Young Negro Girl: Should artworks with offensive names get an update?

Posted by: The Guardian | Date: December 17, 2015 | 5 Comments

Very few artists give their works names. When a painter has just put the last touch to a masterpiece, she does not stand back and wonder what to call it. Titles are almost always given later by the public, writers, art historians or museums. They don’t necessarily have any connection with the artist’s intentions.

This is why I can’t join the chorus of disapproval criticising Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum for changing titles in its collection that it deems “offensive”. The museum is removing words such as “negro” and “Mohammedan” and replacing them with more neutral descriptions. Thus a painting by Simon Maris once called Young Negro Girl has become Young Girl Holding a Fan.

It is just one of 132 paintings whose caption have had the word “negro” removed. Another work by Margaretha van Raephorst that was described as depicting “a negro servant” is now said to portray “a young black servant”.

Images of black people are very common in Dutch paintings of the 17th-century Golden Age. One example is a 1687 work by Michiel van Musscher which features a “negro” servant (slave is probably more accurate) and is currently awaiting a new title. But the museum is also wondering what to do with other terms now judged offensive, such as “Eskimo”. And what about all those paintings of “dwarves”?

It’s political correctness gone mad. The angry old men of art history have been summoned from their pre-Christmas port to splutter that we have every right to refer to Muslims by an archaic Victorian word if we like. As for “negro”, it’s history: “Why are these curators messing with our old names for people of colour?”

Even Sir Nicholas Serota has weighed in to say Tate has no intention of going down this trendy road.

But I disagree with Serota. The Rijksmuseum is right. Amsterdam’s great art gallery, the home of Rembrandt’s Night Watch (he never called it that, by the way) is not betraying history. It is simply making a reasonable, rational change to titles that are, and always have been, shifting and contingent.

It is the Rijksmuseum’s critics who are being naive about art history. They apparently share the popular misconception that paintings have names given by the artist that tell us something important about the work.

Most of the time, they are not meaningful; they are simply nicknames. The title Las Meninas – “The Maids of Honour” – tells us absolutely nothing about Velazquez’s complex masterpiece, in which the court of Spain is portrayed with such grave unease. We call Michelangelo’s David by a name his contemporaries would not have recognised – they simply called it “the Giant”.

Literary works have titles that are inseparable from what they are. It doesn’t matter how offensive modern tastes may find a name like The Nigger of the “Narcissus” – that’s what Joseph Conrad called his story, and we’re stuck with it. But the meanings of visual art inhere in how they look, not what they happen to be called. If an old-fashioned title gets in the way for modern audiences, it can and should be changed.

The portrait by Maris is a case in point. This work by a minor modern artist is scarcely one of the greatest works in the Rijksmuseum. But look closer. Stripped of its old name Young Negro Girl, it seems a sensitive portrait. The new name allows its humanity and lack of prejudice to be seen — and makes it more accessible, to more people, from more places.

Besides, anyone who is nostalgic about the word “negro” really is on the wrong side of history. – By Jonathan Jones

Image – Simon Maris (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons


  • Pierre Aycard

    Wouldn’t this be case of misunderstanding following litteral translation? As far as I know, in Dutch, the word “niger” is neutral, while the word “swart” is offensive. Someone mistranslated “niger” into “negro” instead of “black” when trying to provide an English title.

  • Jon Low

    “The wrong side of history”? How specious!

  • John West

    Two things. First, the work is lovely. It creates the same mood in portrait as Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy” and Thomas Lawrence’s “Pinkie.” Second, this debate over the word “negro” is puzzling and bordering on the absurd, especially for those of us who have studied languages. So what exactly is the difference between “negro” and “black,” except one is Spanish, the other English, for the same color? Isn’t cognitive time better spent on matters of substance?

  • José Carlos Costa

    The word “negro” was transformed by time and geography in the Anglophone world. “Negro” means black/dark in Portuguese and Spanish. The word entered the English and Dutch lexicon via Portuguese in XVI century because it was the default description for African race during slave trade, even before “every black is a slave” policy became common in the English and Dutch colonies in Americas.
    As you can notice, English kept the exact same spelling “negro” and today, in Portuguese speaking countries some people get offended if they are called “preto” (black) but most are happy when called “negro”, I’m Angolan and I’m ok with both words and even knowing that Northern American whites transformed the word into a racist slur (equivalent to slave) doesn’t make me feel bothered by this word at all, but I’m a lucky Portuguese speaking individual who knows the origin of the word so I kind of understand those who feel offended.

  • Raymond Lautenbach

    Name changing for name changing sake is a multiculturalist and liberalist play for self righteousness. It accomplishes nothing. For those that words that have been in use for hundreds of years offend, be offended but get over it. Criminalising offensive word usage not only accomplishes nothing but compromises the “offendees” ability to understand or learn about the usage of the word in the context of the times in which they were used.