‘Extremely rare’ 17th-century painting featuring Black woman placed under export bar by UK

The artwork titled "Allegorical Painting of Two Ladies, English School" has an estimated worth of more than $308,000

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U.K. government officials have placed a temporary export bar on an “extremely rare” 17th-century painting of a Black woman and a white woman sitting side-by-side as equals.

The artwork titled, “Allegorical Painting of Two Ladies, English School,” was created around the year 1650 and has been valued at  £272,800 euros, or about $308,523, according to a press release from the U.K.’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS).

Allegorical Painting of Two Ladies, English School UK thegrio.com
Allegorical Painting of Two Ladies, English School (Credit: UK.gov)

“The depiction of a black female sitter in a 1650s painting was highly unusual, particularly a work showing an adult, rather than a child in a position of subservience, inviting important debate about race and gender during the period,” DCMS said on Friday.

The roots of the African slave trade in England date as far back as at least 1563, according to the U.K.’s National Archives. That was the year the country’s first documented slave trader, naval commander John Hawkins, sold enslaved Africans in the Dominican Republic.

England didn’t ban slavery until 1772, but Black people have been living there since at least the 12th century, according to the BBC. The news agency reported that Black people’s numbers increased dramatically in the 17th and 18th centuries when African slaves were shipped across the Atlantic to work on Caribbean plantations.

Black folks were treated better in England than they were in the West Indies, according to the BBC, but they still weren’t regarded as fully human by their white counterparts. That reality was depicted routinely in the era’s oil paintings, which typically positioned Black people to the side or the rear of canvasses, next to dogs and other pets, according to the BBC.

The women in “Two Ladies” are seen wearing similar dresses, hair, and jewelry, which denotes their status as companions and equals, according to DCMS. Arts Minister Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay said in a statement that the painting, “has so much to teach us about England in the 17th century, including in the important areas of race and gender, which rightly continue to attract attention and research today.”

“I hope a gallery or museum in the U.K. can be found to buy this painting for the nation, so that many more people can be part of the continuing research and discussion into it,” Parkinson said.

The agency said it enacted the painting’s export bar, which is set to be deferred on March 9, 2022, to give U.K. art galleries and institutions time to acquire the artwork. The U.K.’s Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest said the piece “has tremendous potential for further research in many subjects.”

Committee members Pippa Shirley and Christopher Baker said the painting doesn’t appear to be a portrait of real people.

“The inscription reveals that it is in fact a sternly [moralizing] picture that condemns the use of cosmetics, and specifically elaborate beauty patches, which were in vogue at the time,” they said.

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