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November 2012

Eckhout’s Eight Brazilian Portraits

Modified (slightly cropped) depictions of Eckhout's series of eight figures (c. 1641). Top row (L-R): "Tapuya Man," "African Man," "Tupi Man," "Mulatto Man." Bottom row (L-R): "Tapuya Woman," "African Woman," "Tupi Woman," "Mameluke Woman." Oil on canvas. Each painting is approximately 8'9" x 5'4" (about 274 x 167 cm). Click on collage to see paintings in greater detail.

I am just about to finish teaching a course on colonial art in Brazil. At the beginning of the course, my students and I explored the brief period in the 17th century when the Dutch were located in northern Brazil (1624-1654). We explored how the Dutch artist Albert Eckhout depicted the flora, fauna and people of Brazil – and then we discussed how Europeans developed misconceptions about Brazil, based on how other European artists appropriated the imagery from Eckhout’s original works of art.1

Eckhout, "Tapuya Woman," 1641

I particularly like Eckhout’s series that depicts people from eight types of minority groups found in colonial Brazil (shown above). I’ve had an affinity for these ethnographic paintings since graduate school, when I wrote a paper on Eckhout.  For one thing, I think these paintings are an interesting contrast with the “casta” paintings that were created in Spanish America during the colonial period. Eckhout’s paintings also have historical value as well: this series contains the only available representations of the Tapuyas (Tarairius), a group which had died out by the beginning of the nineteenth century. Due to Eckhout’s portraits, we have some visual information about the physical aspects and material culture for this specific Amerindian group (see above).2

We don’t know where these paintings were originally located. I personally like the argument that these portraits originally were intended to be displayed in Brazil, probably at governor Johan Maurits’ Vrijburg Palace in Mauritsstad (now Recife). Although there are no seventeenth-century documents to support this theory, I like the visual analysis that has been explored by Rebecca Parker Brienen to support this theory.3 In fact, this is the argument that I explored with my students earlier in the quarter.

In order to be objective, though, I have been keeping up with some other scholarship on these paintings. Such theories and analyses are discussed in the fabulous book, Albert Eckhout: A Dutch Artist in Brazil.4 I wanted to recap some of the ideas that interest me:

  • Some scholars suggest that these paintings were never created in Brazil, but were based on compositions and drawings that Eckhout had made while in Brazil. This argument is partially made because the large-scale canvases are in good condition, as opposed to the still life paintings by Eckhout which were transported in the seventeenth-century. However, it is unclear as to whether the still life paintings were damaged when they were moved from the Netherlands to Denmark (in 1654), or in an earlier transport from Brazil to Europe (p. 32).
  • The spelling of Eckhout’s name in the series “signatures” differs from documents signed by Eckhout, which suggests that someone else added the signatures. Verified documents are signed by “Albert Eeckhout” but these paintings are signed as “Albert Æckhout” (p. 110). The questionable nature of the signature is supported because the painting of the mameluke is unfinished (see cashew fruit in lower right corner), but still bears a signature and date. Additionally, these questionable signatures explicitly state that the paintings were made in Brazil, which is unusual (p. 32). It is thought that the signatures may have been added when these paintings were presented to the Danish monarch Friedrich III (a distant cousin of Johan Maurits) in 1654 (p. 124).
  • It is important to note that the series of paintings were not shown as an ensemble in the Mauritshuis (the European house of Johan Maurits) after Maurits returned in the Netherlands in 1644. There would not have been enough wall space for these large portraits, due to either fireplaces or rhythmic partitioning of the wall (p. 35).
  • It has been suggested that Eckhout’s series might have been cartoons for tapestries. We know that other paintings by Eckhout were intended to be used for tapestries, including at least eight paintings that Maurits gave to Louis XIV. (p. 35-36).

I think it’s good to be familiar with the other ideas that exist about this portrait series; I might cover more of these points with students when I teach this same course again. But personally, I think that Rebecca Parker Brienen still gives a pretty solid argument for why these paintings were intended to be created in Vrijburg Palace (in Brazil). At least, it’s the best (and most comprehensive) argument I have yet to see. The Buvelot text even mentions that “the uncertainty about the original purpose of the paintings makes it difficult to arrive at an in-depth interpretation, especially where the figure pieces are concerned.”5 Until more convincing in-depth interpretations and theories are presented, I’m going to have my art history students continue to explore Brienen’s argument.

