Noble or Ignoble Savages?

Almost exactly five years ago, I gave my first research presentation in a graduate seminar. This seminar was dedicated to Northern Baroque art, and I chose to write on the Dutch artist Albert Eckhout. However, even though Eckhout is Dutch, I am mostly interested in the paintings he created while living in Brazil. The Dutch established a colony in Brazil (called “The New Netherlands”) in 1636, and the following year Eckhout traveled to the new colony as a commissioned artist. The governor-general of the colony, Johann Maurits, wanted Ekhout (and fellow artist Frans Post) to work as documentarists and paint the flora, fauna and indigenous people of the area. As part of the work, Eckhout painted eight portraits of the different indigenous people in the area, including Tupi Woman (c. 1641-44, shown right).

However, in my graduate presentation, I argued that even though Eckhout was hired as a “documentarist,” he doesn’t visually record the native people with a dispassionate eye of scientific observation. Nor do I think that these portraits were displayed as scientific images. Instead, I see these Brazilian portraits as a symbol of conquest. For one thing, Governor Maurits chose to display these portraits within his Vrijburg palace in Dutch Brazil. Maurits not only “owned” the subject matter within the painting, but the native people were therefore captured, defeated, and regulated to the walls of the palace.

Furthermore, Eckhout continually emphasizes the “Otherness” of the subjects of his Brazilian portraits. These portraits encourage the viewer to understand and define them on a basis of comparison against Western culture. As can be seen in his Tupi Woman, Eckhout is interested in emphasizing the cannibalism and nakedness of this native group. Ethnic stereotypes can be seen in the other portraits too. The Mameluke Woman (c. 1641-44, shown left) is depicted as a coquettish concubine in garb that is quite non-European (not only with the loose fitting dress, but because she apparently isn’t wearing a girdle or underclothing). Her raised dress and exposed leg suggest the sexual “profitability” of native people to the conquering Dutch. In fact, these mameluke women (a mixture of Indian and European blood) were stereotypically seen by the Dutch as being promiscuous and sexually available.

I’m not going to outline the rest of my argument here, since I assume people can catch the gist of my interpretation. The reason why I am writing this post, however, is to flesh out a thought in relation to the scale of these paintings. (For some unknown reason, this thought unexpectedly popped into my head as I was washing dishes last night.)

These portraits are created on a large scale (they are life size), which could imply that Eckhout was attempting to elevate and honor the Brazilian natives in his paintings. In fact, my professor suggested as much when she critiqued my graduate presentation. She also pointed out that the trees in the background form a makeshift “cloth of honor,” a visual tradition found in other Northern European portraits of nobility. Although I can see how one could interpret these aspects positively, I think that an opposite stance can be taken. I think that the grand scale and “cloth of honor” actually magnify the “Otherness” of the sitters. The Tupi woman is not only naked, but she’s really naked. She’s large-scale naked. And she doesn’t really get a “cloth” of honor, does she? Instead of luxurious red velvet, this woman is shown in front of a native tree which furnishes imposing, machete-like pods.1 I’m not sure if that is really ennobling. I think the uncomfortable juxtaposition of Western traditions (the grand scale painting with an impromptu “cloth of honor”) with non-Western subject matter makes the “Otherness” of the subjects even more apparent.

What do others (and Others!) think? Do you think that the grand scale and “cloth of honor” serve to ennoble these indigenous portrait sitters? Why or why not?

1 I should point out that trees previously had been used as natural “cloths of honor” in Northern Baroque art (consider Van Dyck’s portrait, Charles I at the Hunt (1635)). In the Charles I portrait, however, Van Dyck doesn’t try to draw much attention to the tree. Instead, the tree is mainly used as a framing device. I think this is different from Eckhout’s portraits, who takes pains to emphasize the non-Western nature of the plant life.

**When pulling together my previous research for this post, I also stumbled upon a book that was written in 2007 (one year after my graduate school presentation). I’m very curious to read Rebecca Parker Brienen’s book, Visions of Savage Paradise: Albert Eckhout, Court Painter in Colonial Dutch Brazil. From what I can tell online, she and I are interested in the same topics and interpretations for this piece. Like Brienen, I think that Eckhout’s work is “informed by sexual as well as ethnic stereotypes.” We must have been researching these ideas around the same time. Fer Hegel’s Geist! You can see a preview of Brienen’s book here.

