In 1508, during the period of the Trans-Atlantic
Slave Trade, Albrecht Durer sketched a picture of an anonomous black man. The
status of the black man is unknown to us today. By researching the routes of the Trans
Atlantic Slave trade, one can speculate about the position of this man. By thoroughly
analyzing Durer's sketch, Head of a Negro, we could learn about the man's physical
appearance as well as Durer's artistic style.
The man drawn in the picture is looking off to his right. He has an oval shaped head. His
very curly hair covers his head as well as his chin and upper lip. One eyebrow appears to
be longer than the other. His left eye is slightly lower than his right eye. He has full
lips and a wide nose. The shadows on his face and neck show his cheek bones and the form
of his larynx. He appears to be dressed in rags of clothing.
This picture takes up space the same way a sculpture does. Durer's principal light comes
from the right, above, and in front. The highlight on the head completely smothers the
dark of the eyebrow. The neck is like a column, an architectural unit. While creating this
picture, Durer was faced with a problem. To solve this problem, Durer created a kind of
cylinder, rounded on top. The end creation was a drawing that holds many mysteries.
This picture strikes up many questions. One of these, which is very important, would be
"is this man in the picture a slave or a free man?" Another question that would
be asked would be "where did Durer see this man?" Was it when he went to Italy,
to Venice to meet Giovanni Bellini (Western World), or when he was in his homeland
of Germany? Although, by looking at the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade, we might make
speculations about these questions, nobody will really ever know the truth to these
questions. Yet, in his journal, Durer mentions an encounter with an African woman in
Antwerp, in the house of the Portugese trade commissioner. This meeting was the
subject of his Negress of Brandon. (Locke, p. 139) Unfortunately, this
meeting occurred in 1521, and that is thirteen years after the subject of our inquiry.
During this period in time, much of the transporting was done by sea. This raises the
question, if Durer spent most of his life in Germany (which has no ports), where did he
see this black man? One answer might be that on his trip to Italy (which has ports), Durer
saw this man while he was being transported as a slave. Durer, by 1521, had an
encounter with a slave in Antwerp. Another answer might be that this man was not a
slave at all, and Durer saw him in either his homeland of Germany or in Italy. By looking
at certain events in history we have tried to answer our own questions.
The Trans Atlantic Slave Trade was a triangular trade between Africa, Europe and the
Americas. When looking at these four continents, if you were to draw lines connecting
them, two triangular shapes would appear. These triangles were ship routes to import and
export slaves. This process started off in Africa where the slaves were captured and then
sent to the Americas. The European side of the triangle was economic, in that they
prospered from the slave trade. Whenever the slaves produced any goods, they were
immediately sent to Europe. Also, if Europe was ever in need of slaves, they were sent on
demand. Some of the Europeans of African descent living there today are descendents of
Not much was known about the man in Head of a Negro. We have had to look at
certain events, like the artist's visit to Venice, and then Antwerp, to try to see
where Durer met this man. We attempted to speculate by looking into history whether
or not this man was a slave or a free man. He remains a mystery.
Art of the Western World: The Early Renaissance. VHS. 1989.
Locke, Alain, ed. The Negro In Art. New York: Hacker Art Books, 1971.
Head of a Negro by Durer.This link will open a new window.
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