealthy white sitters. He was the leading Dutch portrait painter of his period and on the Internet I can find examples of portraits with named sitters - Rika Helt, Rita Hopper, Mejuffrouw Konig, Mrs S van der Schuijt, Henriette Dingemans. But I guess the majority of named portraits remain in family ownership. 

So the Rijksmuseum  needs to explain why, if it did indeed have that title, it did not revert to the dull title “Portrait of Mrs Allwood /Mrs Alting”. The new title "Young Girl with a Fan" simply assimilates the painting to the (very?) large world-wide art gallery collection of young girls with fans.

The first version of this Blog took me under an hour to compile and is undoubtedly incomplete. I have added new information into it and also a possibly important Footnote below.

I am sure there is a qualified person in the Rijksmuseum who could establish a fuller and more accurate history in a day. Why didn't they do it first time round? Surely they have art historians on their staff interested in art history? 

If they want my opinion, this is my guess: this is a wedding portrait, about a hundred and twenty years old [ but see Footnote], commissioned either by a husband or possibly a father and it is probably quite easy to get into the archive/s which would tell you who the woman was, her age and who she married and his age. Quite possibly she has living descendants. 

I haven't stood in front of the painting, but my guess is that if I did so I would find this a sensitive portrayal of a woman who (for all I know) may have married for love or who may have been a trophy wife.

Footnote added 18 - 20 December 2015

Is the Rijksmuseum painting by Maris? If you look at images of his work on the Internet, for example at Artnet, there are some stylistic similarities in the way clothing is treated. But the face is treated in a manner which is not like the rest of Maris. And, overall, the painting looks as if it could be older than the 1895 - 1922 time frame assigned to it. And it seems to be more striking than anything else he painted. It's a splendid portrait. A lot of the images of his other works strike me as rather banal, something which is definitely not true of the Rijksmuseum painting. It is however signed "Simon Maris" bottom left.


On line dictionaries translate Dutch "Neger" into English "Negro" and  vice versa and either don't mark either as pejorative or mark both as pejorative. However, Dutch does not have a direct equivalent of American "Nigger". Someone can no doubt tell me if there is any slippage in Dutch (or maybe foreign tourists' perception of Dutch) which conflates Dutch "Neger" with American "Nigger" which would place the Rijksmuseum in a different situation with the word "Neger" than an English museum  with the word "Negro". For example, it may be that American visitors would translate a Dutch language sign using the word "Neger" as if it was saying "nigger" (which is not the case).

"Little Negress" [Negerinnetje in Dutch] comes across in English as (at a minimum) patronising and archaic and  offensive if used to describe a married woman. And the atmosphere of the painting does not strike me as intended to patronise or demean. The opposite: the sitter presents herself erect, composed and with an open and frank gaze. There can be no reasonable doubt that the old Gallery title had to go. The question is now, what would be a title which helps a visitor to the gallery appreciate what the artist was doing. If he thought he was painting a portrait of a particular person, and if the sitter thought so too, and if we have the name of the person available, then the most sympathetic title is "Portrait of Mrs [ vrouw] A ... " I just have this problem that it is unclear whether she is "Mrs Alting", "Mrs Allwood", "Mrs Alting - Allwood" or both Alting and Allwood at different times and nothing on the Internet resolves the matter, though Esther Schreuder, who researched the painting, goes for Mrs Alting in her 2008 description of it. The documents from the van Wezel Bequest might settle the matter. So too might the documents in the Simon Maris Archive which is held in the public domain in The Netherlands.

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