The Groningen native Albert Eckhout spent seven years in Brazil (1637-1644) and as a result he holds an important historical position as one of the first trained European artists in the New World. His fascinating paintings include large still lifes of tropical fruits and vegetables and, more famously, a highly unusual series of life-size representations of Africans, Indians, and people of mixed race. The fact that Eckhout’s first one-man show in the Netherlands was hosted by the Mauritshuis in The Hague, the home of Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp and Vermeer’s View of Delft, would seem to suggest that this artist and his unusual body of work have been officially integrated into the larger narrative of seventeenth-century Dutch art. The Mauritshuis was the venue, however, primarily for historical reasons. It was originally built for Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen (also called “The Brazilian”), who was both governor of the Dutch West India Company’s short-lived colony in Brazil and Eckhout’s patron there.
This small exhibition included all 21 paintings that are currently attributed to Eckhout, but only six of his drawings, hundreds of which have survived. While rather limited in scope, the slim catalogue is an elegant, high-quality production – the fortunate result of clear and clever design. It includes reproductions of only fourteen drawings by Eckhout, but readers will be delighted to find large, high-resolution illustrations in color of all paintings. Speaking as an Eckhout scholar, these are the best reproductions of the artist’s works that I have ever seen in a publication. The catalogue is divided into four parts: an introductory essay by Quentin Buvelot, a natural history analysis by Dante Martins Teixeira and Elly de Vries, a short overview of Eckhout’s life by Florike Egmond and Peter Mason, and a brief series of appendices (primarily presenting historical material).
Buvelot is a curator at the Mauritshuis and a specialist on the Dutch classicist Jacob van Campen, an artist whose paintings from the 1650s borrow motifs from Eckhout’s Brazilian paintings and drawings. In his essay “Albert Eckhout: a Dutch artist in Brazil,” Buvelot provides a clearly written and scrupulously footnoted overview of the artist’s works, both those produced in Brazil and those usually attributed to his post-Brazilian period. Of all of the contributors to the catalog, Buvelot is the only one who displays any sensitivity to the visual qualities of Eckhout’s paintings. In his discussion of the ethnographic paintings, for example, he calls attention to the artist’s “practiced hand” and his “subtle and naturalistic palette.” His descriptions of Eckhout’s style as “meticulous” and “informative” nonetheless reinforce the traditional view of Eckhout as a passive recorder, not an active and inventive creator. Furthermore, Buvelot’s overview appears to boil down the recent scholarship on Eckhout to the fairly limited (albeit important) issue of whether or not he created his paintings in Brazil or the Netherlands after his return. I will return to this debate below.
Dante Martins Teixeira is a zoologist who has published extensively on Dutch Brazil and Elly de Vries is an art historian whose work has focused on Eckhout’s drawings. Their essay “Exotic novelties from overseas” is primarily concerned with classifying the artifacts of material culture pictured in Eckhout’s figural works and identifying the individual specimens of flora and fauna represented in all of his paintings. As part of their overarching project of fixing meaning, however, their work extends to an interpretation of Eckhout’s figures. To accomplish this, Teixeira and de Vries juxtapose quotes from Zacharias Wagener’s Thierbuch (Kupferstichkabinett, Dresden) with representations of Eckhout’s paintings, thereby suggesting that Wagener gives the correct explanation of what we see. The Thierbuch has often been used in this way, because the captions in question describe copies that Wagener made of Eckhout’s paintings (or detailed studies for them) when he was still in the service of the WIC in Brazil (Wagener left in 1641). It should be emphasized that these descriptions apply to his copies (which introduce many changes), not Eckhout’s paintings. It is furthermore uncertain when Wagener added this textual analysis. As such, his copies may have served as the primary source for his written descriptions, creating a rather circular chain of evidence.
The final essay, “Albert E(e)ckhout, court painter,” was written by historian Florike Egmond and the cultural anthropologist and Eckhout scholar Peter Mason. This biography of the artist is largely a critique of H.E. van Gelder’s seminal 1960 Oud-Holland article. As I noted in my dissertation on Albert Eckhout and Georg Marcgraf (Northwestern 2002), even after one re-traces van Gelder’s steps in the archives (the Oud-Holland article, which was published posthumously, has no footnotes), large gaps in Eckhout’s biography remain. Where did he train (in Groningen, Amersfoort, and/or Amsterdam) and with whom? I suggested that Eckhout could have completed his apprenticeship in Amersfoort and that Jacob van Campen was the most likely person to have put him into contact with Johan Maurits. Here Egmond and Mason provide additional evidence for these assertions, suggesting that the high social standing of the Eeckhout family (possibly Eckhout’s relatives) in Amersfoort would have provided the appropriate entrée into the artistic circle of Jacob van Campen. Their idea that Eckhout could have worked in Paulus Bor’s studio, however, would have been considerably strengthened by a discussion about artistic production – the treatment of which is notably lacking here. As I discuss in my forthcoming book on Eckhout, there are drawings by the artist in the collection of the Jagiellon Library in Krakow that strongly suggest stylistic as well as thematic affinities to the work of Bor and Jacob van Campen. The strength of Egmond and Mason’s essay, however, lies in archival, not artistic, evidence. Their most important contribution is the presentation of new documents, which allow them not only to dispute the traditional spelling of Eckhout’s name (they favor Eeckhout) but also attack the authenticity of the artist’s signatures on the paintings now in Copenhagen, thereby challenging the traditional view that these images were produced in Brazil.
It is unfortunate that this exhibition, which was both a homecoming (Eckhout’s paintings, now in the museum in Copenhagen, have been in Danish collections since 1654) and an overdue tribute, is accompanied by a catalogue that does so little to place the artist and his work into the larger context of seventeenth-century Dutch art. Although this is a very attractive publication, it compares unfavorably with the scholarship that resulted from the 1979 exhibition, “Zo wijd de wereld streekt,” at the Mauritshuis, of which the catalogue Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen, 1604-1679: a Humanist Prince in Europe and Brazil (ed. E. van den Boogaart, et al.) remains an essential reference work. Even the catalogue Albert Eckhout Returns to Brazil, 1644-2002 (Barbara Berlowicz, ed., Copenhagen: Nationalmuseet, 2002), which accompanied the Danish/Brazilian exhibition of the same title, provided a more generous view of the diversity of current scholarship and gave greater attention to both the drawings and the still lifes. Finally, since the main thrust of the 2004 catalogue is to call into question both the location of production and the original venue intended for Eckhout’s paintings, it would have been useful to provide a new interpretation of the images to address this. Given the fact that scientific, archival, and visual evidence may be found to support each side of the argument – Brazilian versus European production and display – it seems that a viable interpretation for each scenario is necessary.
Rebecca Parker Brienen
University of Miami
Note: The author’s book, Visions of Savage Paradise: Albert Eckhout, Court Painter in Colonial Dutch Brazil will come out in 2005 (University of Amsterdam Press).