A Visual History of Household Servants and Slaves

In this blog, Yale author Diane Wolfthal brings the visual representation of household workers in medieval and early-modern Europe to the fore. Using examples of works by Velázquez, the Limbourg Brothers and more, Wolfthal argues that students and scholars of art history can gain greater insight into how the upper-classes emphasised and reinforced their perceived superiority over their servants (and others of lower social standing) by interrogating the depictions of such figures.

The final part of the blog also addresses the rise of the monetary economy and centrality of the system of slavery to global trading, as well as the ways in which visual representations of the brutality of slavery and colonial might were sometimes integrated into the domestic interior of the home.

Flemish, Pricket Candlestick, c.1300. Copper Alloy, 16.4cm high. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Servants have been largely invisible to historians of medieval and early modern art. Ignored in most art historical publications, erased from the titles of artworks, they have even been transformed into elite figures by conservators. Still, those who are only interested in the rich and the powerful cannot – or at least should not – ignore servants, as they play a critical role in constructing the ‘elite’.

In fact, for those seeking to understand history from below, representations of household servants offer a unique entry point. All too often scholars view the so-called ‘lower classes’ as an undifferentiated mass, but peasants differ from urban beggars, and household servants led quite different lives from those who laboured primarily outside the home. In addition, unlike peasants and beggars, whom art historians have studied in much greater depth, servants often had an intimate knowledge of the family they served, and their behaviour was seen as reflecting directly on their employers’ honour.

Medieval Servants

Medieval servants – generally depicted as white boys – are often shown off to the side, with part of their body hidden, seen from the back, or relegated to the background. They are frequently overlapped by other figures or by architectural elements that sometimes obliterate their facial features. Posture also often makes clear their subservient position: servants frequently bend their knees or kneel as they approach their master, as in the Pricket Candlestick in the form of a servant. In ‘Pontius Pilate Washing His Hands’ from the Belles Heures, which was painted for Jean, Duke of Berry, the servant is elegantly dressed in a full-length robe and a crimson shirt, and he carries over his shoulder a cloth adorned with fine golden embroidery and tassels, yet his individuality is erased by the Limbourg Brothers, who have him lift his ewer so that it conceals his face.

Limbourg Brothers, ‘Pontius Pilate washing his Hands’ (detail), Belles Heures of Jean, duc de Berry, 1505-8/9. The Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Ms. 54.1.1, fol. 138r.

Early Modern Servants

Diego Velázquez, Juan de Pareja, c.1650. Oil on canvas, 81.3 x 69.9cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Like their medieval counterparts, early modern servants are generally visualised as secondary figures; negative foils that make clear the power of the master or the beauty of the mistress. But a small number of remarkable portraits depict household workers alone. The best known of these is Velázquez’s portrait of his slave, Juan de Pereja.

Born near Malaga, Pereja performed household chores as well as grinding colours and preparing canvases for the artist. Velázquez eventually freed Pereja, who himself became a painter and whose own works were collected by elite patrons. Strikingly different from the dominant mode of portraying servants, Pereja’s bearing is dignified, his posture erect, his expression proud, his gaze direct. He shows no trace of servility, but Velázquez instead makes clear his low status though his tattered garments: his missing buttons and a tear at his elbow.

Flemish, Family Portrait with Servant, 1610s. Oil on canvas, 80 x 209cm. Private collection, Pennsylvania.

Unless servants were relatives of the family they served, were in their employ for a long period of time, or cared for their children, ties of affection were not portrayed. A typical example is the above Flemish portrait of a family with its servant. The servant’s social position is marked by her actions and location. She serves food as she stands before the kitchen, the site of her labour. Her second-class position is made clear, pushed to the far left of the composition, she is separated from the family that she serves by another loyal household member, the dog. In addition to her act of serving food and her standing pose, a small detail suggests that she, unlike the family members, is working: her sleeve is rolled up to the elbow, baring her strong forearm, as in so many images of household workers.

Paper Servants and the Global Economy

The new technology of prints, which emerged in Europe in the fifteenth century, made it possible to produce multiple copies of images that express diverse views and could be sold at relatively low prices. Images of household workers appeared in broadsheets, maps, and illustrations in household manuals, children’s encyclopaedias, costume books, erotica and travelogues. These ‘paper servants’ reveal how the rise of the monetary economy, global trade, and colonialism shaped the visual conception of domestic workers. They enable us to better understand how servants and slaves, at home and abroad, were viewed by a disparate audience and portrayed in complex and conflicting ways.

Often these works have been examined through the lens of gender or race, but not class. For example, the nudity of enslaved Africans has been attributed solely to European stereotypes about the uncivilised nature of the Other, without considering how the bodies of European servants are portrayed in comparison.

Natale Boniface, ‘Nobleman and Servant’, in Filippo Pigafetta, Relatione del reame di Kongo (Rome: Appresso Bartolomeo Grassi, 1591).

In a book on the Kingdom of Kongo, one print shows a native Kongolese servant following a native Kongolese nobleman. At first glance the two men resemble each other. They are the same height, carry a similar saber, wear identical hats and shoes, and bare a similar powerful left arm. The servant’s state of partial undress should be seen, in part, as a European denigration of Africa, but the elite African master is depicted fully clothed, which suggests that the nudity is based in class as well. European servants were often shown partially undressed, and, like Africans, were sometimes deemed uncivilised. For example, Palladio compared the workrooms of European servants to the ‘ignoble and disagreeable parts’ of the human body.

The New Brutality of Domesticity

From dolls and dummy boards to candlesticks and table stands, European households often displayed fascinating images of servants, but among the most shocking is a pair of slaves at Dyrham Park who serve as table stands.

English, Stand in the form of a Black Slave (detail of face & back), late seventeenth century, Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire.

These youths are unusual for their sorrowful expressions and unambiguous visualisation of enslavement: their collars and anklets are attached to a chain that restricts their movement and makes clear their enslaved status. Their owner, William Blathwayt, earned his money as a manager of the English colonial enterprise, which flourished because of the brutal exploitation of enslaved people. Such managers facilitated and normalised the inhuman, but profitable, systems of slavery. These figures, carrying on their shoulders a scalloped bowl, were viewed below eye level, as opposed to the portraits of the gentry hung above eye level, which reinforced the viewers’ false sense of superiority.  In these table stands a new brutality emerges, which makes visible the English desire to dominate African people at home and in the colonies. Domestic work, once based on loyalty, and sometimes even love, is instead envisioned as maintained through brutal, indomitable force. 

Diane Wolfthal is David and Caroline Minter Chair emerita in the Humanities and professor emerita of art history at Rice University.

Her latest book, Household Servants and Slaves: A Visual History, 1300–1700, is the first book-length study of both images of ordinary household workers and their material culture, covering four centuries and four continents.

Also by Diane Wolfthal: In and Out of the Marital Bed: Seeing Sex in Renaissance Europe

Find more art history on the Yale Books Art Blog

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