Head of a Young Boy
Who was the boy in this etching? The image provides no context save his collared, buttoned shirt, which was of the type worn by servants in the seventeenth century in the Netherlands. In 1635, the year inscribed on the etching plate, Wenceslaus Hollar spent time in Amsterdam, where he could have encountered black people working in wealthy households. The Dutch actively participated in the transatlantic slave trade in the seventeenth century, and it was a source of wealth for the upper classes, but within the Netherlands slavery was technically illegal. This child (or his parents) might have been enslaved in the Americas and taken back to the Dutch Republic to be a “servant” or to be presented to another family eager for such a conspicuous symbol of status. In either case, it is unlikely that this boy’s opportunity for self-determination was markedly different from that of an enslaved person.
Titus Kaphar: Every time I see one of these pieces with these black children in it, my first question is, What is his or her name? 99.9 percent of the time, there’s no record of that. . . . There is some specificity to this little boy that leads me to believe that this is not a caricature. This is not a cartoon. This is not the same attempt to burlesque the black figure. He’s still very much probably being used as a symbol of somebody else’s wealth value and importance. You can tell by the way his lips roll, . . . by exactly where the light is placed on his cheek, cheekbone, . . . by the small shape of his ears. There is some specificity to this that to some degree belies its ultimate purpose.
As someone who studies this stuff, you go back, and you look at these esteemed artists as people who have profound technique and ability. You don’t see yourself. You don’t see anything that feels like you. . . .Then, you stumble on an image that does. You’re happy for a moment.. . . You also immediately begin to recognize, That’s a translation. What are you trying to tell me, Artist, about this individual? . . . When does he get to tell his story? The answer is, He never does. We do. . . . It’s OK for us to now and then . . . do some historical fiction work, and imagine a life for these folks. We are not going to destroy the fabric of time by doing that. It is not sacrilegious. I think it is essential.
Etching on laid paper
Signed, "W. Hollar, 1643" on plate
Gift of Mrs. Edwin De T. Bechtel
This item is not on view
Wenceslaus Hollar (Czechoslovakian, 1607-1677). Head of a Young Boy, 1635. Etching on laid paper, 3 1/4 x 2 5/8 in. (8.2 x 6.6 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Mrs. Edwin De T. Bechtel, 68.192.20 (Photo: , 68.192.20_PS9.jpg)
overall, 68.192.20_PS9.jpg., 2019
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