When Prince William and Duchess Kate played host to the Obamas last week, preparations for the visit included removal of a plaque etched with the words “The Negro Page” fastened to the frame of a large equestrian painting hanging in their drawing room where they receive guests. Kate chose the painting from the Queen’s near 8,000-item art collection. The plaque was removed for fear of offending the Obamas. A potted plant was set in front of the empty spot where the plaque used to be.  

Why the Duchess chose this particular painting may seem like the logical question to ask here, but it’s not.


She is, after all, an art history graduate who most certainly knows that the artist, 17-century Dutch painter Aelbert Cuyp, was the preeminent painter of the Dutch golden age famed for picturing quiet yet grand landscapes.  

Sign of the times

The question that goes pleading here is why anyone would think it a good idea to hide an Old Master’s picture title. It’s not as if we can unmake a history that enshrines outdated attitudes. We’d have to remove every picture title that mentioned race. This would take in all the black pages that the 17th century Dutch upper class loved to parade around to signal their prosperity, and that’s a lot paintings.

Instead of removing picture titles, the Queen’s collection list shows they were edited to be more politically correct. Coyp’s painting is listed as “A Page with Two Horses.” Re-titling paintings from the past - an act of historical revisionism that has nothing to do with history - seems even sillier than hiding titles.  

 Last year the Rijksmuseum, the Netherland’s national museum, representing some 800 years of Dutch art history, re-wrote all racially charged titles in its collection - some 220,000 works - with neutral wording.


Out of sight, out of mind

 A typical Rijksmuseum name change is “Girl Holding a Fan” in place of “Young Negro Girl.” Museum curator Eveline Sint Nicolaas told the press, “We no longer want to make use of terms that reflect a Eurocentric way of looking at people or historic moments.”

This re-wording project went under the name “Adjustment of Colonial Terminology.” But the word adjustment doesn’t quite describe a re-writing of history. Eliminating the word “Negro” is an outright correction of colonial terminology.

How silly is this re-naming business? Imagine if, out of sensitivity to the issue of violence to women, museums renamed all their rape paintings that were so widespread among the Old Masters. Imagine, say, Peter Paul Rubens’ “Rape of the Sabine Women” - a horrific scene of women being torn from their loved ones by smirking Roman soldiers - renamed “Roman Romp.” Ridding picture titles of past racism is just as silly. We need to leave the past in the record book unrevised, however ugly.

Maya Angelou seemed to put all this in perspective when she famously said, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.