The New Golden Land: European Images of America from the Discoveries to the Present Time
The European Vision of America
The European Vision of America 1976
To see ourselves’ as others see us can be a disconcerting experience, but at the age of two hundred it should be possible to absorb the shock. If the Bicentennial celebrations were to include nothing else than the remarkable exhibition of “The European Vision of America,” which opened on December 7 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, they would still have amply justified themselves. The exhibition is a triumph for the organizers, the Cleveland Museum of Art, with the collaboration of the National Gallery of Art and the Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Paris; and it is a triumph, too, for the guest curator, Mr. Hugh Honour, whose patient researches brought the exhibition into being, and whose elegant disquisitions on its contents and its theme will confer upon it life after death.
Mr. Honour not only scoured Europe and America for suitable exhibits. He also prepared the highly informative and comprehensively illustrated exhibition catalogue—itself an important documentary record—and has produced, in The New Golden Land, a general study of the theme which stands quite independent of the exhibition but adds immeasurably to its appreciation.
It is entirely appropriate that an art historian known especially for his work on chinoiserie should have turned to such a topic, for américainerie is no more American than chinoiserie is Chinese. The New Golden Land is essentially a study in misconceptions. It is a historical account of the visual, and to a lesser extent of the literary, image of America from the fifteenth century to the twentieth, not as America was, but as it was thought to be. At times there are moments when the image comes close to reality, or at least to aspects of it. David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, with its empty blue sky, its empty chair, and its no longer empty blue pool, tells us something at least about modern California which we know is not entirely unrelated to the truth. But if we turn back four centuries to Jan Mostaert’s West Indian Scene, resplendent at the exhibition even behind its Plexiglas, the artist’s hold on the American reality appears tenuous in the extreme.
What relation has this idyllic pastoral landscape, with its placidly browsing sheep and cows, to the harsh tableland of central Mexico, or even—where it is sometimes located—to southwestern Arizona? And what have these running naked figures, with the gestures and proportions of Mantegna nudes from the antique, to do with Indians? As the first known European painting of the New World, Mostaert’s sets a standard of misrepresentation which would seem difficult to equal, were it not that a substantial proportion of the more than three hundred exhibits that follow bear witness to the contrary.
Anyone who tours the opening rooms of the exhibition might well be forgiven for thinking that the standard sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European image of America is a severed leg. Time and again it appears, whether hanging from the branches of an Indian hut in the bottom left-hand corner of Johann Huttich’s world map after Holbein, or peeping out of the basket carried by Albert Eckhout’s Brazilian woman of 1641. It is clear that reports of Indian cannibalism had deeply impressed themselves on the European consciousness in the Age of Discovery, and a truncated limb became an essential prop to indicate the location of the scene.
Gradually the image softens as Europe confers upon America the benefits of at least partial civilization. Allegory takes over in the Age of the Baroque, with America as an almost naked classical goddess wearing the regulation feathers on her head, and somewhat uncomfortably perched on the regulation American animal, an armor-plated armadillo. By the late eighteenth century new images are beginning to appear. The goddess, less goddesslike, has become a maiden in distress, rescued by American patriots and the virtuous French. There are noble savages, too, and mourning Indians, and Christopher Columbus makes a surprisingly belated entry into a world which he had discovered three centuries before.
All this is entertaining, and Hugh Honour makes the most of its delights. The New Golden Land is a beautifully written and perceptive book, with the additional merit of illustrating almost every work of art it discusses. It is not a work of profound originality, in that it draws heavily on other studies of the image and impact of America, and notably on Antonello Gerbi’s. The Dispute of the New World. But Mr. Honour deftly and elegantly weaves the work of others into his own design, and constantly adds those personal touches which testify to wide and intelligent reading and to the highly sensitive visual responses of a connoisseur.
