He who pays the piper calls the tune

Portraits of Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1634

It comes as no surprise that a curator at the exhibition devoted to slavery failed to notice the little black boy in a painting: the artist paid him little attention. Poor and insignificant people were afforded only coarse brushstrokes in Dutch paintings, unless they happened to be the subject of a portrait study. They were not what the painting or etching was about, and the artist was focused on the man with the purse: like the sugar merchant Marten Soolmans, a Flemish immigrant.


Marten Soolmans and his wife Oopjen Coppit, wealthy residents of Amsterdam, were immortalized by Rembrandt in 1634. Even the lavish decorations on the Fleming’s shoes were captured in the painting, and the portrait of his wife, who was descended from nobility, was also executed in detail, with all the necessary finery. The painting exudes wealth and prosperity, luxury and extravagance, translated into precious lace, satin, gold, silver and pearls, and then preserved in paint.


However, the correct portrayal of dark characters is less important to me than the question of how lonely the poorest immigrants of colour in Europe must have been, doubly migrated as they sometimes were: from Africa to the West and then back to the cold Netherlands. As the descendant of enslaved people, you look at these status-enhancing servants of the plantation elite, the futuboi, differently. The main task of these jack-of-all-trades was to keep the master happy. How alone these children must have felt. They would never see their parents again. Who comforted them? Would they find a patient barber who wouldn’t abhor the “wool” like a black sheep’s on their heads? Were they stared at? called names? What I sense is the utter loneliness of a child with heavy responsibilities. In the West, the – also unseen – conterparts of the European domestic servants and knaves spent six long days a week cutting sugar cane in the blazing sun. Marten and Oopjen were able to leave us these impressive paintings with the proceeds of the sugar.


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