Discovering Brazil with Albert Eckhout
Albert Eckhout: A Dutch Artist in Brazil
In 1578, King Sebastião I of Portugal decided to re-Christianize Morocco. The crusade would have been a dubious proposition in the best of times. This one, however, would have taken a miracle. The King was little more than a boy, and a boy so inbred that he only had four great-grandparents, one (or two) of whom, Queen Juana, was known as “La Loca.” After the Portuguese army crossed into Africa, events took a predictable course: the forces of Sebastião were smashed at Alcazarquivir, south of Tangiers. The young Portuguese king simply vanished.
His death was so ruinous for Portugal that two years later, when Cardinal Dom Henrique, Sebastião’s elderly successor, died, King Philip II of Spain, asserting a dynastic claim, managed to attach Portugal and its empire to the kingdom of Castile. The united empire—all of Latin America, much of Northern France, the northern and southern Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, large parts of Italy, chunks of Africa, the Philippines—was far too big to administer or defend, so there was less to it than met the eye. One contemporary remarked that “the skin alone was of a lion; the flesh was of a lamb.”1
That flesh was being devoured by ceaseless wars with England and France. But the most costly was the Eighty Years’ War against the united provinces of the northern Netherlands, which, though nominally under the control of Spain, had become a first-rank power in its own right by the end of the sixteenth century. The Dutch were always seeking creative ways to hit their old Catholic nemesis, and eventually resolved, in the 1620s, to take the battle to Spain’s rich sugar colony, Brazil. They conquered Recife and Olinda, the principal cities of Pernambuco, in 1630, and eventually extended their control across the whole northeastern hump of South America. The possession of part of Brazil—and of Elmina and Luanda, conquered in expeditions that departed from Recife—meant that the Dutch dominated the world sugar market: the labor supply in Africa, the plantations in Pernambuco, and the refineries in Amsterdam.
The Dutch transformed Recife into South America’s richest and most diverse city. It was populated by Africans and Indians, Dutch and Portuguese, Germans, Italians, Spaniards, Englishmen, and Poles. Because “a greater degree of religious freedom was allowed in Netherlands Brazil than anywhere else in the Western world”2—including in Holland—Jews flocked there: so many that at one point they may have outnumbered white Gentiles in Recife.3 One priest muttered that Recife and its twin city, Olinda, were “como a Sodoma, & Gomorra.”4
That the Dutch period has remained widely known in Brazil is mainly owing to the achievements of its greatest figure, Count Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen. His governorship, from 1637 to 1644, sparked a brief golden age, a reflection of the luminous renaissance at home. He reorganized the colony politically—the New World’s first parliament convened at Recife—and temporarily reconciled the local Portuguese planters to Dutch rule. He planned cities and built forts and conquered new territory both in Brazil and in Africa.
But the count’s most lasting achievements were scientific and artistic. His court included two painters, Albert Eckhout and Frans Post, imported from the Netherlands to document the country’s landscapes and populations. Johan Maurits sponsored research into tropical medicine; one of his palaces had an astronomical observatory and a marvelous zoo. His botanical gardens gathered species from all over Brazil, and from Africa and Asia as well. The books his “expedition” produced remained the standard works on Brazilian natural history for two hundred years. The count was, in short, the model of the enlightened humanist prince.
Despite Johan Maurits’s efforts in Brazil, the situation in Europe had changed dramatically by 1644, when political intrigue at home, and the extravagance implied by the activities listed above, forced his recall. In 1640, after sixty years of captivity, Portugal finally regained its independence. The new king, who understood the fragility of his sovereignty, tried desperately to keep up good relations all around, especially with Spain and Holland. By the end of the 1640s, Portuguese-Brazilian attacks had drastically trim-med the extent of the Dutch domain. The King nevertheless offered several times to pay the Dutch to respect the frontiers of 1641, which included peripheral areas where the Dutch had long since lost de facto control. This would have meant permanently renouncing Portugal’s claims to northern Brazil, but would have protected the south. Portugal could afford to lose Pernambuco—the reasoning went—but its existence as an independent nation hinged on keeping the province of Bahia, a sugar producer as important as Pernambuco. Without any Brazilian revenues, the poor, struggling kingdom would almost certainly have been swallowed up again.