1 See discussion about misconceptions and the European usage of Eckhout’s imagery in Virginie Spenlé, “‘Savagery’ and ‘Civilization': Dutch Brazil in the Kunst- and Wunderkammer,” in JHNA 3, no. 2 (2011). Available online here: http://www.jhna.org/index.php/past-issues/volume-3-issue-2/142-spenle-dutch-brazil

2 Quentin Buvelot, ed., Albert Eckhout: A Dutch Artist in Brazil (Zwolle: Waanders Publishers, 2004), 66.

3 Rebecca Parker Brienen, Visions of Savage Paradise: Albert Eckhout, Court Painter in Colonial Dutch Brazil (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006), 181-199.

4 See Buvelot, 32-36. See also a specific chapter in the Buvelot text: Florike Egmond and Peter Mason, “Albert E(e)ckhout, Court Painter,” in Albert Eckhout: A Dutch Artist in Brazil (The Hague: Mauritshuis, 2004), 109–27, esp. 110.

5 Ibid., 35. This text was before the 2006 publication by Brienen, but the text does cite earlier publications by Brienen.

— 4 Comments

Art History and Murder!

David, Death of Marat, 1793

“Murder can be an art, too.” – Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rope (1948)

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When I was a kid, I used to watch rerun episodes of “Perry Mason” on TV all the time. Maybe that series initially sparked my interest in murder mysteries. Even now, as an adult, I still like to read detective stories and watch murder mystery shows. Lately I’ve been coercing my husband to watch episodes from the fourth season of “The Mentalist” almost every night. I guess “The Mentalist” is my modern version of “Perry Mason.”

Anyhow, I thought it would be fun to write a post on art history topics that involve murder. I’m not necessarily interested in depictions of murder, though. Gruesome depictions of murder are commonplace (yawn!) in art, including David’s famous Death of Marat shown above. Instead, I thought it would be interesting to discuss when artists or art historians have been murdered, committed murder, or accused of murder. These were the three cases that came to my mind:

Leoni, Portrait of Caravaggio, 1621-25

1) In 1606, the volatile painter Caravaggio killed Ranuccio Tomassini. The pretext for the duel had to do with a tennis match, but art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon believes that these two men were really fighting over a prostitute. Graham-Dixon believes that Caravaggio was attempting to castrate Tomassini, since Tomassini bled to death from a femoral artery in his groin.

But Caravaggio’s associations with murder go even further. It is also thought that Caravaggio himself was murdered. While on the run from his murder conviction, Caravaggio fled to Malta and then Porto Ercole (Italy). Scholars think that Caravaggio was murdered either by relatives of Tomassoni or by the Knights of Malta (or at least one knight from Malta). The latter theory is suggested because it appears that Caravaggio was convicted of inflicting bodily harm on a noble knight in Malta. The knight (with or without his fellow knights) may have pursued Caravaggio and killed him.1

Mengs, Portrait of Winckelmann, after 1755

2) This murder story is probably one of the least expected, I think. The 18th century art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who is best known for his studies on Greek sculpture and open homosexuality, was murdered in 1768. After visiting Vienna (and being received by the Empress Maria Theresa), Winckelmann stopped at a hotel in Trieste on his way back to Rome. At that point, he was murdered at the hotel by a man named Franceso Arcangeli. Winckelmann was showing coins that had been presented to him by the Empress Maria Theresa, so it is possible that the motive for murder was monetary. However, Professor Alex Potts has mentioned other possible reasons for murder (including conspiracy or a sexual motive). Potts also explored how Winckelmann’s murder affected scholarship (both Winckelmann’s own scholarship and a later interest in the deceased art historian’s work).2

Left: Ana Mendieta, Untitled from The Tree of Life Series, 1977. Right: Photograph of Carl Andre

3) This murder story involves not one, but two, 20th century artists. In 1985 the performance artist Ana Mendieta (depicted above on the left) fell 34 stories to her death, falling from her apartment in Greenwich Village (in New York). The only other person who was with Mendieta at the time of her death was her husband of eight months: Carl Andre, the minimalist sculptor. Andre was charged with second-degree murder, but was acquitted after a three-year struggle in the court system. Art in America claims that evidence was suppressed in the trial, due to sloppy work on the part of the police and prosecutors.

The turbulent relationship between this couple has been turned into a play, “Performance Art in Front of the Audience Ought to be Entertaining.” The play is set on the night that Ana was murdered, but the curtain falls before Ana actually dies – in other words, the theatergoer is left to decide what happened right before Ana died.

