Sunday, 10 January 2016

Simon Maris, Young Girl with a Fan?


A revised version of this Blog post now appears in my book The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016), available online from amazon and by order from bookshops


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Those who set themselves up as arbiters of political correctness rarely consider the possibility that they may get things wrong. By which I don’t mean that they may make enemies unnecessarily (as they often do) but that what they think advances the cause of a better society – a society less discriminatory, less prejudiced, more just – may not in fact do so. Our arbiters of correctness sometimes over-compensate for some guilt or some insecurity. Sometimes they are simply lazy or ill-informed. Either way, it’s easy to do damage to a good cause. Skip to Section 5 if you don't have the patience to wait for the story - history and herstory - of the painting shown above to unfold.

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In January 1921, an Amsterdam diamond dealer Andries Wezel, died on board the S.S. Rotterdam en route from New York to the Netherlands. He was wealthy, a prominent Dutch Jew, a philanthropist and an art collector. He bequeathed his large collection of around 140 paintings and drawings to Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. In among many more valuable or important works was a small (41 x 29 cm portrait format)  oil on canvas painting signed by and attributed to a contemporary Dutch portrait painter and art dealer, Simon Maris ( 1873 – 1935), the son of a landscape painter, Willem Maris.

In 1922, the Rijksmuseum staff - working their way through the bequest - inventoried and catalogued this painting under a title which they provided themselves,  Negerinnetje  which is sometimes translated to English as “Little Negress” and sometimes as  “Young Negro Girl”. The former translation is an older one, since the recent history of both American and British English has led to the progressive disappearance of  the  “ – ess”  forms to indicate a female: so “actress” has given way to “actor”, “authoress” [ which never had much currency] to “author” and so on. Likewise, “Negress” has no currency now.

The form “Young … girl ” (and its twin, “Young  … boy”)is a bit odd in English since it is unclear what “young” changes in “girl” or “boy”. Perhaps it indicates to the listener to think “pre-puberty” or something like that, but I am not sure – it isn’t clearly wrong to call a fifteen year old a “young girl” or “young boy”.

It is quite important to note that Dutch “Neger” and “Negerin” do not translate to American “Nigger”; they translate to American and British “Negro”. The “ – etje” ending  does a number of jobs, indicated by the English translations to “Little” and “Young”.

One hundred years later, Google the word which some museum curator picked for the  title of the Maris painting and, well, you get an awful lot of  Dutch porn sites (there is a negerinnetjes.tube.nl) but you also get some Facebook-type family images of children(female, black) under the age of about 10. This surprised me because I had expected that, as in American and English, “black” would have completely won out over “Negro” as a clearly non-offensive term of choice.

 “Black” does exist in Dutch, with a phrase like “ Yonge zwarte vrouw” available as a neutral description. However - and this is relevant for what follows - “Yonge zwarte vrouw” can translate as both “young black woman” and “young black girl”.

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At the end of 2015, Amsterdam’s  Rijksmuseum announced to the world that it was in the process of re-titling works in its (vast) collection which had racist or, more generally, offensive or Eurocentric  titles. I say “announced to the world” because I can find the story carried in news media in many countries. After all, most countries have art museums and the Rijksmuseum project is probably relevant to all of them. [As at 5 February 2016, the story has been carried by national newspapers and online media in Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador,France, Hungary, Indonesia, Italy, Poland, Romania, Spain, Switzerland, United Kingdom and USA].

I have not seen the original Rijksmuseum press release but I get the impression that it did not labour the fact that many titles used to label works in galleries and museums have not been provided by the painter or sculptor. They are due entirely either to custom or, more likely, the curator who inventoried the work at the time of its acquisition. That is an important difference.

If a painter gives a title to a work, it may have no more significance than an inventory title. Not all painters want to provide a verbal guide to their work. But sometimes they do and that is then an important fact. It tells you how the painter wants / wanted you to look at the work. So if the painter assigns an indicative title, The Very Fat Man, then the painter is saying to us (as it were): Look, start from the fact that he’s very fat. Not from the fact that he’s bald or black. Look at how I have tried to represent his fatness or – more subtly – how this fat man relates to his own fatness.

In these circumstances, it would be a foolish curator who interposed and decided, No, we are not going to use that title (any more). We are going to re-title this painting The Bald Headed Man or Man Sitting in an Armchair. The first of these would privilege the curator’s interpretation of the picture over the painter’s. The second is, effectively, banal and simply removes the guidance provided by the original title. Or if it is not just banal, it is misleading if it leads us to ask questions like, How does the man manage his relationship to the chair? instead of the previous (possible) question, How does the man manage his relation to his fatness?

