Frans Post’s Silent Landscapes
ALBERT ECKHOUT’S Tapuya Dance, painted in the early 1640s on a canvas nearly ten feet wide, is a notable successor to the Tupinambá dance engraved in the de Bry workshop fifty years earlier (Plate 4). The painting features eight male dancers based on Eckhout’s studies of indigenous inhabitants of the coastal areas of northern Brazil, where the artist was in the employment of Count Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen, the governor of the Dutch colony. Naked and dancing in a circular formation, the men raise their right legs and brandish spears high in their right hands, while in their lowered left hands, they carry war clubs. Two women stand at the far right of the canvas behind an armadillo, each cupping a hand over her mouth and humming in accompaniment to the dancers. By placing the nearly life-sized figures as close as possible to the picture plane, Eckhout brings their movements and sounds astonishingly close to us, an effect enhanced by the rightmost dancer, the only one not holding a spear, who looks directly at the viewer. The painting has received much praise for its liveliness and accuracy. Hugh Honour, for example, writes that Eckhout “broke completely free from all formal and other conventions or stereotypes and succeeded in conveying a vivid and accurate impression of [their] gestures, . . . as well as the frantic rhythm of the war dance.”
One may take issue with the idea that Eckhout freed himself from all conventions, and scholars have done so by articulating the cultural rules within which this seventeenth-century Dutch painter worked. They have argued convincingly that this painting, along with Eckhout’s depictions of Africans, mestizos, mulattos, and other indigenous Brazilians, belongs to a pictorial cycle intended for the walls of Johan Maurits’s primary residence in Brazil, Vrijburg palace in Mauritstaad (now Recife). At Vrijburg, Eckhout’s paintings put on display a hierarchy of human civility—the dancing Tapuyas being the most savage—that glorified the count and underpinned Dutch justifications for colonial rule.
Yet it is important not to dismiss Honour’s observation that Eckhout is reaching for something beyond convention. As the painting draws us into the dance, we sense that the artist is reaching beyond the limitations of his medium: toward the motion of the dancers, toward the sound produced by the two women, and toward the response to that sound in the rhythmic movement of the men’s feet and the clattering of their spears. We sense that the artist is aiming for the kind of shock that an audience at the Mauritshuis felt in August 1644 when, at a celebration for the newly returned Johan Maurits, and with Eckhout’s paintings serving as the backdrop, the sights and sounds of the Tapuya Dance were brought to life in a performance by actual Brazilians. “Count Maurits brought back savages who performed dances while completely naked,” wrote Constantijn Huygens, secretary to the stadtholder, Frederik Hendrik, to a friend. Many reacted to the dance with laughter, while “the ministers, who with their wives were watching, thought it unpleasant.”
The conceit of the painting or sculpture that is experienced by a beholder with such vividness that it becomes animated, and indeed audible, is an enduring one. In medieval narratives, the weak-minded are seduced by the alluring speech of pagan statues, while the faith of saints is testified by their readiness to hear the voice of Christ spoken by a crucifix or the voice of the Virgin in an icon. Renaissance humanists were fond of composing epigrams that praised portraitists for representing all but the sitter’s voice; in doing so, they were pointing not only to the limitations of a mute art, but to the artist’s aspirations to exceed those limits. Erasmus of Rotterdam, for example, eulogized Albrecht Dürer for depicting “the whole mind of man as it shines forth from the appearance of the body, and almost the very voice.” Erasmus’s words point to an aural imagination that informs the new pictorial naturalism of the Renaissance, an imagination that Eckhout, de Bry, and others put to work across the geographical distance between Europe and the Americas in their efforts to enliven the New World through dance, to make it speak.
In the present chapter, my aim is to show that this aural imagination is not only about a picture’s capacity to speak to a beholder; it is also about a beholder’s own need to speak for pictures. Stories and epigrams about speaking images, after all, are just that: stories and epigrams. When Erasmus praises Dürer, it is not the artist’s portrait that speaks directly to us; it is Erasmus who speaks for the portrait. Art historians, by the same token, are skilled ventriloquists who put their own imaginations to work in the effort to restore mute objects to the past so that, across temporal distance, those objects might speak back to us as history. If we feel that a picture has a special agency, that it may indeed want to be heard, it is still the art historian’s vocation to provide its voice. It is this scholarly need to make pictures speak that I propose to explore in the context of Dutch Brazil as I make the case that works of art created under the governorship of Johan Maurits are indeed saying something to us. Some pictures, however, frustrate such efforts, and the works that will be my focus in the following pages present a particular challenge: the landscapes created by the Haarlem painter Frans Post during his seven years in Brazil, from 1637 to 1644. Far from noisy depictions of Brazilian dances, these paintings are among the most insistently silent early modern depictions of the New World.
