The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger
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Portrait of a Young African Woman

A guest post by Alicia Meyer

The Folger Shakespeare Library houses three etchings of African diasporic people by Wenceslaus Hollar. While we may never know the identities of the figures in these images, Hollar’s artistic choices direct how we see and remember seventeenth-century black lives. In this set of images, the vulnerabilities of youth, gender, and rank, as well as skin color, refract the figures’ agency and influence the viewer’s gaze to different ends.

Figure 1. Wenceslaus Hollar, “Portrait of a young African woman,” 1645. Folger ART Vol. b35 no.46.

The Folger has titled the first of the three images “Portrait of a young African woman.” Here, the figure’s body is rotated and, although her gaze is forward, the slight crescent of white under her irises gives the impression that she is looking up at the viewer. Perhaps this upward glance is an indication of her height. Or, perhaps it is a means of making the figure appear doe eyed. In her analysis of this portrait, Kathleen Lynch examines the figure’s slight smile, asking “is it confident or trusting, knowing, or knowing how to please?”1 The keen independence that Lynch searches for in the historical person that this image represents is haunted by vulnerability of the figure’s youth. Her docile gaze makes her seem so young. Framed by the simple lacework on her cap and collar, the delicate detail of her clothing echoes the candid peace of her resolute glance.

As Kim Hall has observed, this 1645 etching undeniably served as the basis for the frontispiece of the 1674 quarto of Thomas Duffet’s bawdy farce, The Empress of Morocco.2 In both images, the figures wear the clothing of a common woman, and lace lines their white caps and collars. And in both images, the figures peer at the viewer with eyes that are thoughtful and kind.

Figure 2. Artist unknown, Frontispiece for Thomas Duffett’s The Empress of Morocco. A farce. Acted by His Majesties servants, 1674. Folger D2446

Yet, despite these stylistic similarities, the women in the etchings are quite different from one another. In the 1645 image, Hollar places the figure in the light, illuminating her cheekbones, chin, and forehead. This light allows the figure to cast a shadow on the background. In contrast, in the 1674 image the figure has a wider jaw, heavier shoulders and, while the spirited gaze remains intact, she seems older. She has significantly more shading on her collar, cap, and face. The depthless background underscores the shading on the figure’s clothing and skin. Somehow, she simultaneously sits in darkness and against a bright white wall. The lace of her collar and cap is bulky. This portrait seems cruder than the woman in Hollar’s etching; that crudeness is exacerbated by the peek of flesh visible where Hollar had illustrated fastened buttons. In the frontispiece for Duffett’s adaptation, the viewer gets a glimpse of the woman’s chest while she stares back, just as kindly as ever.

Left: Figure 3. Detail of Frontispiece for Thomas Duffett’s The Empress of Morocco. A farce. Acted by His Majesties servants, 1674. Folger D2446
Right: Figure 4. Detail of Wenceslaus Hollar, “Portrait of a young African woman,” 1645. Folger ART Vol. b35 no.46.

Duffett’s bawdy farce fails to offer many clues about why the image of the titular character should appear as this older, adult woman rather than Hollar’s youthful woman. Duffett’s play is a spoof of Elkanah Settle’s 1673 tragedy of the same name, The Empress of Morocco. Yet unlike Settle’s work Duffett describes the empress, Morena, as both a “young Empress and Daughter of Taffalet” and as “an Apple-woman.” These opposite characterizations confuse Morena’s rank. Is she an empress or a common woman? She can’t be both.

Hollar depicted women of apple-vendor status in the 1640 book of costumes, Ornatus muliebris Anglicanus, or, The severall habits of English women.3 Below in Figure 5, we see a white common woman carrying a basket of produce while turning her gaze to the viewer. Her cap has a lace trim like the cap in Figures 1 and 2, though her collar lacks any such refinery. In Figure 6, we see another woman whose cap and collar have significant amounts of lace. At her waist hangs a pair of shears suggesting that she works as a seamstress or clothworker, perhaps even a lace maker. In the case of the two common women in Ornatus muliebris Anglicanus the simplicity of their clothing as well as the tools of their trades (baskets and shears) indicate their social rank, reminding us that sumptuary laws would have regulated the dress of common women to be distinct from that of elite women. These working, common women not only have less decoration to their clothing, they also have a humbler silhouette than the high drama of fur, jewels, and lace in the ensemble of the woman in Figure 7.