In contrast to Lisbon’s careful diplomacy, the Portuguese in Brazil were taking matters into their own hands. After Johan Maurits left, the Dutch colony began to fall apart. Alleging a long list of complaints,5 the Luso-Brazilians slowly ate away at Dutch territory. In response, many in the Netherlands demanded tough countermeasures: a blockade of the Tagus River—which would have starved Lisbon—and an attack on Bahia. Both propositions were militarily feasible and, if carried out simultaneously, would have sufficed to trigger the collapse of Portugal. Cooler heads understood that this would be a calamity: the Dutch quarrel, they said, had never been with the Portuguese. To help the Spanish crown reunite Iberia would be a debacle of the first order. An independent Portugal, eager to trade, allied against Spain, had far more advantages. Why bother with a huge restive colony, endlessly sucking up money and men?
Behind this explanation lies an-other: the dithering hogen-mogens—the “high and mighty” politicians consumed as ever by domestic squabbles, simply couldn’t make up their minds. Events escaped their control, and the Dutch were expelled in 1654. In that same year, in acknowledgment of political and dip-lomatic favors, including appointment to the Order of the White Elephant, Johan Maurits van Nassau- Siegen presented to the King of Denmark a group of paintings by Albert Eckhout.
The special historical import of Eckhout’s paintings, and of Johan Maurits’s patronage, can be best understood in the context of what came before them: pretty much nothing. Hugh Honour has written:
Eckhout’s paintings have been justly called the first convincing European representations of American Indian physiognomy and physique. Nor are there any earlier depictions of the inhabitants of Southern Africa, India or the East Indies of equivalent ethnological validity.6
When one considers how much time had elapsed between the first explorations of America and Eckhout’s Brazilian career, this comment is shocking. Albert Eckhout disembarked at Recife about 140 years after the first Portuguese arrived in Brazil. This is roughly the same amount of time that separates us from Stanley and Livingstone. Yet from a scientific perspective America was still a dark continent. On the margins of its maps were headless barbarians, men with the faces of dogs, and creatures whose exceedingly large feet could double as umbrellas.
Until the Dutch arrived in the 1630s, the New World had never been examined scientifically. Its flora and fauna had never been catalogued; its peoples had never been systematically described. Yet the Dutch effort to do so was soon forgotten in Europe. By the eighteenth century, America, like the Jews, had become a “debate,” a “question.” In France, the leading scientific nation of the day, the learned view of America was something like this:
A dark immensity, less hostile than repellent, less terrifying than desolate…[where] colors faded and edges blurred and lines disappeared over foggy horizons. Ocean, land, lagoons: everything was indistinct and hazy. The confused, slithering vegetation grew in great tangled heaps. Animals were shifty and lacked a fixed physiognomy. The dogs didn’t bark; the tigers were cowardly; the people dim-witted.7
But Johan Maurits and his artists would not change this. It was not until the voyages of Captain Cook at the end of the eighteenth century that Europeans dignified a new quarter of the world with an equivalent record of its ethnology and topography, its medicine and botany, its zoology, ichthyology, and entomology. Brazil itself would not be examined so carefully until the nineteenth century. Even then, most Europeans would be interested in the New World only to the extent that it reflected their own preconceptions.
Eckhout paid Brazil the supreme compliment of taking it seriously, rendering the place so scrupulously that an observer of his Brazilian paintings can only think: it is as it was. It is no exaggeration to say that when we look at the pictures of Albert Eckhout, we are seeing a world as it had never been seen before, and would never be seen again.
Almost nothing is known about the life of Albert Eckhout. He seems to have been born between 1608 and 1612 in Groningen. He was in Recife in the early 1640s. By 1646 he was back in the Netherlands, where he remained until leaving for Dresden in 1653. In 1663, he reappeared in Groningen as a burgher, a member of the painter’s guild of St. Luke, and a member of the Reformed Church. He was buried at an unknown date in the cemetery of St. Martin’s church in Groningen.
In the absence of biographical data, what remains of Eckhout are eight full-size portraits of the inhabitants of Brazil; three smaller portraits of Africans; twelve still lifes of various fruits; and a large Dance of the Tapuya Indians. These twenty-four paintings have resided in Copenhagen since 1654. In addition, Eckhout’s known oeuvre includes one painting of two Brazilian tortoises in The Hague, four drawings in Berlin, and seven books in Kraków, a compendium of Brazilian natural history with hundreds of other drawings by Eckhout: Theatrum Rerum Naturalium Brasiliae (four volumes), the Libri Principis (two volumes), and the Miscellanea Cleyeri (one volume).
