The Wallace Collection

The Wallace Collection, A Family Collection, A National Museum, An International Treasure House
Bust of an African Woman
  • Unknown Artist / Maker
  • Bust of an African Woman
  • Italy, possibly Rome
  • c. 1650
  • Bust
  • Black (bust), white (tunic) and jasper marble (drapery).
  • Bust, Height: 72 cm
    Width: 49.2 cm
    Depth: 30.7 cm
  • S18.1
  • Porphyry Court
Further Reading
  • With the companion portrait of an African man (S17), this bust belongs to a type of decorative sculpture very common throughout Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. These objects clearly testify to a widespread interest or curiosity towards Africa at the time, but are so ubiquitous that it is usually rather difficult to place their execution both geographically and chronologically. Increased contact and trade with Africa and the Orient and the beginning of the Slave Trade during the 17th century increased the presence of Black servants in the households of the wealthy. These polychrome busts were usually conceived as pairs comprising a man and a woman and often included the orientalising costumes and turbans Black servants would wear at the time. Our busts present a different level of realism and a degree of individualisation that raise them above the many merely stereotypical “moor” busts of the 17th and 18th centuries. Compared to the male bust, the female portrait is possibly a more idealised depiction of beauty, where the slight upturn of the head, the distant gaze and the clear definition of the woman’s breasts under the drapery all concur to produce an image of great sensuality. To this, the combination of the multi-coloured marbles adds further tactile charm, creating a highly striking sculpture. The artist has even taken the trouble to add a little posy of flowers to woman’s cap, thus suggesting she might be identified as a fortune teller. Similar caps are worn by gipsies and fortune tellers in numerous paintings of the Caravaggesque school in Rome in the 17th century, where such figures had become almost a stock character to introduce an element of sensuality. Main centres for the production of this type of object were Venice and Rome, although there is evidence that they were also produced in other parts of Europe, for example in Germany. Formerly mounted on Corinthian column of white marble and jasper.