Rebecca Parker Brienen, Visions of Savage Paradise: Albert Eckhout, Court Painter in Colonial Dutch Brazil. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006. 288 pp, 17 color, 72 b&w illus. ISBN 978-90-5356-947-4 and 978-90-5356-947-2.
Julie Berger Hochstrasser, Still Life and Trade in the Dutch Golden Age. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007. 320 pp, 69 color, 97 b&w illus. ISBN 978-0-300-10038-9.
Rebecca Parker Brienen’s Visions of Savage Paradise: Albert Eckhout, Court Painter in Colonial Dutch Braziland Julie Berger Hochstrasser’s Still Life and Trade in the Dutch Golden Age are, in some ways, two sides of the same coin: they examine effects – the visual documentation – of exotic travel and exploration by the Dutch in the seventeenth century. Hochstrasser examines the impact of the Dutch East India Company (VOC from the Dutch initials) trading with India, Indonesia and China, and the Dutch West India Company (WIC) in the Americas, largely in terms of items that were brought back to Europe (sugar, tea, tobacco, etc.) and their subsequent appearance in paintings. Brienen concentrates on the artist Albert Eckhout in Brazil and the role of the West India Company there. (Indeed, Hochstrasser also includes a discussion on Eckhout within the more lengthy discussion of the Dutch Brazilian colony.)
We get a glimpse of the exotic from the very beginning of Brienen’s Introduction, in which she proposes that we imagine Eckhout’s arrival with the artist Frans Post and the colony’s new governor, Johan Maurits in Recife, Brazil, in 1637, and those who may have come to greet the ship: merchants, employees of the WIC, “Portuguese planters, members of the Jewish Community, African slaves, free people of mixed ethnic background and representatives of local indigenous groups” – with squawking flocks of green parrots flying overhead and in view of passion flowers and papayas. The color, sounds and wonders of this world even today, more than 450 years later, are still exotic. Although Brienen’s focus is Eckhout, she provides a larger context for this western artist’s life and predecessors in Brazil and fields the issue of his “ethnographic art.”
Brienen’s book should also be considered with the 2004 exhibition catalogue, Albert Eckhout, A Dutch Artist in Brazil (ed. Quentin Buvelot), for the exhibition at the Mauritshuis, The Hague, which covers much the same material and acknowledges Brienen’s previous work. The larger format of that catalogue and its many larger and detailed illustrations make it more accessible – but it cannot replace Brienen’s book. They cover much the same material but do not entirely agree (the artist’s birth year, in fact, is a contentious point – Brienen thinks c. 1607, not c. 1610), and the focus in the exhibition (despite its title) is really on the patron and the WIC.
Brienen discusses possible explanations for Eckhout’s extraordinary paintings and the possibility of a pictorial cycle – including eight “ethnographic life-size paintings for a ‘princely chamber’ for Vrijburg Palace.” Later, these and other works (26 in all) would be a gift of the Count Johan Maurits to his cousin Frederick III of Denmark for his kunstkamer (and they remain in Copenhagen today). Other works also went to Louis XIV of France and the Elector of Brandenburg. The wonder of the Brazilian world – its people, flora, vegetation – created a universal desire and one that Maurits could barter for money and title.
Africans and multi-ethnic Brasilianen, Tapuyas and Tupinamba peoples and those called Mulattos and Mameluca of the New World are the subject of Eckhout’s stunning life-size paintings. To what degree should we hold Eckhout accountable for a realistic portrait of them? And are these men and women slaves or free? Are they even “noble free” people? The role of African slaves in Brazil and labor for the WIC is integral to her study – as it is critical, with a different slant, for Hochstrasser. But as Brienen points out – and Hochstrasser stresses – this Dutch colony could not have successfully existed without slavery. Over 60,000 African slaves were reportedly laboring in the Dutch-occupied Pernambuco (Brazil) by mid-century. The Dutch Court and the WIC did much to cement relations with the Congo and Angola to assure West African slave trade. From 1634 onwards, the WIC was actively involved in the importation of slaves into the Americas.
This information is also critical to Hochstrasser’s theme from the beginning. As commodities (lavishly illustrated) are her central concentration (with chapters on the VOC and the WIC) her subheadings are: cheese, herring, beer (local); grain, lemons (also oranges – via Europe); pepper, porcelain, tea (via VOC); and salt, tobacco, sugar (via WIC). We should not be surprised to see that the subheading slaves as a commodity (via WIC), was a necessary one. In each case, Hochstrasser uses Dutch (and Flemish) still-life painting to show how and when the commodities appeared through trade. In the midst of Chinese porcelain and Turkish carpets, the use of black Africans in painting is likened to the display of a commodity as part of “riches from abroad.” She unequivocally states that everyone who even invested in the WIC was involved in the slave trade. One cannot separate one aspect of it from another. The slave trade is not just apparent in the presence of Africans in paintings, but in the presence of other commodities that were only available as a result of slave labor.
Hochstrasser investigates the commodities in depth – as they are seen, as they were traded, where they came from, their mention in diaries, diets, documents, poems, prints, and their relation to Spanish, Portuguese, and English traders’ ships. Not only will one not look at still-life the same way – one will not even look at salt the same way! And certainly not sugar (and the spun-sugar sweets in still-life painting), since often it was the sugar production that was the reason for the grueling life of plantation slave labor in Brazil. Although the Dutch did not begin the slave trade, by the 1630s they were well into it. The wealth of the Golden Age, all set before us in pronkstilleven, could not have been available without it.
With Hochstrasser’s unraveling of the still lifes and their sources and Brienen’s analysis of the role of Eckhout and the WIC in Brazil, we can no longer look at these works and only write about composition. Their work challenges us to change ours.
Frima Fox Hofrichter