The eight pictures of Brazilians consist of pairs: four men and four women representing the mestizos, Africans, Tupis, and Tapuyas. These “ethnographic portraits” are of a size usually reserved for portraits of royalty—almost ten feet tall—and they are crammed with detail. Every basket and earring and feather and shell is rendered with the arresting accuracy that distinguishes the productions of Johan Maurits’s court. The figures appear with characteristic attributes: the African man is holding a sword typical of the Akan of Ghana, and the African woman basketry with Angolan motifs. The fierce Tapuyas appear naked, the woman bearing the exhibition’s most outrageous crowd-pleaser—sliced human body parts, ready for the dinner table. The Tupis—pastoral Indians the Europeans considered the most civilized of the aborigines—are shown half-clad, the man holding arrows and the woman posed with a child in front of a sugar plantation. The fourth group is a mixed pair of mixed race. A mameluke woman—of mixed Indian and European ancestry—is dressed in a flowing white robe and holding a basket full of flowers. The elegant mulatto man, whose firearm indicates that he was free, stands between papaya plants and a grove of sugarcane.
These people all seem familiar, despite their exotic getups: Tapuyas, who supposedly died out in the early nineteenth century, still walk the streets of Recife, alongside mamelukes and mulattoes and blacks. And their behavior is unmistakably Brazilian: behind the portrait of the Tupi man, Eckhout includes a scene of Indians bathing in a stream. Dutch observers in the seventeenth century were as struck by the Brazilians’ remarkable devotion to personal cleanliness as foreigners are today.8
Three other half-length portraits, probably of an African ambassador, Don Miguel de Castro, who visited Recife in 1643 and his two manservants, are smaller and display none of the botanical abundance of the eight larger pictures. Don Miguel de Castro, the black African envoy of the Congolese king Don Garcia II, was sent to Johan Maurits with gifts befitting the Count’s position as the new lord of the West African slave forts. Don Miguel is dressed in the finery of a European nobleman, but his face expresses sadness rather than pride. The faces of his two servants, dressed less extravagantly but still in the European fashion, look fixedly at some point outside the paintings. Their mysterious expressions show the empathy Eckhout must have felt for them, and the paintings’ deep, enamel-like colors are remarkably beautiful.
The twelve still lifes are unique in that they are the only series of Golden Age Dutch still lifes painted against the open sky. The shifting clouds and the varying light in these paintings make them unusually dramatic. And their huge size thrusts them before the viewer, suggesting how strange the produce of the New World would have seemed when it was first presented to Europeans—and here is where many would have met these vegetables. The free way in which Eckhout painted them does not mean that their detail is any less painstakingly rendered—his oranges, watermelons, and pineapples are so recognizable that we never doubt his sweetsops or dogbanes.
The largest and most enigmatic painting in the exhibition is the great Dance of the Tapuya Indians. Eight naked men are dancing in a circle—the chronicler Barlaeus said the Tapuyas liked to sing for hours on end about their prowess in war and the Portuguese they had killed. The men have pierced cheeks and ears filled with large wads of cotton. Eckhout hardly shows their genitals—a strange prudishness, considering that his portrait of the Tapuya man details that race’s proclivity for penile adornment.
The dark painting is animated by the bright red slashes of macaw feathers, held in the hands of the dancers or worn as headdresses. At the far right, two women covering their mouths with their hands seem to be gossiping or laughing, a contrast to the solemn dancers.
For the first time in three hundred and fifty years, these paintings, lent by the National Museum of Denmark, were on display at the Mauritshuis, Johan Maurits’s mansion in The Hague until recently. No reproduction can convey their cumulative impact. This exhibition marks an exceptional event: the paintings have only been sparingly shown outside Denmark, and have not been seen together in the Netherlands since the seventeenth century. Even with supplemental material,9 they filled only four galleries, leaving most of the Mauritshuis collection intact. The exhibition invited us to see Eckhout in his native context: not only in the house of the man who commissioned his paintings but beside other masterpieces of the Dutch Golden Age.