It is easy, too, to underestimate the amount of original research that has gone into the preparation of the catalogue and of the book, so light is the presentation and so civilized the style. The extraordinarily poignant painting by Joseph Wright of Derby of the Indian widow (very Roman, to be sure) mourning her warrior husband (number 184 in the exhibition) had not previously been connected with James Adair’s History of the American Indians, published in 1775. But when Mr. Honour quotes from Adair that “if he is a war-leader, she is obliged for the first moon, to sit in the day-time under his mourning war-pole, which is decked with all his martial trophies, and must be heard to cry with bewailing notes,” the source of Wright’s inspiration becomes immediately apparent.
But Mr. Honour’s achievement is original in a further, and more important, way. Several studies exist of the literary image of America in the European imagination, but until now there has been no general survey of the visual image. This was badly needed, and between them the book and the exhibition fill this need. Together they will form the starting point for all future investigations of a fascinating and highly suggestive theme.
The exhibition tells us something about America; and indeed it would be odd if it did not, since it includes the work of several European artists, from Frans Post to Degas, who at some stage in their lives set up their easels on American soil. But it tells us a great deal more about Europe and the European imagination. For the America of these artists is a land of promise, or of disappointed promise, and to understand the nature both of the promise and the disappointment one is driven back to the ideas and preconceptions with which Europeans confronted the New World.
It was Columbus who provided the first stereotype of America—an America compounded, as Mr. Honour points out, of an idealized Europe and the fabled Orient. Medieval images of the terrestrial paradise, where Adam and Eve walk naked and unashamed, and of the golden age described by the authors of classical antiquity, intermingle with images of amazons and anthropophagi, drawn from the imaginative pages of the possibly imaginary Sir John Mandeville. These images of the known, or the supposedly known, provided points of reference for approaching what was still unknown, and they constantly recur in European representations of America and its inhabitants in the sixteenth century.
It was, after all, difficult for Europeans to approach the New World in any other way. Take, for example, the question of nakedness among Caribbean islanders or Brazilian Indians, to which Mr. Honour might have given more attention. Every Christian knew that man since the Fall had been ashamed to be naked, but yet here were people, presumably children of Adam, who apparently felt no shame. How was this to be explained? Either the Indians were indeed living exemplars of prelapsarian man—a hopeful prospect that was all too promptly dashed—or else they deviated in important ways from the norm of manhood as understood by late medieval and heavily clothed Europeans. This could be explained by the fact that they were under the spell of the devil, and were in some respects deficient in the exercise of those rational powers which distinguished men from beasts.
Here the European could fall back on the Biblical story of Nebuchadnezzar, who was “driven from men and did eat grass as oxen.” The image of Nebuchadnezzar as the man who had temporarily lost his reason contributed to the medieval mental picture of the wild man, who would emerge terrifyingly from the forest where he led a solitary and brutish life. Mr. Honour shows us an illustration to Vespucci’s Mundus Novus representing two natives whom he describes as “merely naked Europeans…with long, curly Düreresque beards and hair.” But did not this illustration draw too on the wild man of medieval legend?
Images are everywhere—images of innocent man and fallen man, noble savages and ignoble savages, idealized and Romanized American patriots (Franklin’s portrait, with the one word Vir on the frame, prompted one enthusiast to write of him as “one of the world’s most handsome men…. His large forehead suggests strength of mind and his robust neck the firmness of his character”), and Chateaubriand’s Atala, the melancholy North American Indian doomed to extinction. But where, one may well ask after feasting upon this self-indulgent imagery, is the reality?
It is, of course, obvious that a large number of the artists discussed by Mr. Honour were not in the least concerned with reality. They had never been to America, and they drew upon America either to introduce an exotic or titillating element into works of art designed for a resolutely European public, or to make some general statement which reflected the preoccupations of their age. But there is a smaller and more interesting class of artists, whom it would be helpful to see discussed and analyzed as a group—artists who did go to America and did genuinely attempt to capture aspects of the American scene. How faithful were their representations, and how and where did they fail?
