Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 2017
I am sitting in the sun on the roof of my hotel in Rio, looking at the heavily forested hills to the east, the high rise hotels lining the Copacabana to the south, the elaborate rooftop garden across the Avenida de Princesa Isabel, and beyond, the rickety tin shacks of a favela creeping up a hill. It is winter in the tropics, and the temperature is 22 C (about 72 F) at 10 AM.
About 400 years ago, in 1637 or so (the sources differ on the dates), a young Dutch artist named Frans Post (1612-1680) travelled to South America at the invitation of the new Dutch governor of what was then a Dutch colony at Pernambuco in northeastern Brazil, which the Dutch held from 1630 until 1654.
The Dutch governor, Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen (1604-1679), ruled over the sugar-rich territory between 1636 and 1644.
According to art historians, Post completed eighteen landscapes while in Brazil, documenting Dutch possessions, including the port of Recife. Post painted many more Brazilian landscapes from memory after his return to the Netherlands. Another artist accompanying the governor, Albert Eckhout (1610-1666), painted people, including the slaves who worked on the sugar plantations, as well as plants and animals.
I saw a couple of Post’s later paintings last week at the art museum in São Paulo. I had never heard of Frans Post, and knew only vaguely of the Dutch presence in Brazil. I was intrigued by these large, lush landscapes laden with tropical plants, Dutch planters, and slaves.
Some of his earlier works are at the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio; oddly, most of them are in Paris at the Louvre, presented as a gift to Louis XIV in 1679. Some of Eckhout’s paintings, part of the same gift, became the basis of Gobelins tapestries. In 1645, Post made several engravings of his earlier paintings to illustrate a book by Caspar Barlaeus (1584-1648) on Johan Maurits’s tenure as governor, Rerum per octennium in Brasilia et alibi nuper gestarum (Recent achievements in Brazil over the past eight years), published in 1647.
Recently, a curator in the Netherlands discovered thirty-four previously unknown drawings of Brazilian animals made by Post during his stay. Here is one, of a jaguar. The caption calls it a “tiger,” and notes that some he has seen are black.
The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam exhibited these drawings last winter, accompanied by taxidermied animals from the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden. Sorry I missed it!
Johan Maurits appointed not only artists but also naturalists, to document the incredible richness and strangeness of Brazil. Among them was the German naturalist, astronomer, and explorer Georg Marcgraf (1610-1644), who arrived in Brazil early in 1638 and stayed until Johan Maurits’s departure; Marcgraf died shortly thereafter in Angola. With Marcgraf was a Dutch physician, Willem Piso (1611-1678). Together Marcgraf and Piso documented Brazilian flora and fauna. Piso held a particular interest in indigenous remedies, following in the footsteps of Spanish physician Francisco Hernández (1514-1587), who had recorded Mexican plants and animals and the Aztec pharmacopoeia in the 1570s. Hernández’s work finally appeared, much truncated, as Rerum medicarum Novae Hispaniae thesaurus (1651).
Johannes de Laet (1581-1649) edited the work of Piso and Marcgraf into the beautiful volume Historiae naturalis Brasiliae, published in 1648, a landmark in the natural history of the new world.
Many of the illustrations came from the work of Post and Eckhout.
Several historians, including Hal Cook, Britt Dams, and Neil Safier, have written about Marcgraf and Piso. I have seen less about their relationship with Post and Eckhout (which does not mean that that work does not exist). I like to think of these young men, all still in their twenties in the late 1630s, walking through the magical landscape of Brazil and recording its treasures, far from home in northern Europe.