Harvard University’s W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research hosts a powerful new exhibit “The Image of the Black in Western Art”

Susan Saccoccia | 9/7/2010, 10:49 a.m.
(Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn’s “Baptism of the Eunuch” (1641), courtesy...

Another treasure is an engraving by Dutch printmaker Allaert Claesz, “The Baptism of the Eunuch” (1524). The image depicts a roadside encounter between St. Philip and the treasurer of Ethiopia, a eunuch en route to Jerusalem in service to his country’s queen. After hearing Philip preach, the official asks the saint to baptize him.  

The print blends formal elegance with a sensuous naturalism. Curves abound in the composition, from the saint’s mane of rococo curls to the arched bridge and cylindrical towers in the background. With delicate precision, Claesz renders the lush riverbed foliage, feeding waterfowl and the eunuch’s ornate carriage as well as the human drama.  

The eunuch’s attendant watches the baptism while holding the cape of his master, who has a face of serene beauty and a muscular body that is nearly naked but for a great necklace and a loincloth. Below him, a large lizard hunkers by a leafless bush, perhaps a subtle symbol of a thwarted Satan.

Rembrandt’s “Baptism of the Eunuch” (1641) portrays the eunuch as an older man clothed in a long robe. A few deft strokes evoke the contours of a distant town and the furrowed brow of a waiting horse. The etching’s delicate lines mass in intensity in the figure of the attendant, a boy who solemnly observes his master’s baptism.  

Nearby is Rembrandt’s “The Beheading of John the Baptist” (1640). King Herod has ordered the execution to keep his promise to Salome, who demands the Baptist’s head on a platter. John, a frail apparition, and the large, sword-wielding executioner hovering over him are both conjured with a light, fluid touch. But the black serving boy who holds the platter and innocently watches them is drawn in thick strokes.

Amid the small black-and-white prints, a poster-size watercolor by British art critic John Ruskin is an eye-catching oddity. Ruskin’s early Art Nouveau concoction, “Detail of ‘Solomon and the Queen of Sheba’ by Veronese” (1858) zooms in on a small figure in a Renaissance-era painting by Paolo Veronese. The original painting shows the African queen — depicted as a bejeweled Caucasian in Venetian dress — arriving in the court of Solomon, king of Israel.

Ruskin’s copy focuses on her black servant girl. In his painting, Veronese accents the girl’s profile with the curves of her earring and hair comb. Ruskin illuminates her face by dabbing white gouache on the tip of her nose and cheekbone and frames her profile in a spiral of swirling colors. His artful extraction transforms the girl into a figure as regal as Veronese’s queen.

The show includes portraits of bewigged African diplomats and scholars. Two honor Jacobus Capitein, a Ghanian churchman. Born a slave but educated in Europe, he wrote a doctoral thesis that both defended slavery and asserted the right of slaves to baptism.  

 An antidote to these contrived portrayals and their suggestion of uneasy alliances is a sensitive portrait by Prague-born Wenzel Hollar, “Head of a Black Boy” (1635), an image of timeless humanity.

“The Image of the Black in Western Art” is the subject of the 2010 M. Victor Leventritt Symposium, on Nov. 15 from 2 to 5 p.m. in Harvard’s Barker Center, 12 Quincy St., Cambridge.  The Du Bois Institute [http://dubois.fas.harvard.edu] is at 104 Mount Auburn St. (floor 3R).