The history and culture of Brazil are relatively unfamiliar in the UK. Yet British public collections contain several paintings which illuminate a period in seventeenth-century Brazilian history when it was partially controlled by the Dutch instead of the Portuguese.
After Portugal had invaded the lands in South America eventually known as Brazil in 1500, their new colony caught the attention of other European countries. This included Britain: on Good Friday in 1595, for instance, Sir James Lancaster commanded an attack on the coastal state of Pernambuco in the north-east, plundering the city of Recife.
Spain and the Dutch Republic sought to capture Brazilian territories from Portuguese possession in the early seventeenth century. For the Netherlands, this was driven by the Dutch West India Company's desire to capitalise on Portugal's lucrative production of sugar in Brazil.
A painting in the National Maritime Museum depicts a clash between Dutch and Spanish ships off Brazil's coast in 1624, vying for the city of Salvador in Bahia.
In 1630, the Netherlands captured a portion of north-east Brazil from the Portuguese. Six years later, Johan Maurits, Prince of Nassau-Siegen, was appointed governor of this colonial outpost, named 'New Holland' until Portugal regained the lands in 1654. The capital was known as Mauritsstad – modern-day Recife.
The paintings which Maurits commissioned in Brazil are among the earliest European artistic depictions of the landscapes, peoples, flora and fauna of the 'New World'. One of Maurits's favoured artists was the Dutch painter Albert Eckhout (c.1610–1665), whose life-sized ethnographic depictions of indigenous and enslaved peoples originally decorated the (now-lost) Palácio de Friburgo, the prince's residence in Mauritsstad.
Eckhout's series of eight paintings present the racial types in Brazil, which were being subjugated by the colonisers, as curiosities for the European gaze. As art historian Rebecca P. Brienen has argued, Eckhout did not intend them to be portraits of specific individuals (although he may have made some preparatory studies), and in the case of the African figures he sought to present them as 'civilised' to indicate the prosperity of New Holland.
Another artist sponsored by Maurits was Frans Post (1612–1680). Born in Haarlem in 1612, the son of the glass painter Jan Post, he lived in Brazil from 1637 until 1644. His time in the tropics provided him with a wealth of artistic material; after returning to the Netherlands, he received regular commissions for Brazilian landscapes from European patrons.
As the Brazilian scholars Pedro and Bia Corrêa do Lago remarked in their catalogue raisonné of the artist, 'Post guaranteed for himself an exclusive niche in the market: views of the "West Indies", as the region of Brazil was then known'. His popularity demonstrates Europe's fascination with these distant tropical lands and their inhabitants, the latter being highly idealised.
Post painted at least 155 Brazilian landscapes, but only 18 were done in Brazil. Six works are in the UK, all dating from after the artist's return to the Netherlands in 1644. These works, which are largely unfamiliar to British audiences, offer fascinating insights into early European perceptions of South America. Indeed, Post has been described by Pedro Corrêa do Lago as 'the first landscape painter in the Americas'. As P. C. Emmer has also observed, the slave trade is as integral to the Dutch Golden Age as the paintings of Rembrandt and Frans Hals.
Two works entered the Government Art Collection in 1945, purchased from the 9th Duke of Buccleuch, and are now in the British Embassy in The Hague. One (above) is signed and dated 1658 (according to the Post catalogue raisonné), while the other (below) was painted around 1665.
As the second picture's title suggests, it shows a group of enslaved people working on a sugar plantation. These were men and women from central Africa whom the Dutch had forcibly enslaved and transported to Brazil – more than 25,000 people between 1636 and 1645.
In the foreground of Post's painting is the mill where the harvested sugar cane was processed for transportation back to Europe. After these plantations bore financial fruit for Dutch merchants, any initial opposition to the slave trade diminished, and Post's paintings do seem to convey a complacency with the status quo.
Two paintings by Post, dated 1653 and 1666 respectively, are owned by the Corporation of the City of London.