The Silence of Frans Post’s Brazil
Post, like Eckhout, worked under Johan Maurits, who was appointed governor general of Dutch Brazil in 1636 by the West India Company (WIC). Founded in 1621, the WIC was both a commercial and a military instrument of the Dutch Republic: it carried the war with Spain to the Americas, where it sought to wrest control of the Brazilian sugar trade from Spanish-ruled Portugal. During the 1620s and 1630s, the WIC made inroads into northeast Brazil and gradually gained substantial control of the coastal regions, but the cost of this success was internal conflict in the company and the accrual of enormous debt. The WIC therefore turned to Johan Maurits, grandnephew of the stadtholder, to restore order and solvency and further extend Dutch holdings in Brazil. The count’s noble pedigree, his humanist education, and his recent military accomplishments in Europe all suggested he could be an effective governor and bring an end to the bickering that plagued the WIC government. To an extent, Johan Maurits did accomplish these goals, strengthening Dutch presence in Brazil while securing a labor force for sugar production by expanding WIC involvement in the Atlantic slave trade. Dutch preeminence in northeast Brazil nevertheless proved to be short-lived, and during the decade after Johan Maurits’s return to the Netherlands, the WIC gradually lost all of its holdings to the Portuguese.
While Dutch military and commercial success in Brazil was limited, as a knowledge-making enterprise, the governorship of Johan Maurits was unprecedented in its breadth and influence. The count assembled a team of artists and scholars to carry out a systematic description of the Brazilian landscape and its flora, fauna, and peoples. Chief among this group were the physician Willem Piso, the astronomer and naturalist Georg Marcgraf, and the painters Eckhout and Post. Several recent scholarly studies have been dedicated to reproducing their substantial body of textual and pictorial work, but already by the late 1640s, a significant portion of their production had made it into print thanks to Johan Maurits’s dedication to promoting the research of his scientific team and his own legacy as governor general. Piso’s and Marcgraf’s work on the materia medica and natural history of Brazil, along with woodcuts based on the drawings of Eckhout, were published in Historia naturalis Brasiliae (1648), the most authoritative study in its field until the early nineteenth century. The etched maps and landscapes of Marcgraf and Post appeared in Rerum per octennium in Brasilia . . . historia (1647), a history of the governorship of Johan Maurits written by the Dutch humanist Caspar Barlaeus. Still an essential source on the history of Dutch Brazil, it is a book about which I will have more to say. A third volume, the Mauritiados (1647), which has fared less well in its reputation, is a lengthy Virgilian epic about the count written by his chaplain, Franciscus Plante. It includes many of the same plates by Marcgraf and Post that appear in the Barlaeus volume.
Post was twenty-four years old and at the beginning of his career when he arrived in Brazil. He had most likely received his training under his older brother, Pieter Post, a member of the Guild of St. Luke in Haarlem and a prominent Dutch architect who designed Johan Maurits’s residence in the Hague, the Mauritshuis. It was surely through Pieter’s influence that Frans entered into the count’s service in 1636. Barlaeus writes that Johan Maurits “engaged the services of the best artists” in order to display “the villages, regions, and cities that he conquered, to show to his fellow citizens in the Republic overseas.” In other words, at the time Johan Maurits was appointed governor general, he was probably already envisioning a publication that would serve as a record and celebration of his military and administrative accomplishments in Brazil, and he recognized the importance of employing skilled artists in this endeavor. It was not by accident, moreover, that he found the best landscape artist for his purposes in Haarlem, where painters in the Guild of St. Luke worked alongside architects, mathematicians, and surveyors. During the early decades of the seventeenth century, Haarlem painters and printmakers like Esaias van de Velde, Jan van Goyen, and Salomon van Ruysdael absorbed the spatial lessons of nautical science and military surveying and developed a new kind of landscape painting that was focused on the panoramic sweep and topographical features of the Dutch countryside. Frans Post carried this new art to Brazil.
Post painted eighteen landscapes for Johan Maurits while accompanying the governor general on his various expeditions along the northeastern Brazilian coast. These paintings, all of which measure approximately two feet by three feet, eventually left the count’s collection in 1679, when he presented them as a gift to Louis XIV. In subsequent centuries, most of them disappeared, and currently only seven are located: four remain in the Louvre, while a few have resurfaced in other collections. View of Itamaracá, which entered the Rijksmuseum collection in the late nineteenth century, bears the earliest date of any of the surviving paintings: November 3, 1637 (Plate 5). Most of the canvases include the artist’s signature followed by the year, month, and day, an indication of their attachment to particular locales visited by the artist. Itamaracá, an island just off the coast that had a fort and fourteen operational sugar mills, was a site of strategic importance for the Dutch, and for a brief period, Johan Maurits considered establishing a city there, a fact that explains why Post would have chosen it as a subject for a painting. The foreground includes a European man on horseback in “the Portuguese mode of riding,” according to a seventeenth-century label attached to the back of the painting. With him are two black slaves, one carrying a basket and the other tending to the horse of a second European man who has dismounted and directs our attention across the harbor to a tiny settlement and the Dutch fort on the distant island. Like the other landscapes painted in Brazil, View of Itamaracá served as the basis for one of the plates in Barlaeus’s Historia. The paintings themselves were probably hung alongside Eckhout’s paintings on the walls of the count’s residential palace at Vrijburg, where they showed the main localities in Brazil under Dutch dominion. But, if their purpose was to declare Dutch presence in the New World, they did so with remarkable understatement. What strikes one about these landscapes is how quiet, empty, and reserved they are.
