In this article I’ve assembled a selection of artworks that depict people of African heritage dating from Greek and Roman antiquity to the end of the 19th Century. I find these artworks inspiring for miniature painting, sculpting, and world building, and I hope you will too.
This statue is on display in the Louvre. It’s known as Maure or Il Mauro. It is composed partly of a classical Roman statue fragments (the torso clothing), and partly of elements sculpted by Nicolas Cordier in 1611 (the head). A thesis with a great deal more information on this statue and its artist is available, and includes more images of art that depicts people of colour at the end.
If you find painting dark skin challenging, I have written an article about how to paint darker skin tones on miniature figures that includes helpful tips and specific paint colour suggestions.
Articles and Sites with More Information
People of Color in European Art History
I am heavily indebted to this site for discovering many of the images included here. This site includes artworks depicting any people of colour, not only those of African heritage.
Black Africans in Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Art
I discovered several of the Antiquity era images through this site, which also discusses issues related to cataloguing and display of historical art.
Dutch Golden Age Art Wasn’t All About White People
This New York Times article was a real eye opener about how much Renaissance artwork depicted people of African descent! This overview of a Rembrandt Museum exhibit includes some additional information and pictures of more artwork.
The Outrageous Neglect of African Figures in Art History
Includes several additional portraits and other interesting art pieces from the 1500s through 1800s.
The date when this was created is disputed. It may be from Second Century CE, or it may be from the 17th Century, similar to the above statue. From the Museo Nazionale Romano in Rome. The eyes are white marble, not painted. Statues were painted, however, and there is a lot more information on that in the next section.
This section includes artworks from Ancient Greece, Rome, or its territories.
The sculpture of antiquity is an interesting subject for figure painters since current research suggests that Greek and Roman sculptures, and even carvings on buildings, were painted very colourfully. Scholars use the term polychromy to describe statues or decorations that are made of materials in or painted with multiple colours. So what we do can be considered part of a long tradition! Traces of the pigments remain, and some of the reconstructions based on them would have no problem competing with a Harlequin army for most colourful. I’m linking to some articles with more information, photos, and videos.
True Colors from the Smithsonian
The Myth of Whiteness in Classical Sculpture from The New Yorker
Athenian perfume jar, circa 480 BCE.
Detail from a Roman fresco.
Portrait of a child, circa 150. From the Getty collection.
Examples of three Fayum mummy paintings. These panel portraits were a part of funerary practices in Egypt during the Imperial Roman era. An encaustic (wax) or tempera portrait was painted on a panel placed over the face of a mummy. Many of these are strikingly beautiful and haunting paintings.
Scientists have made facial reconstructions from some of the mummies found with the portraits to compare the physical characteristics of the person with the painted portrayal.
Portion of a manuscript describing Abbot Hadrian/Adrian, who traveled from Africa (likely Libya) to Anglo-Saxon England and helped spread the Christian faith there.
Saint Maurice, from the Cathedral of Saints Catherine and Maurice in Magdeburg, Germany. Artist Unknown. (More on Saint Maurice. Click images on this search to see a lot of depictions of Saint Maurice!)
Detail from Gluttony at a Feast in a treatise on the Seven Vices. The full painting depicts a Tartar Khan at a lavish banquet. At the bottom of the drawing are a number of musicians entertaining the diners, including these.
Detail from a travelogue based on the stories of Marco Polo. It is known alternately as the Travels of Marco Polo, Livre de Merveilles du Monde, le Secret de l’Histoire Naturelle, and other titles. You can see a better resolution version of this image.
Detail from The Crucifixion, believed to be by Simon Marmion.
Detail from the Adoration of the Magi triptych by the Master of Alkmaar. There are numerous medieval and Renaissance paintings that depict one of the Magi as African in origin.
Bust of a Woman with a Pearl Necklace by Cornelis van Dalen II.
Portrait of a Young Black Man by Gerrit Dou, also known as Gerard Dow. He was a student of Rembrandt’s and painted several beautiful portraits of black people.
Carved ebony from Italy c. 1715. Artist: Andrea Brustolon
Detail from Painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray. A Stitch in Time has an episode recreating Belle’s dress, and which includes a discussion of the depiction of black people in art of the time. Fake or Fortune had an episode on this painting, but it does not seem to be available on YouTube currently. You can see a clip. There has been a movie dramatization of Belle’s story.
Portrait of Alexander Dumas (Sr) by by Achille Deveria. Dumas Sr. was the author of The Three Musketeers and the Count of Monte Cristo. His mother was an enslaved African. His son, Alexander Dumas Jr. wrote Camille (La Dame aux Camelias), which was adapted into the opera La Traviata, and the movie Camille starring Greta Garbo.
The rise of photography made portraiture much more accessible. If you’re looking for steampunk inspiration or are as obsessed with The Gilded Age HBO show as I am, check out these photos (which span the range of the Victorian Era, not just the Gilded Age period.) This photo gallery includes photos of men and children.