People of Color in European Art History


  1. Johann Nepomuk Steiner
Portrait of Angelo Soliman
Germany (c. 1740s)
The Extraordinary Life, Death, and Bizzarre Posthumous Display of Angelo Soliman

An Austrian named Angelo Soliman (1720-1796), who is said to be a native of Central Africa where he was kidnapped at a young age and later presented in 1734 to Prince Georg Christian. Soliman served as Georg’s confidant, however, as he grew older, Soliman became fluent in 6 languages, was a master swordsman, navigator and renowned music composer. In his adult life, he climbed to the top of Vienna’s high society and joined Concord Freemason’s lodge where he became a major intellectual influence on Austrian Emperor Joseph II, Count Franz Moritz von Lacy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Josef Haydn. According to the Moorish Rite, he was the “Father of Pure Masonic Thought,” “First Moorish Freemason,” and a “patriarchal figure.”
[x]
Despite his established position in Viennese society – he was, for example, a member of the Zur Wahren Eintracht Masonic lodge and thus a brother mason of Mozart’s – after his death his body was acquired by Emperor Franz II (I) for the Imperial-Royal Court Cabinet of Natural History. Despite protests from Soliman’s daughter, his corpse was prepared as an exhibit. The subsequent display, in which Soliman’s mortal remains were exhibited to the public, shows clearly how the person of Soliman, valued during his life as an intellectual, was posthumously degraded as a ‘noble savage’: dressed in a loincloth, feathered crown and necklaces of shells, he stood together with three other stuffed black-skinned humans against a screen painted with a tropical landscape, surrounded by exotic stuffed animals.
In 1848 the mortal remains of Angelo Soliman, which had been so ignominiously abused in this way, were destroyed by a fire ensuing from the hostilities during the October uprising.
[x]
As the curator(s) explain, the bodies of healthy people were rarely displayed in this manner. Africans were the exception.  Still, they seem puzzled by Soliman’s treatment which was not only inhumane but also anachronistic. For, in Soliman’s case, there was no scientific objective:  a distinguished man, who had perfectly met the expectations of European society as a successful court servant, was displayed as a “noble savage”, so becoming once again an object.  It is hard not to infer from this that success, not his inherent humanity, should have spared Soliman the indignity of being stuffed and displayed like an animal.  Would…the two unnamed Africans who joined Soliman in the curiosity cabinets, not deserve the same sympathy?  Would their families have not also desired dignity for their remains?
[x]

    Johann Nepomuk Steiner

    Portrait of Angelo Soliman

    Germany (c. 1740s)

    The Extraordinary Life, Death, and Bizzarre Posthumous Display of Angelo Soliman

    An Austrian named Angelo Soliman (1720-1796), who is said to be a native of Central Africa where he was kidnapped at a young age and later presented in 1734 to Prince Georg Christian. Soliman served as Georg’s confidant, however, as he grew older, Soliman became fluent in 6 languages, was a master swordsman, navigator and renowned music composer. In his adult life, he climbed to the top of Vienna’s high society and joined Concord Freemason’s lodge where he became a major intellectual influence on Austrian Emperor Joseph II, Count Franz Moritz von Lacy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Josef Haydn. According to the Moorish Rite, he was the “Father of Pure Masonic Thought,” “First Moorish Freemason,” and a “patriarchal figure.”

    [x]

    Despite his established position in Viennese society – he was, for example, a member of the Zur Wahren Eintracht Masonic lodge and thus a brother mason of Mozart’s – after his death his body was acquired by Emperor Franz II (I) for the Imperial-Royal Court Cabinet of Natural History. Despite protests from Soliman’s daughter, his corpse was prepared as an exhibit. The subsequent display, in which Soliman’s mortal remains were exhibited to the public, shows clearly how the person of Soliman, valued during his life as an intellectual, was posthumously degraded as a ‘noble savage’: dressed in a loincloth, feathered crown and necklaces of shells, he stood together with three other stuffed black-skinned humans against a screen painted with a tropical landscape, surrounded by exotic stuffed animals.

    In 1848 the mortal remains of Angelo Soliman, which had been so ignominiously abused in this way, were destroyed by a fire ensuing from the hostilities during the October uprising.

    [x]

    As the curator(s) explain, the bodies of healthy people were rarely displayed in this manner. Africans were the exception.  Still, they seem puzzled by Soliman’s treatment which was not only inhumane but also anachronistic. For, in Soliman’s case, there was no scientific objective:  a distinguished man, who had perfectly met the expectations of European society as a successful court servant, was displayed as a “noble savage”, so becoming once again an object.  It is hard not to infer from this that success, not his inherent humanity, should have spared Soliman the indignity of being stuffed and displayed like an animal.  Would…the two unnamed Africans who joined Soliman in the curiosity cabinets, not deserve the same sympathy?  Would their families have not also desired dignity for their remains?

    [x]