It is instructive to compare the works completed in Brazil with those painted after Post’s return to Holland in 1644. Capitalizing on his early transatlantic travels, Post continued to specialize in Brazilian landscapes throughout his career, but his later works cultivate an exoticism that is mostly absent from the landscapes executed for Johan Maurits. A typical late landscape, dated 1662 and substantially larger than the earlier works, shows a view of Olinda Cathedral as a group of Portuguese men and women leave mass, their slaves awaiting them outside the church (Figure 2.1). The lush foreground is filled with Brazilian flora and fauna: pineapples, melons, an anteater, a sloth, an armadillo, a monkey, an iguana, and more. Post’s later reimaginings of the Brazilian landscape, even if based on a particular site such as the ruined cathedral at Olinda, are no longer tethered to the specific locales and events that occupied the artist’s attention during his seven years in Brazil. They appeal instead to a generalized taste for New World difference. The landscape’s foreground, chock full of Brazilian curiosities, is a cabinet of wonders for our consumption. View of Olinda Cathedral announces to viewers the availability of its tropical naturalia, which, like the painting itself, stand ready to be swept into the Dutch Republic’s growing trade in art, knowledge, and exotic commodities.
Post’s view of Fort Ceulen, in contrast, painted in Brazil in August 1638, is mostly a painting of nothing (Plate 6). Three-fifths sky, it would seem to justify David Freedberg’s description of Post’s early Brazil landscapes as “arguably the airiest in all Dutch art.” There are, however, several figures occupying this emptiness, situated more or less at the center of the composition. Three Tapuya Indians gather on the shore, one seated and wearing a scarlet headdress, his club and arrows laid to rest by his side; two more stand facing each other, one of them in a similar bright headdress and wearing on his lower back the same type of feathered ornament worn by de Bry’s Tupinambá dancers. “Tapuya” is a word of Tupi origin, but it was used pejoratively by the Dutch to refer to the indigenous groups in Brazil they deemed especially savage: cannibals who lived in the wild rather than on the European mission settlements, or aldeas. Other artists in the employment of Johan Maurits also depicted the Tapuya, not only Eckhout, as we have seen, but also the count’s quartermaster, Zacharias Wagener, who kept a sketchbook that includes a watercolor of a Tapuya dance (Figure 2.2). In the text on the reverse, Wagener writes “the Tapuya dance around in a circle, entirely naked, letting out terrifying cries.” In contrast to the central event of Wagener’s watercolor, at the center of Post’s landscape, nothing happens. It would be a stretch even to call these figures the “subject” of the painting, since they engage in no activity and appear as just one more topographical feature of the landscape, human extensions of the earthen ledge against which the arrows and clubs of the seated figure rest.
One might say that the Indians in Post’s Fort Ceulen appear bored, and perhaps we even become a little bored looking at them. The potential for boredom, that subjective state of indifference often experienced by viewers of seventeenth-century Dutch landscapes, still lifes, portraits, and genre scenes, has long been acknowledged by astute interpreters of this art. Alois Riegl, for example, in the preface to his classic study of Dutch group portraiture, dwells on the lack of action in Dutch realism and notes that “there is always just enough activity to distract us from noticing how little is really going on.” Riegl’s comments should not be understood as a negative evaluation, however. When Dutch paintings take us to “boredom’s threshold,” as Angela Vanhaelen puts it, and yet maintain just enough internal activity to solicit our attention, they produce that inner state of distanced and calm attentiveness that was for Riegl the proper mood of modern aesthetic experience. Post’s Brazilian landscapes push this kind of viewing, which Riegl called “distant vision” (Fernsicht), to its limits by removing nearly all of those small but distracting signs of activity. Consider the fourth figure in Fort Ceulen, for example, who rows a dugout canoe. Is he rowing toward the other three figures, or is he beginning to row away from shore? A static indifference reigns even here. It is characteristic of Post’s landscapes that even the subtle suggestions of movement are stilled. There are other indications of movement in the painting, notably the breakers that hit against the far shore to the left of the fort, but their motion and sounds are swallowed into the picture’s emptiness. The sense of distance is overwhelming. Post offers the New World to his viewer, clarifying it visually so that we can discern the tiniest details, but he does so by putting this world beyond the reach of any sense but vision.
Erik Larsen, author of a monograph on Post published in 1962, argued that, in order to achieve this sense of distance, the artist must have been looking through the wrong end of a Galilean telescope. The argument is far-fetched and has been subjected to well-earned criticism, but Larsen did have a point. If the reversed telescope fails to hold up as an account of Post’s actual practice, it does offer an apt metaphor for the distancing effect of his landscapes. This effect surely owes much to a general awareness of optics among seventeenth-century Dutch artists, although it is perhaps more helpful to consider it in relation to one of the key spatial practices of the Dutch expedition in Brazil: cartography. The surveyors and mapmakers working under Johan Maurits represented vast, continuous spaces in scaled-down cartographic representations projected from a distant bird’s eye perspective. The map of Itamaracá in Barlaeus’s Historia, for example, shows us the southeastern corner of the island, the harbor, and the adjacent coast—the same landscape depicted by Post in his painted landscape of Itamaracá (Figure 2.3; see Plate 5). The painting differs from the map, however, in accommodating the distance of impersonal cartographic projection to a human point of view. As our gaze follows the gesture of the European man who points across the harbor, we gain a subjective experience of distance, one that could be likened to, if not explained by, the experience of looking through the wrong end of a telescope.
