Show me a Black man who hasn’t been mistaken for a musician or asked if they play music, and I will show you a brother from another planet.
I can’t be sure how Louis « Lou » Richard Drenthe (1901-1990) or Désiré Max Jules Constantijn van der Lak (1903-1990) — better known as Jimmy van der Lak or Jimmy Lucky — would have felt about being mistaken for each other, in life or in art; I can only testify to how I’ve felt when handed a similarly brownish classmate’s essay by a teacher, or called by the name of a not-at-all-similarly shaded workplace colleague. What I do know is that the subject of Nola Hatterman’s most famous painting, Op het terras (On the Terrace), now in Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, which depicts an exquisitely dressed Black man confidently enjoying a beer and his newspaper at an outdoor café, was long thought to be Jimmy van der Lak, but was in fact Lou Drenthe. Van der Lak was a Surinamese tap dancer, boxer, bartender, restaurant manager and artist’s model at the Rijksakademie. A Black man of many trades who made a name for himself in the Amsterdam and Scheveningen of the late 1920s and early 1930s as a dancer in local revues, Jimmy would have been hard to miss in a sea of white Dutch folk unused to Black men of any kind in their midst. He claimed in an interview that when he arrived in the Netherlands in 1925, a grand total of 11 Surinamese resided there.
Lou Drenthe — a Surinamese trumpet-playing bandleader, waiter, and actor in the Amsterdam of the same era — surely counted in that select, highly visible few. Drenthe — who, like van der Lak, hailed from Suriname’s capital city of Paramaribo — was the paternal grandson of ancestors enslaved on the De Guinesche Vriendschap (The Guinean Friendship) sugar plantation. Trained as a gas fitter, Drenthe, upon his arrival in Amsterdam, found whatever work would pay, which is one reason his resume resembles van der Lak’s. In a play called Vorstelijke Emigranten (Royal Emigrants, in which married members of the Russian nobility are forced to flee the Bolshevik Revolution and work as servants in Paris), Drenthe even played a driver named Jimmy, and later waited tables in Amsterdam’s first Surinamese post-war restaurant, of which van der Lak was a co-owner. Invisibility, per Ralph Ellison, counts indistinguishability among its afflictions.
It is a minor miracle that Hatterman’s painting even found its way back into the public eye. Painted in 1930 and later purchased by the municipality of Amsterdam under an artist subsidy program that often placed such purchases in public buildings, Hatterman’s work was lost — to history and the vagaries of art hung in municipal buildings — and then found in the locked office of a possessive University of Amsterdam office worker. Two diligent art historians — who, for a 1999 exhibition, had tracked the painting down via rumor and hearsay — confronted the covetous bureaucrat. She let them see the painting for a few minutes, and then ushered them out. (I’d engage in the same bureaucratic soft theft if I had the chance.) The art historians called the Stedelijk and the museum removed the painting the next day.