Of course, there will be occasions – perhaps numerous – where we conclude that the painter’s indications are uninteresting or unhelpful or simply express prejudices which the painting may not even confirm. There almost certainly exists a painting where the painter points and says Portrait of a Shifty-Eyed Thief  but where the spectator promptly dissents and thinks Portrait of a Thief pretending to be shifty-eyed to conform to your stereotypes...

In other words, though an artist’s title may in some sense be intended to close down interpretation, it may not in fact do so. Painters do not have a monopoly of wisdom, even about their own work. Spectators may see more than the painter ever saw.

But nonetheless, they probably want to start from where the painter started (why else look at paintings?) and if you remove the painter’s title, then spectators are going to cry “Foul!” and “Anachronism!” and “Political Correctness Gone Mad!”. And indeed they did in response to the Rijksmuseum’s press release

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That press release appears in almost identical form in all the media coverage I noted above. And just one image  appears in nearly all the coverage. It is the image of Simon Maris’ painting once given the title by a curator, Neggerintje, and which now has its shiny new curator title, Jonge vrouw met waaier which you can translate as either Young Girl with Fan or Young Woman with Fan.

In context, “Young Girl” is more accurate as a translation since the Rijksmuseum on its website also groups the painting under Children’s Portraits (Kinderportret) - and, indeed, the English-language version of the new title used in its press publicity and on its website was Young Girl with a Fan.

Since this is just the replacement of one curator title by another, one can ask quite simple questions about it. Does it help us see the painting for what it is (for what is intended)? Does it do better than the old title?

I think the answer here is clearly, No. The world’s art galleries are full of portraits of young girls with fans and the new title is as banal as Man Sitting in an Armchair.

If you start looking at this portrait by looking at the fan, how the girl holds the fan, and so on – well, you are wasting your time.

The gallery labelling tells you that this painting is dated as having been painted between 1895 and 1922 (the latter the date at which it arrived in the Rijksmuseum) and attributes it to a white Dutch portrait painter and art dealer, Simon Maris, active between those dates.  If that is all correct, then just the smallest bit of historical knowledge will suggest to a spectator that more interesting than the fan is the fact that the sitter is black. Not only is she black, she is rather finely dressed and she is sitting rather confidently in her chair to be painted by a leading Dutch portrait painter of the time. You might at least expect a bit of curiosity about those facts. Not many black girls got to do those things then.

The Rijksmuseum does acknowledge her blackness in its longer description of the work (which I take from the Museum website):

Een sittende jonge zwarte vrouw, met een kanten hoed op het hoofd  en een waaier in de rechterhand

Which I translate as

A young black girl sitting, with a lace bonnet on her head and a fan in her right hand

Is that enough to get started on looking at this painting? I think not.

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I suggest instead that you try looking at her left hand which - as far as I can discover -  no one has previously proposed.

The sitter has been posed by the painter with her left hand splayed so that it is easy to see that on the third finger of her left hand she is wearing a ring.

In European cultures, the third finger of the left hand is the ring finger [Dutch ringvinger ] and is by very long tradition reserved for a married woman’s wedding ring and, sometimes, for the engagement ring (promise ring) which precedes it and which is moved to the right hand on marriage. In this painting, the ring looks to me like a simple gold band and in that case, it is almost certainly meant to be seen as a wedding ring.

So much for young girls with fans. We are looking at a portrait of a married or soon-to-be-married woman.

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So who is the sitter?

That question almost certainly has an answer and at some point the answer was probably known to the Rijksmuseum, which chose to ignore it – that is the claim of a Dutch art historian, Dr Esther Schreuder. She did some research into the provenance of this painting in connection with its use for a 2008 exhibition of paintings with black subjects, Black is Beautiful, and concludes that the painting came to the museum identified as a portrait of a named person. It was probably identified as a portrait of a Mrs Alting in which case the likely artist’s title for this painting is Portrait of Mrs Alting

That would be an appropriate gallery title and an expanded gallery description could then tell us who Mrs Alting was, to whom she was married (and maybe their respective ages at marriage) and whether (for example) this picture was painted as a marriage portrait - that might explain how she is dressed.