George Eliot wrote in Middlemarch: “perhaps that was a more cheerful time for observers and theorizers than the present; we are apt to think it the finest era of the world when America was beginning to be discovered, when a bold sailor, even if he were wrecked, might alight on a new kingdom.” Behind that “more cheerful time for observers” there seems to lurk the Ruskinian doctrine of the innocent eye, with a whole new world of sights to be captured by the fresh vision of the artist. But what the exhibition makes abundantly clear is that it was not the innocent but the selective eye that viewed America. There is some innocence here, but a good deal more selection.
Some of the selection is, no doubt, conscious. The beautiful watercolors by John White of American birds, plants, and fish do capture the freshness of an unspoiled America. So, too, do his depictions of Indian village life; and yet may not the scenes be too idyllic, too carefully selected, as if to impress the sixteenth-century British public with the pleasures rather than the hardships of colonial ventures?
But the unconscious selection is perhaps more important, and more interesting, than the conscious. Over and over again the preconceptions intrude. In particular the pursuit of the curious and the exotic tends to get in the way of accurate representation—hardly surprising, perhaps, when one thinks of the Europe of the Wunderkammer, the curio cabinet stuffed with birds, beasts, and native artifacts displayed to the admiring eye of the beholder in Jan van Kessel’s America.
One of the most interesting artists in this respect, because of the bifocal nature of his vision, and an artist who is too rapidly passed over by Mr. Honour, is the Dutchman Frans Post. Post was one of that group of artists, scientists, and scholars who were gathered around Count John Maurice of Nassau, appointed the first governor-general of Dutch Brazil in 1637. As a meticulous and well-trained Dutch artist Post had obvious difficulties in coming to terms with a landscape so utterly different from the landscapes of his native Europe. How could he show the endless horizons, the brilliant light, the intense colors of Brazil when very little in his experience had equipped him for this? By looking down the wrong end of a telescope to concentrate his vision, he does succeed in capturing a kind of quintessential Brazil, a vast and empty country where the lonely capybara browses near the cactus. If the tones were still European, the American reality had successfully made itself felt. But once Post returned to Holland the vision began to fade. The theatrical and the exotic acquired a new prominence in his paintings, and the Brazil that he offered his public was the Brazil it wanted to see.
The difficulties and the temptations confronting the European artist in America are well illustrated by the work and career of Frans Post. It is therefore all the more impressive to see them occasionally overcome. One of Mr. Honour’s most interesting artists, and one of the revelations of the exhibition, is a companion of Frans Post in Brazil, Albert Eckhout. His Brazilian fruits, set against great empty skies, are excitingly theatrical, the wondering response of a European to the wildly exotic. But his sketches of Tapuya Indians have all the hallmark of objectivity—vivid and immediate drawings of Indians who were also human beings. And Mr. Honour rightly dwells on his extraordinary depiction of a Tapuya war dance, where he seems to break away from stereotypes and become a matter-of-fact eyewitness of a totally alien scene.
In naturalistic representation there is perhaps nothing comparable to the work of Eckhout until the arrival in the United States in 1866 of the Swiss artist Frank Buchser, to whom Mr. Honour devotes some of his most perceptive pages. Buchser, too, arrived with preconceived ideas, but he, too, gradually modified them during his five years in the country. Breaking away from the Claude-like images which still helped to determine the European and the native American response to the American landscape, he sketched his way westward capturing an America that was at once dying and being born. Buchser’s blacks and his Indians are authentic characters, stepping out of the American reality instead of the European imagination.
How is it that artists like Eckhout and Buchser transcended the preconceived image where others failed? This is a question that one would have liked to see discussed. But transcending a preconceived image does not necessarily of itself make for better art. Of the three hundred and fifty objects in the exhibition inspired to a greater or lesser degree by America, scarcely a handful rises much above the interesting, the attractive, and the curious. America does not seem—so far at least—to have brought out the best in European artists. There are several possible reasons for this, but one of the most illuminating is given by Degas in a letter from New Orleans quoted by Mr. Honour: “Manet would see lovely things here, even more than I do”; but, Degas continued, “he would not make any more of them. One loves and gives art only to those things to which one is accustomed. New things capture your fancy and bore you by turns.” Was it perhaps the very novelty of this New World which ultimately defeated the European artist?