Blog post

Pedro Sunda, Diego Bemba and Dom Miguel de Castro

Three portraits telling a remarkable story of diplomacy and colonial history in the 17th century

collage of three paintings
Eva de la Fuente Pedersen (opens in new window) (Statens Museum for Kunst)

What can we learn from studying some of the rare portraits of people of colour in European art museums? Three paintings in the collection of SMK – Statens Museum for Kunst (the National Gallery of Denmark) tell a remarkable story of diplomatic relations in the 17th century while also pertaining to larger structures of European colonial history.

These portraits of a Congolese emissary and his servants have been part of the collection since 1654. The artist has neither signed nor dated the artworks so hence the museum exhibits them as created by an 'Unknown Dutch artist'.

Pedro Sunda, a Servant of Dom Miguel de Castro

colour painting of a young black man, he wears a green suit with gold buttons and a large white collar, and carries an elephant tusk

The Congolese man is dressed according to European fashion around the 1640s and 50s. He wears a green velvet suit with golden ribbons and buttons and a large white collar like the ones sported by the Spanish king at the time, only without lace edges.

His body is turned slightly to the right while he gazes to the rear, as if somebody or something demands his attention. With his right arm, he supports a large and heavy elephant tusk and with a firm grip holds the pointed end upwards with the other hand. A soft light comes from a high window outside the picture space. The shadows cast from the window edge and from his own head frames his dark face on a light brown background.

Although it is only a half figure portrait, the artist has created a dynamic and vivid composition thanks to the juxtaposed movement of the sitter's body, the direction of his eyes, the shadow to the left and the bended diagonal of the elephant tusk. This vividness is combined with a severe palette consisting of a beautiful combination of green, brown and whitish hues. An inscription on the reverse of the painting identifies the man as Pedro Sunda, which tells us that he was a baptised Christian.

Diego Bemba, a Servant of Dom Miguel de Castro

painting of a young Black man who wears a green suit with gold buttons and large white collar, he carries a small box

The inscription on the reverse of the pendant piece reads Diego Bemba. Diego wears the same type of clothes as his companion and is placed in the same framing of shadows. His body too is turned slightly to the right and he carries a small artisanal box which he points at with his index finger. His eyes are turned upwards as if he were addressing or giving thanks to God. This gesture makes it plausible that the box contains something holy, a saint's relic or obols.

Dom Miguel de Castro, Emissary of Kongo

painting of a Black man who wears a brown coat and a wide-brimmed hat with large red feather

The name of Dom Miguel de Castro reads on the reverse of a third painting in the series. A blue cloudy sky over a small brim of open sea forms the background. Dom Miguel turns slightly to the right, just as the two other men. He gazes out at the beholder with a serious expression. He is dressed in a brown woollen riding coat with hanging sleeves over a silver brocade suit. The top of the silver handle of a sword, carried in a fancy decorated cross belt, peeps over the lower edge of the painting. The wide brimmed hat with a red ostrich feather was also fashionable in Europe in the 1640s and 50s. A remarkable feature is that two gold counters are stuck in the hat's silver ribbon.

Archival sources mention that Dom Miguel was head of a diplomatic delegation whose mission it was to gather European support in a conflict in their homeland, then named Kongo, in Africa. The delegation travelled both to Dutch Brazil and to the Dutch republic in order to negotiate support from the Dutch West Indian Company (WIC) which was in charge of colonial matters related to Africa.

Dom Miguel was ambassador for the count of Sonho (Soyo), Daniel da Silva, the other part in the conflict being King Garcia II. In 1642-43, both sides sent diplomatic missions to negotiate with the WIC. The Dutch had just won Luanda in Angola, and therefore they were interested in maintaining good relations with leaders in other West African regions.

Like other European countries, the Dutch republic took part in the colonial trade that implied import of enslaved Africans to the colonies overseas. The African leaders sold war prisoners, victims of territorial conflicts in their homelands, to the Europeans who shipped them to the Americas as enslaved people. For the Europeans, they were indispensable manpower in the sugar plantations in the South American and Caribbean colonies.

In 1636, the WIC had appointed count Johan Maurits of Nassau-Siegen as governor in Dutch Brazil where he served until 1643. Diplomacy and trade bonds between Africa and Dutch Brazil became strong during this period.

In 1643, Johan Maurits received Dom Miguel and his companions Dom Bastião Manduba, Dom Antônio Fernandes and three servants at his residence in Recife.

Perhaps these portraits were painted in Recife during their stay there. As a patron of art and natural science, Johan Maurits had invited a small group of Dutch painters to join him in the colonies to document the new worlds' people, customs and nature. Frans Post, Abraham Willaerts and Albert Eckhout were among the artists that followed Johan Mauritz.

Later that year, Johan Maurits traveled back to his residence in The Hague, now a museum, the Mauritshuis, where his collection was installed. In 1654, he presented the three paintings of Dom Miguel and his servants to the Danish King Frederick III who installed them in the Indian Chamber in the Royal Kunstkammer in Copenhagen along with other paintings and artefacts from the 'New World'.

In 1824, the Royal Kunstkammer was dispersed, and with the Constitutional Act of the Kingdom of Denmark in 1849, all collections became state property. In 1897, Statens Museum for Kunst opened to the public in a new building with the collections of paintings and sculpture. The three portraits were not part of the display because they were on deposit in different places. From 1933 to 2011, they were on long term deposit in the Danish National Museum as part of an ethnographical display. From 2011 until today, the portraits form part of SMK's display of paintings from the Dutch Golden Age where one room is dedicated to Dutch colonial history.

Today, the three portraits often travel to international exhibitions as interest in colonial history has increased over the last decades. Right now, you can see the portrait of Dom Miguel in the exhibition 'Afro-Atlantic Histories' in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, until January 23 and in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, from April 10 to July 17, 2022.