By Mike Giuliano
3:50 PM EST, November 8, 2012
One of the ways in which Renaissance artists explored their world was by painting increasingly realistic portraits. Even when they depicted historical, religious and mythic subjects, they often relied upon the people around them to serve as models.
As you can see in an eye-opening exhibit at the Walters Art Museum, some of these people were black.
"Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe" contains paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures and other objects demonstrating that black people made the occasional appearance during an art-historical period that otherwise mostly contained pictures of white people.
The first painting you encounter in the exhibit literally brings you face to face with a black subject. Working in Antwerp, the Flemish artist Gerard David and his workshop painted "Adoration of the Kings" around 1515. Visual representations of the biblical story of the Nativity often featured one of the three kings as a black man, so it's not surprising to see that's the case here.
What is a bit surprising is the highly realistic rendering of the black king and his attendant approaching Mary and the infant Jesus. Although it's not known for certain, it seems likely that the artist used a black man living in Antwerp as the model for this king. What's also striking is how the black king is leaning in Mary's direction, and yet he's looking directly outward toward you.
That sort of immediate connection comes across in other artworks in the show. Jacopo da Pontormo's painting "Portrait of Maria Salviati De Medici and Giulia De Medici" (ca. 1539) is considered to be the first formal portrait of a girl of African ancestry in European art.
The illegitimate young Giulia is depicted with her older and more fair-skinned cousin and guardian Maria. The girl's tender expression goes right out to the viewer.
For yet another face-to-face encounter, look at Albrecht Durer's 1521 drawing "Study of Katharina." It depicts a 20-year-old slave who was owned by the Portuguese trade representative in Antwerp. It's tempting to interpret this young woman's rather sad expression as her keen awareness of her slave status.
If information about white portrait subjects from Renaissance-era Europe is often incomplete, generally even less is known about black subjects such as Katharina.
For a literally fragmentary example, consider a painting from the 1580s that is attributed to Annibale Carracci. "Portrait of a Black Woman Slave" is one of the exhibit's strongest examples of a black subject looking directly at you, but that visual connection does not mean that you'll learn much about her identity.
The female slave is holding an expensive clock, indicating that she belongs to a wealthy household; and the painting also adheres to a conventional theme in which portrait subjects pose with clocks or other reminders of passing time and hence mortality.
Along one side of the painting can be seen the partial depiction of the shoulder, arm and veil of this female slave's owner. The painting was cut into smaller pieces at some point, and the portion you're looking at is all that survives of it.
Although this exhibit inevitably leaves identity-related questions unanswered, the fragmentary evidence still gives a sense of the presence of people of color in Renaissance Europe.
And there is one large painting that provides so much sociological detail that you could spend hours studying it.
"Public Square with the King's Fountain in Lisbon" was possibly painted by a Flemish artist around 1570-80. It depicts dozens of people gathered around a public fountain.
The multicultural assemblage includes blacks and Jews, who both lived in relatively large numbers in Lisbon, Portugal.
Among the figures to consider in this densely populated painting, look at the two black boatmen entertaining a white couple. One of the boatmen holds up a tambourine in a scene that's endearingly festive.
Besides contemplating this exhibit in terms of the insights it offers into the social position of blacks in Renaissance Europe, you'll also have reason to consider how artists were, after all, also creatively responding to their subjects.
Peter Paul Rubens' painting "Study of a Turbaned North African" (ca. 1609), for instance, depicts a white turban on top of a black man's head. Rubens is aesthetically interested in the contrast between black and white.
Other artists explore how the materials they employ can be conducive to dark-skinned subjects.
A Flemish or French sculptor working in the 1580s made a petite bronze sculpture, "Black Woman at Her Bath," in which the bronze is just the right color for this woman of color.
Rather than gazing in your direction, the nude woman is intently regarding her own African face in a small hand-held mirror. She won't even notice as you walk around her and consider her from all sides.
The bronze sculpture has presence any way you look at it.
"Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe" runs through Jan. 21 at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St., in Baltimore. The ticketed exhibit is $10, $8 for seniors, $6 for students and young adults (18- 25), and free for museum members and those 17 and under. General museum admission is free. Call 410-547-9000 or go to http://www.thewalters.org.