Of the portraits in the Mauritshuis, only Rembrandt’s self-portraits—if not his rather cramped Two Negroes—surpass Eckhout’s melancholic African envoys. The ten naked natives in the Dance of the Tapuya Indians become hilarious and subversive when imagined beside some of the group portraits of the period. The prancing cannibals present quite a contrast to the starchy regents of Frans Hals, black-and-white models of Calvinist probity; or to the pompous gentlemen in the mammoth canvasses of Bartolomeus van der Helst.
In a standard art history text, Frederick Hartt has written: “Although the [Dutch] painters’ skill was seemingly unlimited, their variety copious, and their number legion, their productions, exhibited today in endless Dutch galleries in leading museums, tend to become monotonous.” Even Dutch painting’s greatest aficionados must reluctantly agree. It is therefore all the odder that the unique and powerful works of Albert Eckhout should have for so long escaped the attention of the public and of many art historians. They have always been considered a slightly wacky hors d’oeuvre: one survey of Dutch painting calls his work an “exotic intermezzo.” Many call him nothing at all: one seeks in vain the dancing Tapuyas in Alois Riegl’s 1902 classic Group Portraiture of Holland.
There may be a couple of reasons for this neglect. There are not many paintings, for one thing. They are concentrated in one place, off the beaten track in Copenhagen. They never come up for auction and so lack the glamour of high prices. And their subject matter long consigned them to the curiosity shop.
As Quentin Buvelot notes in a lucid catalog essay, tracing the influences on Eckhout, as well as the artists he influenced, these images did not have the impact one would expect, either in the seventeenth century or later. References to Eckhout’s paintings appear in a few isolated instances, mainly in the designs of tapestries, but they never gave rise to a new idea of America for Europeans, who preferred more sensationalist depictions.
The myriad scientific details in Eckhout’s paintings are perfectly described in the catalog, which accounts for every leaf and tree and armadillo while remaining readable and concise. Florike Egmond and Peter Mason’s reconstruction of Eckhout’s unknown life is as much detective story as biography. Among their discoveries is his correct name, which seems to have been “Eeckhout.”
They also explain that there is a mystery surrounding the paintings’ intended destination. It was long believed that they were made for Johan Maurits’s Brazilian palace, Vrijburg, but that now seems unlikely. Though they are today displayed in the Mauritshuis, they are too large to have been hung in the house as it was originally configured. The current catalog issues a challenge to researchers: with the elimination of Vrijburg and the Mauritshuis, “the focus of the inquiry shifts from Brazil or the Netherlands to a possible location for which they may have been intended in Denmark.”
The latest revival of Albert Eckhout must be mainly attributed to the paintings’ fame in Brazil, which, in the wake of a four-city tour there in 2002–2003, has only grown. But the Dutch period has long been a Brazilian preoccupation—“No period of national history possesses such abundant literature as the troubled Dutch domination of eastern Brazil,” wrote the historian Alfredo de Carvalho in 1898. The reasons for this preoccupation have shifted dramatically. For many years, that literature, describing the Portuguese triumph as a providential assurance that Brazil would remain unified, Catholic, and Portuguese, was distinctly unfavorable to the Dutch. The large numbers of Jews in Dutch Recife also meant that the tone of these criticisms was often anti-Semitic. As late as 1979, the nationalist blowhard Gilberto Freyre could approvingly cite an earlier historian who saw the war against the Dutch as a struggle between “the cross and the shop-counter.”
There is another tradition in Brazilian historiography, one that defends many of the Dutch achievements. One writer compared the two colonial powers: “[With the institution of the Inquisition] the Portuguese expelled the classes that had freed themselves from feudalism…while the Dutch shook off old systems and embraced private initiative.”10 In 1876, the great liberal Emperor Pedro II traveled to Copenhagen and ordered copies of Albert Eckhout’s paintings, which can still be seen at the Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro.