In another of Post’s early pictures, a view across the Saõ Francisco river, there are no human figures at all to mediate our experience of spatial distance (Plate 7). On the near shore we see samples of the natural history of Brazil: a large cactus, other types of tropical vegetation, and the world’s largest rodent, a capybara, which grazes on some plants at the edge of a rocky bluff overlooking the river. Opposite this natural history diorama wedged into the left foreground, we can discern on the far shore architectural structures, a road, and three small boats along the bank, all signs that humans do indeed inhabit this landscape (Figure 2.4). But one feels a need to turn the telescope back the right way around to get access to this remote world, a world that seems all the more distant because of the river that divides the composition in two and appears to our vision as a kind of void that, in reflecting the sky, draws that sky’s overwhelming emptiness and silence into the heart of the painting so that this landscape seems only just to hang together.
Many have remarked on the quietness of the landscapes Post made during his Brazilian period. The historian J. H. Elliott has described them as a “fresh, if somewhat muted, image of the New World during his stay in Brazil.” “Muted” is one of the more popular adjectives found in descriptions of these paintings. It refers to visual tonalities that stand in contrast to the lush colors of the artist’s later paintings, but it also suggests the capacity of these landscapes to suppress any form of sensory experience other than vision. Other common descriptors include “quiet,” “calm,” “serene,” “reserved,” “tranquil,” and “placid.” All of these words underscore the silence of Post’s Brazilian landscapes, and one dwells all the more on this silence when it is remembered that they were created amidst a great deal of noise, amidst the noisy and tumultuous historical events that occurred in these landscapes, indeed whose very occurrence is the occasion for these landscapes (Post’s landscapes are, in a sense, history paintings), but which nevertheless do not seem to be of these landscapes. The occasion for Post’s São Francisco River, for instance, was a rout in which Johan Maurits drove the Portuguese out of the town of Openeda and then had his own fort, Fort Maurits, built in the same location. The walls and buildings of the Dutch fort are barely visible across the river at the top of the bluff. At the foot of the bluff are a few additional structures, possibly built by the Dutch or perhaps survivals from the original Portuguese settlement. The fort and the small boats visible along the far shore serve as reminders of Dutch presence, yet there is no military event, nor any other sort of event for that matter, depicted in this landscape.
Post’s Fort Ceulen similarly records the site of a Dutch victory. The structure shown in the painting, well-positioned at the mouth of the Rio Grande, was originally called “Forte dos Reis Magos” (“Fort of the Three Magi”) and garrisoned Portuguese soldiers. In 1633, it was captured by a Dutch force under the command of Matthias van Ceulen, one of the WIC’s directors, and renamed after him. According to Barlaeus, the fort was taken “after ferocious fighting on land and at sea.” A sign of past conflict can be detected behind the fort, in the details of a gallows and, next to it, a gibbet for the display of the executed (Figure 2.5). A narrow white form appears to hang from the gallows, but it is impossible to determine if this is a human body: these details exist at the very limits of visibility. The gallows and gibbet are not direct signs of military engagement, to be sure, and perhaps they were not even put to use during the battle for the fort and its aftermath. They are simply reminders for the viewer that this is a landscape in which violent events have played out. Yet because of the vagueness of their reference, and because of their almost indiscernible size, that history seems to be swallowed by the stillness and silence of the landscape.
The author of the recent catalogue raisonné on Frans Post maintains that the landscapes of the artist’s Brazilian period evoke an environment “in which the peaceful conviviality encouraged by Nassau between the different religions, nationalities and even races appears to have been as remarkably harmonious as possible, in view of the striking differences between them.” Post’s proclivity for topographical exactitude and minute details does make it tempting to explain his paintings as a faithful pictorial response to the conditions he encountered in Brazil, and since the nineteenth century, Dutch realism has often been characterized as an art that shed the formality of convention to follow the leads of nature and everyday life. It strains credulity, however, to explain Post’s landscapes in this way, since “everyday” Dutch Brazil under Johan Maurits was dominated more by violent acrimony than by “peaceful conviviality.” The Dutch were in Brazil to drive out the Portuguese, and it was on military raids up and down the coast against these political and religious foes that Post encountered the sites depicted in his paintings. Nor is “harmony” the right word to describe Dutch relations with the indigenous and slave populations of Brazil. While some indigenous groups were allied with the Dutch, many Tupí-speaking Indians from the aldeas took up arms with the Portuguese in guerrilla warfare against the armies of Johan Maurits. The enslaved Africans of Brazil, whose numbers were fed by increased WIC involvement in the slave trade beginning in 1636, fought with the Portuguese, but at the same time, they presented both the Portuguese and Dutch with the constant threat of revolt. In short, the fact that Post’s paintings exude tranquility hardly means they were painted in the midst of tranquility, and in this respect, they are very much in keeping with a general tendency of seventeenth-century Dutch art to efface political and religious conflict. The golden age of Dutch realism, after all, coincides with an eighty-year Dutch revolt against Spain (1568–1648) and the pan-European devastation of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648). Very little of this conflict, however, makes its way into the pacific interiors, still lifes, and landscapes that, far from reflecting the turmoil of seventeenth-century Dutch society, often leave us on the threshold of boredom.