Okay, now it’s your turn. Do you know of other artists or art historians who have been involved with murder cases?

1 The death of Caravaggio is explored by Andrew Graham-Dixon in his book Caravaggio andin his BBC documentary, “Who Killed Caravaggio?” Watch Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5 on YouTube.

2 Alex Potts and Joahann Joachim Winckelmann, History of the Art of Antiquity: Texts and Documents (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2006), p. 15-15. Text available online HERE.

— 12 Comments

Damage = Ancient “Cropping”

Aphrodite Torso (after Praxiteles), 2nd century BC. Seattle Art Museum

I just had an ancient art student leave my office. She is writing a paper on how a sculpture of Aphrodite seems like a sexual object to the modern viewer, especially because of the damage which the piece has incurred over time.

I think that this is an interesting argument, and I couldn’t help but think about Laura Mulvey’s discussion of how women in film have been sexualized (and turned into fetishes) by “cropping” women with the film camera. (I’ve written more on this subject HERE.) In this case of the Aphrodite torso, I think one could argue that that damage is an ancient version of the “cropping” which takes place in film. Because the face and limbs are missing, one is forced to look at (and arguably fetishize) the reproductive organs which remain. This is no longer a representation of a woman, but an object.

Can you think of other damaged works of art which “crop” – and therefore further sexualize – the female form? I’m sure that there are lots of them which exist.

— 10 Comments

Jan Van Eyck’s “Eve” from the Ghent Altarpiece

Jan van Eyck, detail of Eve from the Ghent Altarpiece, 1432

How I have missed blogging over the past several weeks! This school quarter is one of the busiest that I have experienced in my career, and I am rarely left with free time to blog or research. I have a lot of ideas for posts swirling in my head, though, so tonight I want to explore at least one topic.

Several weeks ago, near the beginning of the quarter, some of my students of Renaissance art asked some pointed questions about the practice of modeling in Northern Europe. One such question was: “Who posed for the figure of ‘Eve’ when Jan van Eyck painted the Ghent altarpiece?”

I had never considered linking a specific model/individual to that figure, nor had I thought much about the practice of modeling in the Northern Renaissance. I did a little bit of digging and made some inquiries to colleagues, and found some interesting information and theories about this figure.

Jan van Eyck, Eve from the Ghent Altarpiece, 1432

As far as I can tell from my research, we have no knowledge of the individual that posed for the figure of Eve. I asked my colleague SW (who specializes in Northern art) for her opinion, and she finds it unlikely that Van Eyck (or any Northern artist before Rembrandt) used a nude female model. In her opinion, it seems more likely that Van Eyck built up this female figure by looking at a nude male model (which, if this is true, makes this realistic image even more astonishing and impressive!).

Thanks to an additional side comment from SW, I also have formulated another theory on this topic, too. I wonder if it would have been possible for Jan Van Eyck to have studied a clothed female model, at least in part (perhaps in addition to studying a nude male figure). In her book, Seeing Through Clothes, scholar Anne Hollander has argued that the exaggerated belly of Eve (and other bellies of women that are represented in Northern paintings) can relate to the clothing fashion of the day. While Hollander sees this exaggerated belly as an sign for beauty and refinement (which does make sense to me), I wonder if the exaggeration of the belly also could have been due to practical considerations (i.e. modeling while clothed). There are some similarities, for example, between Eve’s midsection and Giovanni Arnolfini’s wife, the latter being represented in a portrait by van Eyck while wearing fashionable green dress. Could a similarly-clothed woman have posed for the figure of Eve? It doesn’t seem like an impossible idea to me. I haven’t found much information on this topic (or the practice of modeling in Northern Europe) on my own, though. If anyone has ideas or suggestions for future research, please share!

Victor Lagye, Adam and Eve with Bear Skins (Copies of the Ghent Altarpiece), 1865

While checking up on this topic, I also was reminded that two copies of the Adam and Eve panels were created in the 19th century, although the figures of Adam and Eve were covered with bearskins in both copies. The copies which were intended for display at St. Bavo’s Cathedral (the original and intended location for the Ghent altarpiece) were created by Victor Lagye in 1865.1 If you consider Hollander’s argument regarding clothing and representations of the female body, in addition to my idea that a model might have posed for van Eyck while clothed, it seems almost ironic that bearskins were added to Eve’s body a few centuries later. In this case, Eve seems to be intrinsically linked to clothing, even without the additional skins.

1 Noah Charney, Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Altarpiece (New York: Public Affairs, 2010), 115. 

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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.