This latter school is triumphant today, and nostalgia for Dutch rule is nowhere more palpable than in Johan Maurits’s capital, Recife, where, in 2002, two major museums opened. Kahal zur Israel, the first synagogue in the New World, built under Dutch rule in 1637, has been renovated as a Jewish cultural center. The Instituto Ricardo Brennand is a San Simeonesque fortress built by a Pernambuco magnate to display his collections, whose centerpiece is artworks and books relating to Netherlands Brazil. It also holds the world’s largest private collection of the paintings of Eckhout’s fellow traveler Frans Post, who painted the first Brazilian landscapes and whose works are, like Eckhout’s, widely admired in Brazil. After his return from South America, Post specialized in Brazilian landscapes for the rest of his life. Many of these, such as the beautiful Brazilian Landscape with the Sacrifice of Manoah (Museum Boymans–van Beuningen, Rotterdam), simply used Brazil as a backdrop to traditional subjects. Though his works can be subtle and elegant, they lack something of Eckhout’s overwhelming ambition.
There is a more poignant reason for the paintings’ popularity among the masses of Brazilians: a sense that something went wrong in a coun-try so naturally blessed. In 1941, shortly before killing himself in the Brazilian resort town of Petrópolis, Stefan Zweig could still call Brazil the “Country of the Future.” In Tropical Truth, published in 1997, the singer Caetano Veloso described his country as “a failed nation ashamed of having once been called ‘the country of the future.'” Colonização portuguesa is popu-larly believed to be the source of this problem, and many Brazilians hold the Portuguese in low regard. If only we had been sired by an industrious, tolerant people—people like the Dutch—rather than by the lazy, bumbling Portuguese, we would have stood a better chance.
The argument is more than a little nonsensical. Brazil is, after all, more impressive than neighboring Suriname, which was showered with the benefits of Dutch rule long into the twentieth century. And while the Dutch were certainly more tolerant of the Jews than the Portuguese, they were just as dependent on African slavery. Even Johan Maurits, whose Brazilian rule was unquestionably glorious, spent most of the rest of his life as statholder of Cleves, where he was a dogged defender of absolutism.
But none of this really matters to the magic of Albert Eckhout’s work. The reason his paintings are so much admired in the land that inspired them is the undeniable impression he gives: that we are seeing the world for the very first time, a world complete, before the fall and the flood.
Auguste de Guelen, Kort verhael vanden staet van Fernanbuc (Amsterdam, 1640). ↩
Charles R. Boxer, The Dutch in Brazil, 1624–1654 (Oxford University Press/ Clarendon Press, 1957). ↩
Eleazar Córdova-Bello, Compañías holandesas de navegación, agentes de la colonización neerlandesa (Seville: Escuela de estudios hispano-americanos, 1964). ↩
Frei Manoel Calado, O Valeroso Lucideno, e triumpho da liberdade, primeira parte (Lisbon, 1648). ↩
The Jesuit António Vieira wrote: “The principal motives for the rebellion were that they had taken a lot of money from the Hollanders and could not or did not want to repay them.” Quoted in Pedro Calmon, História do Brasil, Vol. 2 (Rio de Janeiro: José Olympio, 1971). ↩
See “Science and Exoticism: The European Artist and the Non-European World Before Johan Maurits,” in Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen 1604–1679: A Humanist Prince in Europe and Brazil, edited by Ernst van den Boogaart (The Hague: Johan Maurits van Nassau Stichting, 1979). A magnificent essay that explains in great detail how the Americas were depicted before Eckhout. ↩
Philippe Roger, L’Ennemi américain: Généalogie de l’antiaméricanisme français (Paris: Seuil, 2002), pp. 28–29. See also Henry Steele Commager and Elmo Giordanetti, Was America a Mistake? (Harper and Row, 1967). ↩
See Quentin Buvelot, “Albert Eckhout: A Dutch Artist in Brazil,” in the current catalog, pp. 19 and 143 n. 25. Devotion to cleanliness has long been a source of national pride. Aluísio Azevedo’s 1890 novel O Cortiço tracks a Portuguese immigrant’s Brazilianization: as he acquires a taste for beans and cachaça, he also learns the importance of frequent bathing. ↩
It is lamentable that the seven albums from Kraków are absent. Since the war, these volumes, which spent three centuries in Berlin, have been imprisoned in the Jagiellonian Library. Eager to keep their hands on these pilfered treasures, the Polish authorities refuse to let them be shown abroad, even in Holland and Brazil, where they are of vital importance. ↩
José Honório Rodrigues, Historiografia e bibliografia do domínio holandês no Brasil (Rio de Janeiro, Departamento da Imprensa Nacional, 1949). ↩