For Karel van Mander, author of the foundational text on Dutch painting and painters, the Schilder-Boeck (1604), landscape in particular is a place for relaxation and pastoral retreat, and recording the lives of its chief practitioners is, for van Mander, a happy alternative to writing historical chronicles of what he calls “our Netherlandish bloodstained theatre.” Although van Mander did not write about the sweeping panoramic view with low horizon that was just beginning to be developed in his own city of Haarlem around the time of his death in 1606, it too offers peaceful refuge to the beholder, and perhaps a bit ironically, given how much its conceptualization of space owes to military surveying practices. Johannes Vermeer’s View of Delft, which bears a striking compositional similarity to Post’s São Francisco River, is an exemplary work in this topographical tradition (Figure 2.6). The span of the city’s skyline, the harbor with its dream-like reflections of buildings and clouds, and the conversing figures on the near shore are all enveloped by the quietness of the distant view. In a moving essay published in 1995 in The New Yorker, Lawrence Weschler, while covering the hearings of the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal, writes about traveling back and forth in the Hague between the tribunal and the gallery in the Mauritshuis that holds Vermeer’s View of Delft. There, in the very house built for Johan Maurits while he was undertaking his military campaigns in Brazil, and to which he returned with Post’s paintings in 1644, Weschler finds an escape from the stories of unspeakable wartime violence in Bosnia that he hears at the tribunal as he takes in Vermeer’s “image of unalloyed civic peace and quiet.” Yet he also reflects on the fact that, when Vermeer made his painting, “all Europe was Bosnia.” Weschler’s essay is entitled “Inventing Peace.” The peace and quiet one finds in Vermeer’s View of Delft is an invention of Dutch landscape painting, a creative act of silencing history.
Landscape and Istoria
If I have made much of the quietness of Post’s landscapes, it is because there is a quality that belongs not only to these particular works, but to landscape in general as it developed as an independent genre of painting in sixteenth-century Europe, that warrants this attention to silence. I am referring to an aspect of landscape painting that goes beyond a merely figurative muting of the din of war and historical event, beyond van Mander’s pastoral retreat. I am referring, rather, to landscape’s capacity to silence a beholder, making it difficult to find the words that would transform it into history.
It is this tendency to stifle speech that distinguishes landscape from the type of picture that had been praised in humanist commentary on the visual arts since Leon Battista Alberti’s De pictura of 1435. For Alberti, a good painting is like a good oration. Oratory was central to the identity of early Italian humanists, who typically used the word “orator” to describe themselves, rather than “humanist.” Their ideal was to stand before an audience making a case in polished classical Latin, and Alberti, whose advice to the painter is often modeled on Cicero’s and Quintilian’s advice to the orator, carried this privileging of speech into his thinking about painting. His suggestion that every bodily member be depicted so as to express appropriate emotional content, for example, must be understood in light of the orator’s overriding concern with making a compelling argument through affective gesture. Such strategies enabled the painter to tell more effectively the istoria (or historia), a central concept for Alberti that refers to the disposition of bodies in a painting in such a way that they compose a harmonious and persuasive narrative presentation, one that moves the beholder in the same way that a well-told history moves a reader or listener. “I look at a good painting,” Alberti writes in his De re aedificatoria, “with as much pleasure as I take in the reading of a good istoria. Both are the work of painters: one paints with words, the other tells the story with his brush.”
The idea of the painting as istoria is a powerful one because it binds the sensual experience of a picture to its translation into words, and indeed into the humanist beholder’s own eloquent speech. A scene from the predella of the San Zeno altarpiece by Andrea Mantegna, an artist who knew Alberti’s book on painting and was advised in the making of this altarpiece by the learned humanist Gregorio Correr, can serve as a model of the Albertian picture (Figure 2.7). For, even though we cannot help but be impressed by the descriptive attention the artist has lavished on the view of Jerusalem in the distance and the wispy clouds that punctuate the azure sky, these landscape elements remain secondary to the painting’s unmistakable istoria: the crucifixion of Christ. All of the standard figures one expects in this subject—Christ and the two thieves, John, the Virgin Mary and the women who accompany her, and the various Roman soldiers—occupy their appropriate places in the foreground in the bright light of midday. All their gestures, moreover, are eminently readable, from the grief expressed by John’s clasped hands, to the Virgin’s swoon, to the attentive gaze of the centurion on horseback who looks up and recognizes Christ’s divinity, to the soldiers who cast dice for Jesus’s clothes and remain oblivious to the gravity of the event. Knowing the story of the crucifixion from the Gospels and from a host of stories and commentaries going back to late antiquity, and affected by Mantegna’s powerful narrative presentation, we should be able to find the words to express the painting’s impact on us. Certainly the Renaissance humanist viewer, with his oratorical training, would have been prepared to give voice to Mantegna’s istoria.