  • a caprichosa says:

    So apropos. I just used Eckhout in my thesis as the founder of an artistic trajectory that created stereotypical views of indigenous and Afro-Brazilian races. One fact that supports your thesis: those are some pretty phallic trees.

  • M says:

    Funny that you mention that, a caprichosa. A good part of my original paper focused on the phallic pods/fruit/trees in Eckhout's portraits. Very, very true. If you mentioned that phallic imagery in your thesis, no doubt you included Eckhout's African Man. (Yikes!)

  • H Niyazi says:

    Interesting post!

    It seems this is Brazilian iteration of the colonial style. Similar romanticised, historically inaccurate images exist of people from India and Australia made by British artists during their occupation of that region.

    For more info on this, there is the great online resource "Art & Empire" by Professor J Mackenzie

    Kind Regards

  • heidenkind says:

    Did Eckhout paint just images of women, or are there portraits of Native men, too?

  • Margarida Elias says:

    Wonderfil post. I didn't know the work of this painter and I find it very intersting. I agree with you, I don't think he was honouring those women.

  • Michael Robinson says:

    Your post is brief so I have no idea if you considered the following, instead of considering the paintings as independent works of art, view the pictures as but one aspect of a decorative schema for a baroque administrative building constructed by the “GWIC”at the center of its most important colony, a major symbolic and economic acquisition in the ‘Eighty Years war.’

    Mauritsstad was consciously designed as model city by Peter Post, & the Vrijburg palace formed its heart, and was the focus of a consciously structured Dutch social hierarchy. I would have thought conscious design played a role in every aspect and it might be inappropriate to consider any element of this design in isolation as an independent aesthetic entity rather than as a surviving fragment of a container for baroque social performance. Do any other such schema survive, are there drawings for such in archives – alas I know not. However it was less than a decade later, in 1648, that the City of Amsterdam began construction of the elaborate, and elaborately decorated, ‘Town Hall’ (now Royal Palace, Amsterdam) designed as a setting for the Amsterdam burgomasters who conceived of themselves as the consuls of the new Rome, might analysis of the design and decoration of that building provide some insights?

  • H Niyazi says:

    @Michael Robinson – the physical context of where the works were planned to be house is worth considering in a comparitive analysis – but not just within the narrow scope of Dutch Baroque art and social politics alone.

    The prevalent values of the artist is working within will dictate the style in this type of work. Rather than depicting what they see as a field scientist would, they transform what they see to visual language that suits their present moment.

    We see the same thing in all art movements – the Virgin in Medieval art looks like a Middle Ages nun, in the Renaissance she is more idealised and wears faux classical garb, and by the Baroque she is a woman on the street(as in Caravaggio's depiction for example)

    What makes Eckhout,and these idealised, historically inaccurate depictions any different? They seem to serve the prevelant values of his own time more than anything internal.


  • Sedef says:

    Fascinating post… I am currently reading about Gauguin and the main idea behind his Tahitian paintings and Eckhout's work you mention here seems to be the same… Any thoughts?

  • Benjamin (Ben) says:

    Fascinating material, M. Is there a connection between these eight portraits and personifications of the seasons / different times of year? That's what they immediately reminded me of.

  • Michael Robinson says:

    @ HNyazi

    I understand your general point — however I making specific observations about not about ‘physical placement’; but about a particular structure, made for a particular series of uses, in a particular place and a specific culture at a particular time. Observations should be made of from and conclusions drawn from the Company's other surviving buildings, their archives and the archives and contacts of the particular members both in the Netherlands and Brazil – one mines the contemporary sources and attempts to understand, as best one can, the frame of reference of the particular individuals and group within the specific culture of the period: the type of careful specific analysis undertaken by Michael Baxandel in 'Painting and Experience in 15th century Italy', 'Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence' for two examples.

