by Ebonique Boyd
In 2016, I found myself entranced by an artwork at Christie’s. Initially listed at $5,000, the unbidded piece suddenly increased in price by $20,000 when I attempted to add it to my cart. This unexpected jump revealed the opaque pricing dynamics of the art world and sparked my curiosity: Could I find a similar piece at the unbidded price, and what would it take to acquire it? This one-piece sparked a seemingly life-long journey towards helping average art enthusiasts understand art better and exploring how data science can assist in sourcing such treasures.
In this blog, I will be discussing this fascinating portrait, attributed to the circle of Paolo Caliari (1528-1588), commonly known as Veronese, an Italian painter celebrated for his lavish and radiant compositions during the Renaissance era. The painting portrays a young woman with striking features – her skin is a deep, rich mahogany and her eyes are doe-like, radiating innocence. What stood out the most, however, was her adornment of pearls – a necklace of flawlessly uniformed pearls encircled her neck, with two elegant chandelier pearls hanging from her ears, and more pearls peeking from beneath her turban wrap. Her gaze is oriented towards the left, giving the impression she’s lost in thought. She appears to be a knowledgeable young woman, well cared for during a time when the African slave trade was ramping up, following Pope Nicholas V’s sanctioning of the conquest and enslavement of non-Christian peoples.
It makes one wonder what the artist – Veronese or his follower – intended by portraying an African woman during a period when her race was being ruthlessly devalued. Was he making a statement? And if so, who was this woman who could command such a lavish depiction?
The contrast between her skin and the pearls captivated me. Pearl diving in the 16th century was a high-risk endeavor, an art requiring skill and courage. The divers would plunge into the ocean depths, seeking oysters in which the precious gems grew. Each pearl represented an immense physical effort – a dangerous, life-risking labor. It was incredibly rare to find uniformed pearls, yet here she is adorned among enough pearls that would even rival a Queen of that period.
Diving for pearls, a skill acquired and perfected over generations in African and Asian coastal communities, required exceptional skill, and courage. Divers would plunge into the ocean depths, seeking oysters in which the precious gems grew. Each pearl represented an immense physical effort – a dangerous, life-risking labor.
The diamond industry, notoriously associated with forced labor and child miners, starkly contrasts with the pearl industry today. Despite numerous attempts at reform, child labor in diamond mines was still reported as recently as 2020. This contrasts sharply with pearl diving, an activity requiring adult skill and extensive training. The fact that children are more likely to be found toiling in diamond mines than in school serves as a painful reminder of the impact of unscrupulous individuals driven by insatiable greed. In my view, the ethical practices inherent to pearl diving enhance the beauty of the gems themselves. Their value lies not only in their physical allure but also in the ethical manner of their sourcing.
The subject of the portrait, adorned with pearls rather than diamonds, at first glance to me, seems to symbolize wealth and power – but not acquired through the exploitation of human lives. Rather, through the careful nurturing of the environment and the training of capable adults over child slavery. This further makes me question, could he truly be making a radical statement at the time?
My initial interpretation of the painting suggested that the artist was perhaps making an abolitionist statement by representing an African woman adorned in pearls. The message, as I perceived it, highlighted the dignity of trained labor over forced servitude as an ideal way of life.
However, as I am drawn to the portrait and the life of the sitter, I learned more about pearl diving during that period. The history of pearls, are like so many other gemstones, is a history of unending greed at any cost. European human traffickers also enslaved these skilled divers, incorporating them into the cruel practices of their time.
Kevin Dawson, a Professor at UC Merced, has researched this intersection of skill, culture, and slavery. He cites numerous scholars and naval documents from the time to mention that the “diving abilities of people of African descent often surpassed those of Europeans and their descendants. Indeed, most whites, including sailors, probably could not swim.” These enslaved divers often found themselves in a paradoxical situation. While their enslavement was a brutal reality, they “apparently enjoyed the privileges that enslavers bestowed on skilled bondpeople,” Dawson notes due to their undeniable skillset.
Dawson’s research on enslaved divers was one of the many insights that forced me to realize my initial interpretation might just be me being overly optimistic. Divers could be enslaved, and as I looked closer at the painting, I also notice that the large ruby on her turban was likely sourced unethically, as well as her clothing hangs loosely on her, barely fitting her frame. Her lips also appear chapped, which could either be the result of restoration inaccuracies or an intended feature in the original work.
These elements lead me to question whether she was merely a paid model, briefly robed in luxuries for a day’s work. Perhaps the depth and gravitas I assign to this painting may not resonate with the painter at all. For all that I know, the painter could be making a mockery of the sitter, adorning her in pearls and she looks away not lost in contemplative thoughts, but her doe-eyes might be hiding tears from the jeers of the artists who paint her like this for the day.
Then, I remember the Art Scene app. Without this painting, I would have never built the app. Without the painter and the model, I would have never embarked on this adventure.
In reality, I may be the only person who ever ascribed greatness towards her, but the power that I draw from this work is really all that matters. Such is the transformative power of art – it impacts each of us uniquely and profoundly.
June 23, 2023