This ‘Extremely Rare’ 17th-Century British Artwork Of A Black Woman Is Sparking An Export Ban, Debate On Race And Gender

The United Kingdom has temporarily barred a 17th-Century painting of a Black woman coupled with a white woman from leaving the country in hopes to grant enough time for any British buyer to purchase the artwork.

Valued at £272,800 (roughly $360,000), the coveted painting, titled “Allegorical Painting of Two Ladies, English School,” depicts a Black and white woman as equals, in matching hair and opulent garb, as well as adorned in similar jewelry, according to CNN. Dated circa 1650, the depiction of two women is highly unusual. 

Though Black faces and bodies aren’t uncommon in Renaissance art, when they appear, their depictions are narrow and limited. Typically children appear more often and are portrayed as subservient.  

Another unique aspect of the painting is that both women are wearing similar “beauty patches,”—or face stickers. Beauty patches had generally been used for centuries to cover up scars and sores, as reported by the Antiques Trade Gazette.

Decorative shapes like in the painting, during the 17th and 18th centuries were made from “expensive materials like silk or velvet.”

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The intimate relationship and social status illustrated between the two women fuels a dissection of stereotypes of women, fashion, and race during the era. 

The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) advised the ban for potential acquisition. In a press release, Committee member Pippa Shirley said, “This anonymous painting is a great rarity in British art… It is not a portrait of real people, as far as we know, but the inscription reveals that it is in fact a sternly moralising picture that condemns the use of cosmetics, and specifically elaborate beauty patches, which were in vogue at the time.”

While France announced the return of 26 pieces of artwork back to Africa earlier this year, the UK has not made any announcments to return any aquired artificats to any country during colonization.

The decision on the export licence application for the painting will be deferred until March 9, 2022 and can be deferred again for another three months.