Left: Figure 5; Center: Figure 6; Right: Figure 7
All from Wenceslaus Hollar, Ornatus muliebris Anglicanus, or, The severall habits of English women, 1640. Plates 26, 19, 7. Folger STC 13599.5.

Thus, while the woman of Figure 1 is delicately if simply dressed, her clothing indicates that she was likely of a lower rank, or a servant, like the produce woman in Figure 5. In this sense, it seems that Duffett’s frontispiece seizes upon the low-rank of the figure’s dress to evoke Morena’s characterization as an apple-woman. This lower rank also makes Morena more suited for the cohort comedic “Bum-bailyes, Morris-dancers, Tapsters, Gypsies, Tinkers, and other Attendants” that are scattered throughout the play.4

However, while the clothing of the woman in Figure 2 may be suited for an apple vendor, it is not clear what about Figure 1 indicated “empress” to those who chose it as their model. The selection and adaptation of Hollar’s 1645 etching for the frontispiece of Duffett’s play seems to seize upon the class implications of Figure 1 while appropriating her black skin and making that skin emblematic of Moroccan royalty. In other words, the class differences that Hollar represents in Ornatus muliebris Anglicanus collapse around the figure’s blackness in appropriation of the etching for Duffett’s farce.5 White women are afforded the complications of class, raising up some women while looking down on others. Yet, Hollar’s “Portrait of a young African woman” seems to have been received by his contemporaries as emblematic of people with black skin. This essentializing gesture, as Kim Hall has observed, makes this an image “of a black servant, not a specific servant.”6

In the three decades wedged between Hollar’s image and the image for Duffett’s farce, the conditions of life for black persons living in England may have shifted significantly. In his analysis of Figure 1, Imtiaz Habib considers her “poise, calmness, and character” as representative of “black hopefulness” in the first half of the seventeenth century, when the antiblack racism of Elizabethan era religion had (perhaps) faded but the link between black skin and the Atlantic Slave Trade had yet to take hold.7 Yet, the warmth or “hopefulness” of her gaze does not seem to temper over time. If anything, it is the replication of the woman’s striking glance from Figure 1 to Figure 2 that confirms that they are the same woman. The woman of the 1674 image seems just as confident as the figure in the 1645 image. The changes to her clothing, face features, and possibly age, represent the way in which the viewer’s gaze has been made to shift, and been made to associate her with the sexual availability of Duffett’s burlesque.

There are a few clues about the life of the historical young woman who sat for this portrait. From her clothing we can assume she worked. Also, because Hollar inscribes “W. Hollar fecit / Antwerpia A˚ 1645” over the image, she was in Antwerp in the 1640s. It is possible that, like Hollar, she was living in Holland as a member of Althea Talbot, countess of Arundel’s household.8 The earl and countess of Arundel had left England for Antwerp in 1642 and Hollar followed in 1644. Undoubtedly, it was on this trip that Hollar created both Figure 1 and Figure 8, another etching of an African woman housed by the Folger and titled “Portrait of a young African woman.” While critics such as Hall, Habib, and Lynch have responded to the first “Portrait of a young African woman” in recent years, significantly less attention has been paid to this second etching of a second woman. Figure 8 also bears the inscription in the upper left corner “W.H. fecit / 1645,” suggesting that the historical person that this image represents was a contemporary of the woman represented in Figure 1. Yet, unlike the woman in Figure 1, the woman in this etching sits in profile. She faces left, her eyes staring out into the distance. The crown of her head is uncovered, showing her hair to be swept back under her cap, with a few curls escaping at the nape of her neck. The edges of this collar and cap are as sharp as the woman’s gaze. And while she also has gentle features, she also seems older than the woman in Figure 1.

