This essay was written for the 2018 Write on Art prize, winning second place in the Year 10 & 11 category.
Throughout history Europeans have paraded their self-appointed supremacy, to the detriment of anyone not European (or not white). The prided art history of Europe has in decadence and glory portrayed an idealised European people, usually glowing in self-righteousness and riches, as perfectly portrayed in this painting.
The Prince of Wales (later George IV – the large man in white, rich red, and a regal blue) is painted in a noble stance of poise and power, and is the intended focal point of the painting. He is adorned in silks and gold, he is proud and is the epitome of richness. Now to take a step that many do not, let me draw your attention to the black servant fixing George’s belt. The unnamed servant is in dark clothes, in front of a dark background, face turned away from the viewer, focused on George, all visual devices intended to exaggerate the focus of the viewer on the prince.
To make this reading simpler, let us name George ‘GIV’, and let us name the black servant ‘The Focal Point Of This Text’, or ‘Focal’ for short. Focal in this painting is used as a device to draw attention to GIV, to emphasise GIV’s position of power in society, through his position, in terms of height and grandeur, over Focal, and this power dynamic is highly representative of the relationship between Europeans and people of colour at the time (and still, in modern society). Often, within European art, people of colour are only used as a device to tell the story of a white person, rather than portrayed to effect their own story being told. In other cases of people of colour in European art, objectification or sexualisation for the ‘white man's’ own exploits is not uncommon. People of colour have been treated as either inhuman or ‘exotic’, such as in the dehumanising case of Saartjie Baartman in the 1800s.
Rather than telling you how the African ostrich feathers in the background emphasise GIV’s, and Europe’s, ruthless colonial exploitation, or how the colour of GIV’s clothes match the colours of the sky, equating him to a celestial being, I am using this artwork as a representation of the stereotypical portrayal of people of colour in the context of European art. This painting was made during the height of slavery and the British colonisation of South Africa, South America and India. In a contemporary role reversal, artist Kehinde Wiley has swapped out European figures for African figures in well-known historical European paintings, such as the painting ‘Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps’ – a necessary switch that beautifully brought attention to the indecent portrayal of people of colour in historical art.
This has allowed us to look at art history with a different lens, giving us the ability to see the inequalities of the past as they were.