But if Alberti and, later, Giorgio Vasari conceived of painting as a stage for the istoria, landscape painting leaves us instead with an empty and silent stage. Independent landscape emerges in the sixteenth century as the exclusion of the event, the istoria. The word Renaissance writers used for landscape was parergon, which means an accessory work, equivalent to the now-obsolete English term “by-work.” It was adopted from the Natural History of Pliny the Elder, who had used it to refer to small drawings of battleships that the painter Protogenes added to the background of one of his famous mythological subjects. Though conceived as a supplement, the landscape as parergon achieved independence during the Renaissance in the work of the German artist Albrecht Altdorfer, in small views of terrain devoid of any identifiable subject matter. These are “complete pictures, finished and framed,” as Christopher Wood describes them, “which nevertheless make a powerful impression of incompleteness and silence.” Landscape thus originates in the early sixteenth century as a precarious kind of painting, an independent genre that lacks content, and it never sheds this supplementary status in relation to the istoria. In 1656, the English antiquary and lexicographer Thomas Blount included the Dutch word “Landskip” in his Glossographia, a compilation of “all such hard words . . . as are now used in our refined English tongue.” According to Blount,
All that which in a Picture is not of the body or argument thereof is Landskip, Parergon, or by-work. As in the Table of our Saviors passion, the picture of Christ upon the Rood (which is the proper English word for Cross) the two theeves, the blessed Virgin Mary, and St. John, are the Argument: But the City Jerusalem, the Country about, the clouds, and the like, are Landskip.
Understood in these terms, an independent landscape like Post’s São Francisco River is a picture that lacks an argument, a painting that no longer speaks. Perhaps we could consider the cactus and capybara as a kind of argument, but there is no narrative and certainly no tradition of commentary that would prepare us to give voice to what is seen here. These incidental elements are the stuff of the parergon; background has simply become foreground. Thus, it is in the very nature of landscape painting to frustrate the would-be interpreter, for we stand dumb before the painting without an istoria.
Van Mander, the chief early-modern theorist of Dutch painting, attempted to resolve this uneasy relationship between landscape and istoria in his verse essay on art theory, Den Grondt der Edel vry Schilder-Const (The Foundation of the Noble Free Art of Painting), which constitutes the first book of the Schilder-Boeck. As an artist trained in Flanders who spent the bulk of his career in the city of Haarlem, van Mander was intimately familiar with the descriptive northern tradition in which landscape achieved independence as a genre. As an artist and humanist who spent four years in Italy, he was also strongly influenced by Italian writing on art, particularly Vasari’s Vite (1550), in which the istoria, expressed through the artist’s command of the human figure, was understood to be the defining element of a picture. Van Mander’s response to these two pictorial alternatives was to search for balance. In the compositional model set forth in the Grondt, figural arrangements that express the content of the istoria remain essential to van Mander’s concept of the painted history, but landscape now assumes equal importance. The skilled painter does not rely on the action of figures alone to tell a story, but also on the action of the eye as it is guided pleasurably through the distant spaces of the composition. In his chapter on the ordering and invention of histories, van Mander writes that a composition will delight our senses if, beyond the large foreground figures, “we allow there a place of penetration or a vista, with small background figures and a landscape at a distance, into which the vision may plunge.” But it is important to recognize that, even though van Mander unsettles the Italian hierarchy of figure over setting, there nevertheless cannot be an istoria without figures. Van Mander does not reject the Italian model; he integrates it into his landscape-centered art theory. But what of the landscape without figures, or the landscape with figures whose action is unclear, like the motionless Tapuyas in Post’s Fort Ceulen? Even when approached through Van Mander’s northern reformulation of the istoria, Post’s landscapes remain stubbornly silent.
A more recent theorist of Dutch painting, Svetlana Alpers, has taken van Mander’s rethinking of the istoria a step further. In her now-classic study of seventeenth-century Dutch painting, The Art of Describing (1983), Alpers rejects any accommodation of Alberti’s humanist and rhetorical mode of historical narration to Dutch practice. Where van Mander sought balance between Italian and northern ways of seeing, Alpers sees a clash of incompatible systems. Building on Riegl’s awareness of the dominance of the eye over action in Dutch art, she argues that “the new testimony of the eye challenged the traditional authority of history.” In their landscapes and in their maps, the Dutch created a record of their history based on place, not narrated actions and events. Alpers finds in Vermeer’s Art of Painting the consummate expression of Dutch art’s displacement of the Italian model of rhetorical persuasion in favor of a descriptive mode (Figure 2.8). For, even though the artist’s nominal subject is a female model dressed as Clio, the muse of narrated histories who holds the trumpet of fame in one hand and the book of recorded events in the other, she is dwarfed by the meticulously painted map of the northern and southern Netherlands, shown prior to their political division, that hangs behind her on the wall like an immense painting. Like this emblematic map in the studio of Vermeer’s painter, Post’s Brazilian landscapes belong to a particularly Dutch mode of recording history, an art of describing.