    For me the drawing of general conclusions from ex post facto historicist categories is a method that serves only to provide projections of ones pre-conceptions. For example you used said above ‘Similar romanticized, historically inaccurate images exist of people from India and Australia made by British artists during their occupation of that region.’ Without clarification of ‘romantic’ I am at a loss to understand you: do you mean romantic in an early 19th century English sense, or in the different sense of the mid 18th , the meaning of the term changed in time period covered by your sentence; or, since this is a discussion in the context of art history, might you mean one of the differing German language and cultural senses as they changed over time from Winkleamann onward? And I would need further to understand how the specific ‘bundle of concepts’ you are alluding to with the term applies to the worldview of a seventeenth century Dutch painter working in what is now Brazil. Further, in order to have some idea of an ‘historically inaccurate image’ I would also need to know your reference data point for an ’historically accurate image.’

  • Val Span says:

    I had the same thought Ben had – adding in the African Man painting, each setting shows a different geographical view. The pictures strike me as a type of catalogue, showing both the people and the plants in a new and strange land. This would concord with a design scheme for a public building.

    However, they don't strike me as idealistic, especially the Tupi woman. Besides her holding body parts, the dog stepping between her legs to drink at the stream is demeaning. I agree with M – the subjects are made to look apart from their colonial masters. They're just part of the exotic flora and fauna.

  • M says:

    Thanks for the comments!

    H Niyazi – Thanks for the link to the colonial British art. That looks like a great resource. Yes, this postcolonial interpretation can definitely extend to other romanticized/stereotypical images produced.

    heidenkind – Yes, Eckhout did produce portraits of men too. This portrait series included eight paintings comprising of four women and four men. Here's his Tapuya Man, which is just one example. I also posted a link to Eckhout's "African Man" in an earlier comment here.

  • M says:

    Michel Robinson – You've brought up some interesting ideas. In my original paper, I actually examined the Dutch social hierarchy in length, and discussed how the Dutch tried to define and understand the different types of indigenous people through a similar lens of social hierarchy.

    I can see what you are saying about baroque social performance, to a degree. (Although I agree with H Niyazo on this point. I think that Eckhout's cultural surroundings and European bias would have affected the way that he portrayed these indigenous people, regardless if the art was intended to function within some a structured program.)

    But I also agree with you: it would be interesting to do more in-depth research on the layout of Vrijburg palace. I know that Eckhout's paintings were placed in the great hall of the palace, but I don't know where the hall was located in relation to the rest of the palace space. You also have a really interesting suggestion about the Amsterdam City Hall.

    I should add, though, that it is unknown if these paintings were created for export to Europe. They may originally have been intended for export and then ended up at Maurits' palace. The paintings are now in Copenhagen, since Maurits gifted them in 1654 to his cousin King Frederick III of Denmark.

    Sedef – How fun! Gauguin's depiction of Tahitian women were definitely influenced by his cultural (and misogynistic!) background. I actually also did a research paper on Gauguin a few years ago, and that paper revolved around some similar postcolonial ideas. Despite however "primitive" Gauguin claimed to be, he still interpreted Tahitian subjects through a European lens (and he even used traditional European artistic devices while doing so, such as the oil and canvas tradition.)

    Ben – That's an interesting idea! I've never considered seasonal variations in relation to these portraits. I've never read any commentary on that, but it would be something very interesting to consider. The Dutch capital of Mauritsstad was located in part of what is now Recife (a city in northern Brazil). Recife experiences relatively hot temperatures throughout the year, so I wonder if it would have been easy for Eckhout to suggest seasonal changes.

    Val Span – Good observation. These pictures are a type of catalogue, in a way. Eckhout intentionally wanted to include different flora and vegetation in these paintings to fulfill his commission as a "documentarist." I also think, though, that Eckhout is focusing on especially unusual vegetation (that is, what the Europeans would perceive to be unusual), in order to emphasize the "exotic" nature of these subjects. I'm actually glad that you used the word "exotic" in your comment. I think that "exoticism" exists as a European construct (in essence, things are called "exotic" because they are perceived to be different from European culture, which therefore is assumed to be the "norm."). Emphasizing the constructed nature of the "exotic" ties into my original idea that Eckhout was superimposed his European values and stereotypes on the indigenous people in Brazil.

    This idea of Eckhout's portraits and exoticism (as well as the primitive "Other") is discussed in a book by Peter Mason. If anyone is interested, you can see a part of Mason's discussion of these paintings here. Mason also examines how gender might be treated differently in Eckhout's portraits, which I think is very interesting. I tied some similar ideas into my original paper.

Email Subscription

An email notification will be sent whenever a new post appears on this site.
Email *



This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.