The answers to those questions probably exist in three archives not available on the Internet:

-          The papers relating to the Andries van Wezel Bequest, held by the Rijksmuseum since 1922
-          The Simon Maris family archives for which an outline catalogue can be found on the Internet; the contents themselves are in public custody in the Netherlands
-     Dutch registers of births, marriages and deaths

The matter is not entirely straightforward because there is another version of this painting which on the Internet is identified as a portrait of a Mrs Allwood and a third  version which identifies the sitter as Spanish. Both of these paintings, in a very different style to the Rijksmuseum portrait, are signed Simon Maris but on the right rather than the left hand side. The "Mrs Allwood" painting was offered for sale by the Amsterdam auctioneers Glerum in 2008. The auctioneers said that it came from the De Visscher family in Zeist and that the family had got the painting from the artist in the 1920s. The painting was unsold. It's possible that some kind of Chinese Whispers has been played out with the names - maybe Alting is the whispered version of Allwood or vice versa. But whatever the case, none of this is ancient history and somewhere it is documented.

It’s a separate issue, but I merely note here that this painting does not look like the majority of Maris paintings you can find on the Internet and I simply don’t know why. Likewise, it is rather puzzling that though Maris was living, working and well-known in Amsterdam at the time of the van Wezel bequest, it seems that he was not asked to date the painting (the range 1895 - 1922 is very wide for a modern work) or offer a title. And where was the sitter in 1922 and why wasn't the painting with her? It clutters up the simple morality tale I want to tell, but I have to say that lots of things in relation to this painting seem not quite right. The sitter does look very young, the painting does not look like Maris's regular work, the style could be that of a work painted many years before the dates (1895 - 1922) given to it.

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But, leave aside those queries, why is my simple tale  important for political correctness?

If you turn a portrait of a named person into a generic portrait of a little negress or a young girl with a fan, then you deprive the original sitter of her identity. You also obscure the fact that the painting was worked out in the context of someone sitting for her portrait with someone whose business it was to make portraits. You obscure access to what the work is about. Crudely, there are differences between paintings where an artist has paid a model to sit and be painted as the artist chooses and paintings where someone has paid the artist to paint the sitter - and, usually, giving some attention to the way the sitter wants to be painted or the way the person paying wants them painted. Portrait painters usually work to commissions and Maris often did.

Simon Maris was what here in England would be called a “society” portrait painter. He painted wealthy and fashionable women. He was white and mostly they were white and quite often their portraits are identified on the Internet by the name of the sitter. Some of course remain in private hands and the owners simply know who the portraits are portraits of.

In this case, political correctness does not require much more than that a black woman sitting for Maris should be accorded the same respect as a white woman. She should be allowed to keep her name and gallery visitors thus allowed to appreciate that she is sitting for her own portrait in what seems to me  a calm and dignified manner. From open access Internet sources, there seems little room for doubt that this rather striking portrait was painted as a portrait of someone and the Rijksmuseum is probably in a position to tell us who she was and perhaps also, who commissioned the painting. If so, it should now do so.


This Post is a heavily revised version of the main claims made in the original December 2015 Blog which I have left online for reference. 

8 Updates

On 19 January 2016, a Senior Curator at the Rijksmuseum, Dr Jenny Reynaerts, emailed to tell me that "we have started our research on the woman who was sitting for the painting and hope to adjust the neutral title soon"

On 5 February 2016, I looked again at the Rijksmuseum website where a new text is now attached to the portrait:

Young Woman with a Fan, Simon Maris, c. 1906

oil on canvas, h 41cm × w 29cm. More details
Simon Maris painted this woman on various occasions, holding a cigarette or a red fan. Perhaps she was a model, yet this painting could also be an actual portrait. For want of information, in the past it was variously titled as The Negress, Portrait of a Mulatto, East-Indian Type, The Little Negress. These terms are now considered derogatory. Until her name is known, the painting will bear a neutral title.


Note that the neutral title is no longer that announced to the world in December 2015:  "girl" in the English - language title announced in December has given way to "young woman" and  "woman". The painting is now dated to c 1906 instead of 1895 - 1922. The reference to another Simon Maris painting where she is "holding a cigarette or a red fan" is presumably a reference to the painting on the left which can be found on the Internet  - click on the Image and it will go through to the source - but which is undated. If this is a painting from the 1920s, then the woman here must be in her thirties or forties and in the 1906 portrait in her teens or twenties. Of course, if this painting is of the same person, then it suggests  lines of enquiry for understanding the 1906 painting, some of which I speculated about in my original December 2015 Blog. I cannot see a wedding ring in the Red Fan painting but I cannot enlarge the painting enough to be sure that there isn't one. 






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