There can be no doubt that Alpers provides a compelling model for linking quiet topographical landscapes of the kind made by Post to the historical events they do not depict. However, her argument does leave us, as it left some of the early critics of The Art of Describing, with the question of what happens to the humanist, rhetorical mode of persuasion in Dutch art and culture. One could argue, without calling into question the usefulness of the descriptive model articulated by Alpers, that the recasting of history as place need not imply the irrelevance of the Albertian istoria for Dutch art. The desire to make the painting speak remains. It lingers at the margins of the artworks themselves—in the gallows behind Fort Ceulen or in the moored boats on the far side of the São Francisco river—as the specter of actions and events that have been pushed off the stage. It lingers also in the writing of the seventeenth-century Dutch humanists who continued to champion the Albertian view that the painter’s duty, like the orator’s, was to tell a persuasive story. And it lingers for the present-day scholar (even for someone like Alpers herself) who needs the history of Dutch landscape painting to be something more than what is seen; who needs the object to speak.
If a descriptive impulse lies behind seventeenth-century Dutch painting, one that, as Alpers acknowledges, “does not offer us an easy verbal access,” an Albertian impulse nevertheless underwrites the discipline whose task is to find words adequate to these pictures. An istoria must lie somewhere in the background, concealed behind the picture’s muted surface, and it is the historian’s task to pull it into the foreground. Art history stands opposed, therefore, to the silences of landscape painting. This is perhaps most apparent in the well-developed materialist critique of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British landscape. Numerous studies have explored the work of ideological erasure in the rustic idylls of Thomas Gainsborough, John Constable, Richard Wilson, and others, paintings created amidst social conflict in the countryside as rural laborers were displaced by the enclosure of lands once held in common. In Constable’s Hay Wain, for example, the labor of peasants is integrated peacefully into their environment (Figure 2.9). Two men, presumably returning to the fields after delivering their load of hay, unhurriedly ford the River Stour in their empty cart. One must look closely at the painting to pick out the figures from the landscape itself, particularly the angler in the bushes on the far shore and the haymakers in the distant field. Absorbed as they are into the fabric of their world, Constable’s figures cannot offer us any argument about that world because they are the landscape itself; they are “tokens of a calm, endless, and anonymous industry, which confirm the order of society.” We critique a landscape like the Hay Wain because its recasting of history as place is a means of naturalizing culture. Beneath its outward calm, we discover an istoria about class conflict.
In the literature on seventeenth-century Dutch art, scholars have found a voice for landscapes in hidden symbolic meanings and in the political and religious associations that audiences likely brought to these pictures. Materialist critiques like those common among historians of British landscape have had less purchase in this historiography, although it requires no stretch of the imagination to detect an ideological erasure akin to that of Constable’s Hay Wain in Post’s Ox Cart, a work from the artist’s Brazilian period in which three enslaved African men, one of them seated in the cart and playing a flute, leisurely guide their team of oxen along a road outside the settlement of Vila Formosa de Serinhaém (Plate 8). Post’s later View of Olinda Cathedral, moreover, has recently prompted Julie Hochstrasser to argue that the real story behind these quiet and overgrown ruins is the torching of the city of Olinda by the Dutch in 1631 (see Figure 2.1). Hochstrasser concludes her essay with a call for historians to sound Clio’s trumpet in the face of such tight-lipped pictures: “Art can open our eyes to some of history’s silences, but art, too, has its silences, which history in turn can help us to address.”
Reading landscape in opposition to its silences, however, eventually runs up against the limits of its own explanatory power. Such an approach can tell us much about the motivations for the production or consumption of paintings, but it tells us little about landscape itself, since it bypasses the question of meaning posed by the genre. Hochstrasser’s critique of Post’s View of Olinda Cathedral begins with the assumption that landscape means something for the viewer (“on its surface this seems to be a proud account of the Dutch colony in Brazil”) and then shows that it does not signify in the way one might at first have suspected. What seemed to be innocent in Post’s painting is in fact a fantasy of tranquility masking a history of colonial violence. What seemed to be nature is really culture. The historian thus temporarily outflanks the silence of landscape, but this is a battle that can never be won: landscape will always be generating the question of meaning that the historian will always be attempting to resolve. Indeed, this very question is thematized in Post’s São Francisco River. On the near side of the river, nature dominates. On the far side, receding from our vision and almost invisible, are signs of human habitation and therefore a possible story we might attach to the Brazilian landscape as depicted in the foreground. There is even a certain amount of visual rhyming between the two shores, such as the vertical forms of the cactus and reeds echoing the tiny masts of the boat. In between them, however, is the daunting blankness of the river, which bisects the composition and stands as a challenge to the historian who would reconnect setting with subject matter. Post has staged neither a historical event nor its erasure. He has staged, rather, the very problem of attaching landscape to history.
