‘Extremely rare’ painting of a black woman from the 17th and 18th centuries
The painting, entitled “Allegorical Painting of Two Ladies, English School” shows a black female figure and her white companion as counterparts as they wear similar clothing, hair, jewelry, and makeup.
It was uncommon for a black female sitter, especially an adult, to be depicted in a painting as opposed to a child in a position of subordination in the 1650s, sparking “an important race and gender debate during that period” so the press release.
The painting is also unique because both women wear similar “beauty patches”, a type of cosmetic face ornament that was fashionable in the 17th century. The patterns on their faces were said to be “a sin of pride”.
The style of the work correlates with the woodcuts popular at the time, that is, the composition is allegorical and is linked to satirical verses, sermons and pamphlets.
British Art Secretary Stephen Parkinson, known as Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, has with the help of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Art of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) – an independent body that gives impartial advice on objects that are relevant to the country are of national importance.
“This fascinating painting told us so much about England in the 17th and 18th centuries.
“I hope a gallery or museum can be found in the UK to buy this painting for the nation so that many more people can take part in the ongoing research and discussion about it,” he added.
“This anonymous painting is a great rarity in British art as it depicts a black and white woman of equal status in the mid-17th century. It is not a portrait of real people as far as we know, but the inscription shows that it is actually a strictly moralizing picture condemning the use of cosmetics and especially elaborate beauty plasters that were in vogue at the time, “said the RCEWA -Members Pippa Shirley and Christopher Baker in the DCMS statement.
“Although she does not excel artistically, her imagery relates in a fascinating way to contemporary stereotypes of women, fashion and, through the juxtaposition of figures, race.
“The fact that it was made very recently, with only one other related painting known, and that it could be used to convey important aspects of black culture in 17th-century Great Britain so that its meaning could be fully studied and understood.”
Further research could reveal how the image is related to contemporary artwork and text, and what purposes it may have been created and used for, added Shirley and Baker.