Both paintings show a table full of peperduur commodities against a dark background: a nautilus shell from the Indian Ocean, oysters, some glass römers of elaborated shape, an oriental rug, and an elegant brown carpet with fringes, silver chargers, some imported grapes, and of course different Chinese porcelain pieces, including an ewer with a gilt-silver mount (on the left). The citrus fruits were popular in The Netherlands: the Mediterranean oranges were symbols of loyalty to the new rulers from the House of Orange, while the lemon, which was usually depicted cut with a curl of peel and was a constant presence in almost all Golden Age Dutch still lifes, was a luxury product, imported from Spain or Italy. The wealthiest Dutch had orangeries built attached to their residences so that they could cultivate frost-tender lemon plants.
The black servant in Blackamoor style is a fancy possession among others. We must remind the Dutch involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, which spanned the 16th through the 19th century. According to the African Studies Centre of the University of Leiden, «Dutch involvement in the Atlantic slave trade covers the 17th-19th centuries. Initially the Dutch shipped slaves to northern Brazil, and during the second half of the 17th century, they had a controlling interest in the trade to the Spanish colonies. Today’s Suriname and Guyana became prominent markets in the 18th century. Between 1612 and 1872, the Dutch operated from some 10 fortresses along the Gold Coast (now Ghana), from which slaves were shipped across the Atlantic. The trade declined between 1780 and 1815. The Dutch part in the Atlantic slave trade is estimated at 5-7% or some 550,000-600,000 Africans. The Netherlands was one of the last countries to abolish slavery in 1863. Although the decision was made in 1848, it took many years for the law to be implemented. Furthermore, slaves in Suriname would be fully free only in 1873, since the law stipulated that there was to be a mandatory 10-year transition».
Was the black page portrayed by van Streeck a free servant or a slave?
According to Sheldon Cheek, assistant director of the Image of the Black Archive & Library at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center (in the US), slavery was technically illegal in the Golden Age Netherlands (though not in the New World colonies), but the situation was quite porous, as often Africans would be brought into the Netherlands via the Dutch slave trade and presented as ‘gifts’ to the wealthy (source: Greg Cook, Were Those Black ‘Servants’ In Dutch Old Master Paintings Actually Slaves?, see Bibliography). Therefore, it's hard to determine the status of the black people seen in the Golden Age paintings; they probably were slaves, not de iure but de facto. In any case, like all the oriental peperduur goods, they were status symbols and, at the same time, exotic, decorative, luxury peperduur commodities, just like Chinese porcelain vases, silk pieces, and lacquerware. According to Julie Berger Hochstrasser, who analyzes the works of Juriaen van Streeck in her remarkable essay Still Life and Trade in the Dutch Golden Age (2007), the black subjects are tronies—a Dutch word indicating the depiction of a character type, not a real portrait—that function as luxury objects, added to paintings to enhance meaning and visual appeal.
About the picture on the left, Nicole Ganbold wrote: «The fetishization of exotica in Dutch still lifes tells us a lot about the colonial mindset that many Europeans shared in the 17th century. As we see in the painting by Juriaen van Streek, he displayed various commodities from afar in one composition: seafood, citruses, carpet, wine, porcelains, and… a slave. It is striking that the painter perceived the turbaned African youth in the same way as Chinese porcelain—as a colonial trophy.» (Beautiful Chinese Porcelain in Dutch Still Lifes, in Daily Art Magazine, 20 October 2022).
We already saw how the pronk still lifes embodied not only the exaltation of the mercantilist mentality and entrepreneurial vivacity of the Dutch but also the triumph of their colonial ventures, which, let us remember, were not the adventurous jaunts of a handful of brave explorers, but the rapacious conquest of other people's lands and resources and the inhumane exploitation of locals for economic and financial gain. Behind the colonial adventure lies an aberrant vision that considers the other—the non-white, the savage, the negro ape, the ugly chink—a subhuman to be exploited, an object to be consumed, or an obstacle to be removed at any cost. Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian peoples were never considered equal trading partners.
Thus, the reification of the Blackamoor does not surprise me at all. Instead, what deserves to be emphasized is the ambiguity inherent in the Dutch 17th-century China mania: the Dutch fell crazily in love with Chinese porcelain. Did they do so because they fell in love with China, its civilization, culture, or art? No, not at all. The Dutch madly loved the new, complex meaning that Chinese porcelain began to take on in the Netherlands when those pieces were deprived of their original Chinese identity, and this process is perfectly shown by the Pronkstilleven paintings of the Golden Age.
In 1664, king Louis XIV and his First Minister of State Jean-Baptiste Colbert decided to establish the French East India Company (Compagnie française pour le commerce des Indes orientales). In less than a century, however, the latter turned out to be a commercial failure. According to Stéphane Castelluccio, author of the volume Le goût pour les porcelaines de Chine et du Japon à Paris aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siecles (see Bibliography), the import of porcelain ware to France was limited to two periods: 1680-1684 and 1688-1715. The Parisian marchands-merciers, who combined the roles of antique dealers, jewelers, interior decorators, and sellers of porcelain ware, had to purchase many pieces in Amsterdam to meet market demands. «In the first half of the 17th century, porcelain prices remained high. Only sovereigns, princes, and wealthy customers could afford China ware.» (My translation, from S. Castelluccio, cit.). From the late 17th century onward, the imported quantity increased, and the prices decreased. Many nobles and wealthy bourgeois began to buy and collect Chinese and Japanese pieces, mounted or not. Despite the increasingly less prohibitive prices, Asian porcelainware maintained an aura of luxury, mystery, and intense exoticism.
The Inventaire des Meubles de la Couronne de France (the "Inventory of the French Crown Furnishings") made in 1718, three years after the death of the Sun King, reports that he had collected a few thousand pieces of oriental porcelain, although he was not an ardent fan of it. Monsieur, his younger brother Philippe I Duke of Orléans, had a collection of 966 porcelain pieces, according to a document from 1701. Monseigneur le Grand Dauphin (the eldest son of the king) and other members of the royal family had hundreds of pieces. Most courtiers and nobles surrounding the king at Versailles and the Parisian elites shared a deep fascination with China and the Far East.
According to Stephan Castelluccio, at the time of the Sun King, the value of Chinese porcelain depended on many factors and could, therefore, vary widely. A porcelain vase, for example, could cost from a minimum of 10 sols to a maximum of 40 livres (=800 sols), a very wide price bracket. Just to give you an idea, the minimum wage of a laborer or servant was less than 1 livre per day, equal to a soup or a bottle of medium-quality wine in a tavern. Prices of ordinary quality Chinese plates and cups never reached sky-high figures and remained quite affordable. A low-quality goblet, for example, could be on sale for as little as 8-10 sols.
Thanks to the wide price bracket, between the late 17th and the early 18th centuries, Chinese porcelain ware became part of the daily lives of many French families, both as decorative elements and as objects of use. Good manners (bon usage) prescribed serving the new hot drinks, such as tea, coffee, and chocolate, in sets called cabarets, usually consisting of a Chinese lacquer tray, with cups, sugar bowl, and tea/coffee/chocolate pot in blue and white porcelain.
The diffusion of Chinese porcelain is well testified by the paintings of the Baroque period.
Louise Moillon (1610–1696) was a French still-life female painter, who was highly appreciated by her contemporaries. She worked for the Parisian nobility and could count King Charles I of England among her clients. She was influenced by the Flemish still-life style and showed both a remarkable compositional ability and the widespread depiction of Chinese plates and bowls.