The background of the picture is dark orange. There are two men wearing Roman style costumes. The man in the foreground is wearing a scarf that is light orange around his neck and shoulders. The man in the middleground is wearing the same style scarf and resting his head on the other man's shoulder. Dark shadows cover the man, with no direct light evident.
The hues of the painting are natural earth colors, with the spotlight-like color and value of the eyes creating a focal point for the painting.
There is much black and dark gray in the painting. Also small traces of an orange/black hue is in the background. There is however some violet mixed in with the rest of the dark colors. There are tertiary colors mostly all very dark-blue-violet throughout the painting. There are shades of red in various saturations mixed in.
It looks like if the subjects were dressed up for the part, since they are wearing Roman costumes. Of course, at the time, the Roman empire was quite gone, but Rembrandt liked to pose his subjects in costumes.(Van Loon, p. 492)
Rembrandt may have asked them to pose for him, since he was known for painting the exotic. One would like to think that he probably would not ask them if they were captives, since he was also a humanitarian. There is a stark possibility that they could be slaves, since the Dutch were very involved in the practice. Around the same time they were very involved in providing slaves for the Spanish, which were taken to the Caribbean and traded for different goods.
The painting is well made. It is, on the level of the formalism, valuable (it is by Rembrandt). However, the art work makes you wonder about the staus of these men. It is not illogical to asume that men were slaves. What did these men experience in coming to the Netherlands? Were they later shipped off to the New World? The condition of the slave ships were horrible. Slaves were tied down to the floor of the ship, so that they did not have a chance to move. If they had to go to relieve themselves they would have no other place than where they lay. The stench itself was so disease-ridden, it could kill. To make matters worse, (since the floor was wood) it would scrape the backs of the "cargo." To add to all the other bodily substances, there was now blood mingled with the mix. Keeping in mind that their backs now had open wounds and the other fluids are highly moveable and the waves would rock the ships, the risk of death before reaching ones' destination was very high. Dehydration was another problem, since the crew did not go below the deck due to the strench of urine, vomit, the other bodily forms of waste, and the smell of rotting flesh. Drinking water was not something you could count on. Death ran very high on these ships: more than fifty percent of the slaves died during the middle passage.(Davis, p. 155) There is none of this tragedy in the painting, yet the expression of the men's faces is not one of peace.
The slave trade brought many hardships to African people. Many years of hardship and horror were brought upon the Africans from being sold in to slavery. Most slave trade eventually ended by the 1850's, yet in some parts of the world black people are still being sold into slavery.
Rembrandt's painting is a masterpiece, but from this distance, one wonders more about
the fate of these men than the painting itself.
Van Loon, Hendrick Willem. The Life and Times of Rembrandt. New York: Liverlight, 1930.