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Painting of the Week: Hendrik Heerschop, The African King Caspar

Hendrik Heerschop, The African King Caspar, 1654, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Germany. Detail.

Painting of the Week

Painting of the Week: Hendrik Heerschop, The African King Caspar

White subjects have dominated the Western art tradition for millennia, while people of color have been vastly underrepresented and misrepresented. The Dutch Golden Age is no exception. However, it has some sparkling examples of when people of color were portrayed in a noble, positive, and elevated light. For example, Hendrik Heerschop, a little-known artist, painted one such image: The African King Caspar. It is a dramatic break from the white elite and the domestic scenes that typically dominate the Dutch Golden Age. That is to say, Hendrik Heerschop’s The African King Caspar is a piece of social complexity.

Hendrik Heerschop, The African King Caspar, 1654, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.
Hendrik Heerschop, The African King Caspar, 1654, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Germany.

The birth of the Dutch Republic in 1581 to the Rampjaar (Disaster Year) in 1672 commonly marks The Dutch Golden Age. It was a time when the Dutch Republic was among the leading nations for art, trade, science, and military. The art world boomed as countless artists, Hendrik Heerschop among them, produced countless paintings. Anyone with good finances and with a sense of posterity could commission portraits. Anyone with spare income and with a sense of beauty could acquire landscapes. So, even those with limited means and with a sense of hope could buy prints. This was a time when the art world penetrated all levels of society from the wealthy to the poor. That is to say, there was literally some form of art for everyone. However, despite art’s wide-appeal and wide-availability, people of color were still dramatically few.

Hendrik Heerschop, The African King Caspar, 1654, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. Enlarged Detail of Neckline.
Hendrik Heerschop, The African King Caspar, 1654, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Germany. Enlarged Detail.

The white elite dominated The Dutch Golden Age. They commissioned paintings that either featured themselves or other whites. People of color were rarely included, and when they were mostly were portrayed, it was as slaves and servants relegated to the background. This is why Hendrik Heerschop’s The African King Caspar is such an exception. For example, there is no white dominating or lording over the African man. The king sits proudly with dignity and grandeur. He is not a lowly domestic, but instead he is an honorable African king.

Hendrik Heerschop, The African King Caspar, 1654, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. Enlarged Detail of Frankincense.
Hendrik Heerschop, The African King Caspar, 1654, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Germany. Enlarged Detail.

The African King Caspar depicts the Biblical King Caspar from the Adoration of the Magi. In the Biblical story, three wise kings, or magi, approached the infant Jesus with gifts. King Melchior, the oldest magi, brought gold to represent the infant’s regality. The second oldest magi, King Caspar, brought frankincense to represent the infant’s divinity, while King Balthasar, the youngest magi, brought myrrh to represent the infant’s humanity. Hendrik Heerschop’s The African King Caspar depicts the magi holding his gift of frankincense. It is inside the precious vessel between his hands.

Hendrik Heerschop, The African King Caspar, 1654, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. Enlarged Detail of Face.
Hendrik Heerschop, The African King Caspar, 1654, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Germany. Enlarged Detail.

What is ultimately sad about Hendrik Heerschop’s The African King Caspar is that we know so little about the artist and the sitter. We know Hendrik Heerschop worked in Haarlem, Netherlands. He created genre scenes (Biblical and historical subjects), and painted in the style of Haarlem Classicism. The sitter, however, is unknown. History has forgotten his name.

On the other hand, what we do know is that the depicted in The African King Caspar has the facial features of a specific individual. That is to say, this African man is not a generic composition (a tronie). He is not an idealized or imaginary model. Slavery was not allowed in the Netherlands during the 17th century, therefore the African sitter was free and may have been a friend or acquaintance of the artist. This probably means what we have in The African King Caspar is a free African man being painted in the guise of an African king by a white Dutch artist who specialized in genre scenes.

Hendrik Heerschop, The African King Caspar, 1654, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. Enlarged Detail of Fabric.
Hendrik Heerschop, The African King Caspar, 1654, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Germany. Enlarged Detail.

Since The African King Caspar is not the portrait of a living African king, it does not have the same social prestige and recognition as a commissioned European royal portrait. Indeed, what would be exciting to discover is an official portrait of an African ruler from the 17th century among the many museums’ collections of the world. Consequently, it would be a rare piece of historical, social, and artistic importance. Like women, people of color have been marginalized in art books, class lectures, museum collections, and social dialogue for too long. I hope recognizing the beauty found in The African King Caspar will be another step towards this collective recognition and reevaluation.


The African King Caspar is currently on a display in the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam as a part of an exhibition HERE: Black in Rembrandt’s Time.



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James W. Singer is an art historian and fine art photographer.  He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Art History from the University of Florida.  Singer has sold works at local galleries and art shows throughout Florida.  Singer currently writes “Painting of the Week” articles for DailyArt Magazine.

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