The 1666 work (below), which the catalogue raisonné alternatively titles Ruins of Olinda, is a bucolic scene with an anteater and armadillo in the lower-left corner, a recurring motif in Post's works which emphasised the tropical setting for seventeenth-century viewers.
Behind the figures are the half-ruined houses of the city of Olinda, founded by the Portuguese in 1535, which the Dutch had ravaged during their invasion – symbols of the Netherlands' political dominance over their rivals.
The fifth picture (above) entered the collection of Ham House between 1677 and 1679, purchased on the Dutch art market by Elizabeth Maitland (née Murray), Duchess of Lauderdale (below). Together with Post's paintings in the Louvre, it is the only work by the artist to remain in the same collection since his lifetime, three-and-a-half centuries ago.
Conspicuous in the lower-left corner of A Village in Brazil is a pineapple: like the anteater and armadillo, this would have been an unusual sight for Europeans at that time, and the fruit was considered a luxury by the aristocracy.
There is a sixth painting by Post which has belonged to the Royal Collection since 1762, when George III bought the collection of Joseph Smith, Britain's consul in Venice. Signed with a date of 1652, it is the earliest work by Post in the UK.
It is also the only Post in the UK to include depictions of Brazil's indigenous inhabitants. They were simplistically categorised either as Tapuias (the nude men and women grouped on the left) or as Tupis (dressed in white, mingling with the Black figures), the latter being considered more 'civilised' by the Dutch. The indigenous population had been widely and negatively impacted by the Portuguese invasion, whether massacred outright or forced to work on the plantations.
Post's more bucolic scene may reflect Dutch attempts to form alliances with aboriginal communities following the 1630 occupation. His depiction of Tupi and Tapuia peoples also differs from Eckhout's large canvases which focus on individual figures. Eckhout pushed the landscape into the background, but Post's groups are embedded within it and are less distinct, becoming 'exotic' accessories to the Brazilian scenery.
Post's tropical vistas ultimately reflect the Dutch mode of seeing the landscape in the sixteenth century. If we compare his works with one by his contemporary, Aelbert Cuyp (1620–1691), depicting their home country, we can see clear parallels despite the contrasting settings.
Both artists used a low horizon line to emphasise the sky's dramatic impact, with human figures in the foreground who are engaged in mundane activities. The landscape of Pernambuco appears flat like a Dutch plain, while the European foliage in Cuyp's scene was exchanged by Post for palm trees and fruit bushes, the livestock for anteaters and armadillos.
Finally, Post's work exemplifies what the historian David Arnold has termed tropicality, a trend in European early modern culture which developed in response to the 'discovery' of tropical countries. Travellers were often ambivalent about these places, perceiving them either as lush, bountiful Edens or as dangerous and inhospitable, or a combination of both.
Direct depictions of the horrors of the slave trade and the killings of indigenous peoples are absent from Post's tranquil landscapes, raising difficult questions about the truthfulness of his depictions. Nevertheless, they are invaluable for the insights which they give us into European perceptions of Brazil, shedding light on historical narratives which are less familiar to us today.
Robert Wilkes, postdoctoral researcher in art history at the State University of Campinas in Brazil
This content was funded by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation
David Arnold, The Problem of Nature: Environment, Culture and European Expansion, John Wiley & Sons, 1996
Rebecca P. Brienen, 'Albert Eckhout's African Woman and Child (1641): ethnographic portraiture, slavery, and the New World subject', in Agnes Lugo-Ortiz and Angela Rosenthal (eds.), Slave Portraiture and the Atlantic World, Cambridge University Press, 2013
P. C. Emmer, The Dutch Slave Trade, 1500–1850, Berghahn Books, 2006
Pedro and Bia Corrêa do Lago, Frans Post (1612–1680): Catalogue Raisonné, Five Continents Editions, 2006
Nelson Aguilar (ed)., Mostra do Redescobrimento: o olhar distante (The Distant Eye), Associação Brasil 500 Anos Artes Visuais, 2000
'Painting Brazil for the Dutch art market', video by Smarthistory discussing a Post landscape in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston