Portrait of Elizabeth Murray
England (c. 1650)
Oil on canvas, 124 x 119 cm
[x] [x] [x] [x]
I think I have seen pictures of this before, in high school maybe, but I don’t remember there being a second person before. I seem to remember this image being cropped differently too, which is very disturbing because now that I see the entire painting, the way I remember it being cropped was very clearly and deliberately intended to remove the person holding the tray of flowers.
Since we’re throwing haymakers at the kyriarchy today, I think this is something that we should really be talking about too, because it happens
ALL. THE. TIME.
Level 1: People of Color from Medieval, Renaissance, and other Early Modern European works were often literally painted over in later decades or centuries.
For example: In this painting, Giulia de’Medici (the child) was painted over in the 19th century:
Level 2: It was very fashionable in a lot of 17th and 18th century paintings to have a Black servant featured in portraits of very important historical figures from European History.
Honestly? They’re practically ubiquitous. A lot of the very famous paintings you’ve seen of European and American historical figures have a Black servant in them that have been cropped out or painted over.
Those silly stock photos from your American History Professor’s Powerpoint?
Your Professor’s PowerPoint for “George Washington”:
The actual painting:
Your professor’s Powerpoint on Jean Chardin:
The actual painting:
PowerPoint on Maria Henriette Stuart (with some commentary about the Habsburg jaw):
But, because of whitewashed history curricula, teachers and professors continue to use the cropped images because they don’t want their lecture to get “derailed” by a discussion about race.
These images are also more commonly seen on stock photo sites, including ones for academic use.
I honestly can’t find anyone really writing about this, or even any analysis on how often the cropped photos are used.
The reason they are so easy to crop out is because of the the artistic conventions which reflect the power hierarchy:
Oil paintings of aristocratic families from this period make the point clearly. Artists routinely positioned black people on the edges or at the rear of their canvasses, from where they gaze wonderingly at their masters and mistresses. In order to reveal a ‘hierarchy of power relationships’, they were often placed next to dogs and other domestic animals, with whom they shared, according to the art critic and novelist David Dabydeen, ‘more or less the same status’. Their humanity effaced, they exist in these pictures as solitary mutes, aesthetic foils to their owners’ economic fortunes.
This is drastically oversimplified, but at least it addresses it directly.
If anyone knows more on any studies or statistical evidence on this tendency, feel free to add it.
Everyone needs to read this post. I’ve seen some of these cropped images so often it never even occurred to me that this wasn’t the whole image - it definitely wouldn’t have occurred to me to do research beyond the Google Image result if (to use the example) I needed an image of Washington for a powerpoint. I’m an archaeology graduate student and TA and I do some work (and eventually, presumably some teaching) in US historical archaeology, so it’s probable that at some point I’ll be preparing a lecture that I’ll want to illustrate with an image of Washington or some other prominent figure. Far from wanting to avoid an uncomfortable discussion about race, I would so much prefer to show the full image - my god, especially if I imagine teaching about the archaeology of Mount Vernon, showing these full images of Washington and the people around him would make that discussion so much more enriching.
But I’m an archaeologist, not an art historian, not very familiar with these paintings and not trained to look critically for signs of cropping or other modification, and my first stop for illustrating a talk is Google Images, not an art gallery. I’m not interested in avoiding discussions of race, rather I’m super invested in having those discussions - and I can’t do that as well if I don’t even suspect that there’s something missing from the images I’m using.
But now I’ll remember this, and be suspicious, and look a little further into the first usable picture I find when this comes up in my teaching, as it inevitably will.