Benjamin Schmidt’s new book explores a shift in the way that Europeans thought about non-Europeans that occurred between the ages of European world exploration and the onset of colonialism, when localized impressions of the diverse regions of the world gave way to a generalized European sense of “us” and “them.” This change flattened out distinctions among European groups, and ultimately among world populations. The author emphasizes the role of the publishing ateliers of the Dutch Republic in this evolution, specifically via the specialized genre of travel writing, which Schmidt calls exotic geography. He analyzes numerous travel publications spanning his period, from Johan Nieuhof’s 1665 volume on China, Het gezantschap der Neêrlandtsche Oost-Indische Compagnie, aan den grooten Tartarischen Cham, den tegenwoordigen Keizer van China, to Pieter van der Aa’s ca. 1729 66-volume global overview, La galerie agréable du monde.
Detailed illustrations, advertised as the production of eyewitnesses, characterize the published travel accounts under investigation here, their abundance constituting an essential marketing strategy of the Dutch publishers. The Dutch Republic in the late seventeenth century was ideally positioned to dominate the illustrated travel book market, with its strong tradition of image-making, skilled engravers, and freedom from guild and royal oversight. Capable of publishing texts in multiple languages and alphabets, with high-quality inset and full-folio images, Dutch publishers did just that for the entire European market. This development, proto-capitalist in its ambition, grew up alongside the market for the exotic goods stoked by the Dutch East and West India Companies.
Expanding upon recent scholarship that has questioned the authenticity of first-hand accounts in early Dutch publications, Schmidt finds the so-called eyewitness language contained in Dutch travel publications to be either exaggerated or outright fraudulent. Jacob van Meurs, for example, based his 1665 account of travel in China on Johan Nieuhof’s journal describing that author’s experiences as an envoy of the Dutch East India Company. The text was greatly augmented by ethnographic and natural history descriptions from earlier Jesuit accounts, then smoothly edited to seem like a unified eyewitness narrative. Moreover, although the book contains a number of engravings based on Nieuhof’s own drawings, the publisher’s engravers fabricated nearly half of the book’s approximately 150 illustrations from alternate sources and their own imagination.
Nieuhof, at least, did travel the world. Other prolific travel writers such as Arnoldus Montanus and Olfert Dapper, however, did not. The fictions of Dutch exotic geography production were apparent to rival European authors and publishers, as Schmidt explains at several points. Yet even so, Dutch books sold better than the sometimes more empirical and less lavishly illustrated (and therefore less expensive) European competition. As the imagery from the Dutch books circulated beyond their original publications, this Dutch-made exotic geography also resonated longer and more broadly than other European travel literature.
Schmidt catalogues numerous efforts made by Dutch publishers to massage original travel accounts into saleable books. In generating a consistent, if fraudulent, narrative voice, Dutch publishers smoothed over parochial differences (religious, political, and geographic) among authors, generating a text with pan-European appeal. This distinguishes the output of this transitional period from earlier Dutch texts, such as those discussed in Schmidt’s 2006 Innocence Abroad, when Dutch authors were using definitively Dutch nationalist rhetoric in their accounts of the New World. The rhetorical shift occurred as the Dutch Republic’s grip on global trade began to loosen in favor of the trading companies of England and France; instead of products, the Republic shifted to dominating the market for information about the world overseas. The result was problematic, with inconsistencies and inaccuracies introduced by the multiple layers of mediation of both images and text. The homogenized European voice of this new exotic geography, however, effectively described an increasingly homogenized global other, which would enable the colonialist rhetoric of later periods.
The author also considers the long life of the images produced in these publishing houses, as they were reused within a workshop, pirated by rivals, and eventually appeared in pattern books for decorative arts, losing their geographic specificity as they were translated. A feathered Brazilian Tupinamba “Indian” somehow became both the symbol of America and of Africa, as exotic geography was reworked as decorative detail on maps and other visual and material culture. Specificity fell away to a universalizing vision of the “other,” a concept much explored in studies of the eighteenth century and beyond, but which had its beginnings, Schmidt asserts, in this transitional period. The non-European is further degraded as readers distanced themselves from the violence of intra-European conflicts of the past century by outsourcing violence to Asia, both in text and image. The fascination with the Asian body, with erotic and violent dimensions, that would be key to Orientalist obsessions, began with the Jesuit Adriano de las Cortes’s c. 1625 drawings of Chinese torture, which were reproduced in Dapper’s book on China and subsequently repeated across publications as well as in material culture. Schmidt’s account concludes with a discussion of the transmediation of these images as they were used as source material for the decorations on chinoiserie and other exotic objects.
Jacob van Meurs, the publisher responsible for issuing Nieuhof’s foundational work on China as well as volumes authored by Dapper, Montanus, Wouter Schouten, and Jan Jansz Struys, is the brightest star of Schmidt’s book. Trained as an engraver, Van Meurs was likely specifically responsible for the design and perhaps even the engraving of many of the images in his published works. By no means is Inventing Exoticism a monograph, however. The book also includes lengthy discussions of publishers Johannes Janssonius van Waesberge and Johannes van Someren, as well as authors Athanasius Kircher, Hendrik Adriaan van Reede tot Drakenstein, Philip Baldaeus, Nicholaes Witsen, and Georg Rumphius.
Although marketed primarily as a work of history and geography, Inventing Exoticism is bound to become a key text for understanding both the publishing industry of the early modern Dutch Republic as well as the visual culture production of the printed book and the iterations of these motifs across materials. It brings together a great deal of information and visual material pertaining to a genre often overlooked in histories of Dutch publishing or engraving. Schmidt himself is a historian, yet his handling of so much visual material shows both a keen eye for repeating motifs and a careful consideration of this visual and material culture. This is a compellingly and accessibly written account, and generously illustrated. The chapters interweave nicely to create a coherent argument that marches across their generally chronological order. Additionally, Inventing Exoticism is a valuable contribution to the growing subfield of global Dutch art history, as Schmidt considers the interactions, both real and imagined, between the Dutch Republic and the world.
Marsely L. Kehoe
Kendall College of Art and Design