Figure 8. Wenceslaus Hollar, “Portrait of a young African woman,” 1645.
Folger ART 237212 (size XS).

By staging the figure in profile, Hollar invites the viewer to look at her without allowing her to look back at the viewer. Profile portraits are hardly unusual for Hollar or for other early modern artists. The seamstress in Figure 4 is also in profile. But the effect that such a sharp profile has on this figure is striking. Something similar occurs in Hollar’s etching “Portrait of an African boy,” below as Figure 9. While this image is undated and is not associated with a location, it is also housed at the Folger and is another one of the very few portraits of African diasporic people extant.

Figure 9. Wenceslaus Hollar, “Portrait of an African Boy,” date unknown. Folger ART 237212 (size XS).

Here, like Figure 8, the gaze of the child is steered away from meeting the eye of the viewer. He is someone to be looked at, even scrutinized. But he not allowed the right to look back. The forced aversion of his gaze is evident in the awkward turn of his body. We can still see a glimpse of his left eye and cheek, indicating that he was only just turned and may still be in motion.

Compared to the young woman in Figure 1, when I look at the deterred eye contact of the more mature woman and the boy, I feel unnerved by their exposure to the viewer – by their exposure to me. Who was the intended viewer of these images? Certainly not me, in a library, nearly four centuries later. Why are the mature woman and boy not allowed to stare back at us? And, why is the younger woman given this autonomy when other portrait figures with black skin are not? Insidiously, I fear that the young woman’s combination of youth, of age, of rank, and of skin color may not seem as agential to some viewers. For example, the viewers who appropriated her likeness for Duffett’s Empress of Morocco seem to interpret her childlike gaze as suited for a bawdy burlesque, sexualizing her agency for their own ends, taking away her buttons for the erotic voyeurism of the play’s readers.

Alicia Meyer is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania in the Department of English with a certificate in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. Her dissertation project examines representations of common women and justice in the early modern Atlantic. She is on Twitter @thechastemaid.

  1. Kathleen Lynch, “Whatever Happened to Dinah the Black? And Other Questions about Gender, Race, and the Visibility of Protestant Saints,” in Conversions Gender and Religious Change in Early Modern Europe, eds. Simon Ditchfield and Helen Smith (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017), 259.
  2. Kim F Hall, “Object into Object? Some Thoughts on the Presence of Black Women in Early Modern Culture,” in Early Modern Visual Culture: Representation, Race, and Empire in Renaissance England, eds. Peter Erickson and Clark Huse, 366-372.
  3. Wenceslaus Hollar, Ornatus Muliebris Anglicanus; or, The Severall Habits of English Women, from the Nobilitie to the Contry Woman, as They Are in These Times (London, 1640).
  4. Thomas Duffett, The Empress of Morocco, a Farce: Acted by His Majesties Servants (London: Printed for Simon Neale, at the Sign of the three Pidgeons in Bedford-street in Covent Garden, 1674), B2v. The actor who performed Morena (a “Mris. Johnson” in Settle, a “Mr. Harris” in Duffett) undeniably did so in blackface. This same Mr. Harris also appeared as the character Witch 1 in the Epilogue of Duffett’s Empress, which was a bawdy Hecate scene in the fashion of “the Famous Mode of MACBETH.”
  5. This evokes Noémie Ndiaye’s theory of the de-classing of black women in sixteenth and seventeenth century English literature fully developed in Ndiaye’s forthcoming monograph.
  6. Kim F. Hall, “Object into Object?”, 368.
  7. Imtiaz H. Habib, Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677: Imprints of the Invisible (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), 168.
  8. Wenceslaus Hollar likely drew Figure 1 and Figure 8 while living on the continent in the late 1640s with the Arundel household. Hollar was born in Prague in 1607 to an established family of the Bohemian gentry. But in 1627 he left Bohemia and eventually came under the patronage of Thomas Howard, earl of Arundel, in Cologne. Arundel was impressed by Hollar’s artistic skill and brought him back to England. After that, though he sometimes worked outside the Arundels’ patronage, he was often associated with them.

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