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17th-Century Portrait: Black and White Women Stay in UK, Offer New Race and Gender Insights

17th-Century Portrait: Black and White Women Stay in UK, Offer New Race and Gender Insights
17th-Century Portrait: Black and White Women Stay in UK, Offer New Race and Gender Insights

A rare and remarkable 17th-century double portrait featuring a Black and white woman portrayed as equals will stay in the United Kingdom, according to recent announcements. The artwork, known as the Allegorical Painting of Two Ladies, is set to be publicly displayed in 2024.

While the identity of the painter remains unknown, experts have dated the piece to around 1650 and loosely attributed it to the English School of that period. Initially discovered at an auction in 2021, the artwork caught the attention of a buyer who intended to take it abroad. However, the UK government intervened and temporarily banned its export, hoping to preserve it for the nation.

Fortunately, the historic mansion Compton Verney in Warwickshire, England, has now acquired the painting for its art gallery. The double portrait showcases the two women adorned with peculiar markings on their faces, which contemporary audiences would have recognized as beauty patches. Beauty patches were a common practice dating back to Roman times, often used to conceal scars and imperfections. Interestingly, the painting takes a moralistic stance, condemning the women's vanity. An inscription positioned above their heads references the use of patches as a sin of pride.

Notably, the portrayal of the Black woman as an independent adult, dressed similarly to her companion, was highly unusual for the time. As a result, the artwork holds immense value as a historical document shedding light on race and gender dynamics in 17th-century England.

Thanks to the judgment of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA), the UK successfully prevented the permanent departure of this significant artwork. The RCEWA, responsible for advising the government on the national importance of artworks, deemed the painting to be of "outstanding significance."

Chair of the committee, Andrew Hochhauser KC, expressed his enthusiasm for the acquisition, stating that the painting would not only delight audiences but also encourage discussions, research, and a deeper understanding of race and gender during that period.

Compton Verney secured the painting with a purchase totaling £304,534, utilizing funds from its Collections Settlement and receiving additional financial assistance through two grants: £154,600 ($196,000) from the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) and an additional £50,000 ($64,000) from the V&A Purchase Grant Fund. The artwork is scheduled to undergo conservation work with the expertise of specialists from Yale.

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