Barlaeus Speaks for Brazil
It is therefore of some interest that, a short nine years after Post painted São Francisco River, a renowned Dutch humanist and historian, Caspar Barlaeus, attempted to repair the rend between Brazil as a mute place and Brazil as a narrated event, stitching together the two sides of the painting, as it were, so that it might speak to us as history. In 1645, shortly after he returned to the Netherlands, Johan Maurits arranged for Barlaeus to write the history of Dutch Brazil, a task that was completed in 1647. Published at the presses of Amsterdam’s preeminent printer, Joannes Blaeu, Barlaeus’s Historia—its full title in English is “The History of the Recent Activities in Brazil and Elsewhere over a Period of Eight Years under the Governorship of Count Johan Maurits of Nassau”—is a great celebration of Dutch endeavors in the New World. Printed in folio and embellished with fifty-six maps, plans, and views, all of them printed across two leaves or as larger foldouts, it is also one of the finest and most richly illustrated books published in seventeenth-century Holland. Post created thirty-one drawings for it, many of them based on his painted landscapes executed in Brazil, that were then etched by the artist Jan van Brosterhuyzen. These etchings include the plate entitled Fort Maurits on the shore of the São Francisco River, which is based on the painting of the São Francisco river, but with important alterations to the original composition (Figure 2.10). In the version for the Historia, Post has done away with his capybara so as not to distract our attention from the tiny figures of the Portuguese who now flee across the river toward the near shore. The plate relates directly to a long quotation in the text that Barlaeus extracted from a letter written by Johan Maurits to the stadtholder, Frederik Hendrik, shortly after the event. The count explains in the letter: “[The Portuguese] seemed terrified of pursuit and did not linger, so as not to expose remnants of their army to danger. They crossed the river without troubling themselves about their equipment and supplies, which they left behind on this side of the river.” In Post’s revised composition, historical event begins to reappear on the previously empty stage as the terrified Portuguese, pushing and stumbling over one another, ford the São Francisco river. History begins to reappear as Post’s landscape finds its voice in one of the greatest humanists of seventeenth-century Holland.
A similar reintroduction of event into the Brazilian landscape occurs in the etched version of the view of Fort Ceulen (Figure 2.11). While the etched landscape remains as open and expansive as the original, it has dispensed with the nonevent at the center of the painting and replaced it with a delegation of Tapuya Indians meeting with Johan Maurits himself in 1638 during the count’s visit to the province of Rio Grande. Barlaeus describes the event:
While Count Johan Maurits was camped at the Rio Grande River, representatives sent by the king of the Tapuyas approached him carrying gifts such as bows and arrows and exceptionally beautiful ostrich feathers, which they wear when they are on the warpath. The Count accepted these in a proper fashion, as tokens of peace and a pledge of goodwill. He received the ambassadors in a dignified and splendid manner, and after agreeing to a treaty of friendship, gave them gifts in turn.
This account occurs just after Barlaeus has reminded his reader that the fort providing the background for this exchange, when it was still under the dominion of the Spanish king, “was named for the Three Magi.” As the representatives of the Tapuyan king bear gifts to the Christian count and pay him their respects, we detect a subtle reference to the gift-bearing kings mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew, and through whose iconography (which, in an early sixteenth-century Adoration by Vasco Fernandes, as we saw in the first chapter, had already recruited an indigenous Brazilian into the ranks of the magi) Christian Europe envisioned its global reach. Through biblical reference and Barlaeus’s narration of the deeds of Johan Maurits in Brazil, Post’s view of Fort Ceulen begins to speak to the reader of the Historia.
Although Barlaeus had not been to Brazil, he was a logical choice to write its history given his reputation for eloquence and his prominence in Dutch letters. He was a professor at the recently established Amsterdam Athenaeum Illustre; his nominal field was philosophy, but he was best known to his contemporaries as a skilled and sought-after Latin poet. He had established a reputation for composing national martial epics and panegyrics celebrating the victories of the stadtholder, Frederik Hendrik, over Spain, and it was in this same vein that he wrote Mauritius redux, a poem in praise of Johan Maurits’s victories in Brazil that was published immediately after the count’s return. When he chose Barlaeus as the author of the history of Dutch Brazil, undoubtedly on the basis of this poem and on the recommendation of their mutual friend Huygens, Johan Maurits was making a conscious choice to achieve fame and glory through the voice of a humanist. In the Historia, the count’s military exploits are compared to those of the ancients. “Whoever reads this,” Barlaeus writes, “will recall those commanders of antiquity who invaded the enemy’s territory to turn back the tide of war from their own land.” Just as a great commander like Scipio Africanus pursued his Carthaginian enemies across the sea, so too did Johan Maurits pursue his Spanish enemies across the sea. But the Dutch have not simply emulated the ancients in their conquests: “We have far surpassed the Romans, for the regions to which we go are immensely distant, and the men we fight are far more savage and uncivilized.”
As a historian, Barlaeus thus places himself within a tradition of ancient historians like Livy and Tacitus, who wrote about the history of Rome and its conquests. Since the fifteenth century, humanists had cultivated the ancient art of writing history. As professional orators, many early humanists held positions as chancellors and secretaries, and in these roles, they celebrated and justified the deeds of their patrons by composing histories out of older chronicles, as well as from more recent sources. It is not surprising, therefore, to see a growing reflectiveness on the art of writing histories over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, resulting in numerous treatises on the ars historica (“art of history”). One of these was written by Barlaeus’s good friend and next-door neighbor, Gerardus Joannes Vossius, who, along with Barlaeus, was one of the two inaugural professors at the Amsterdam Athenaeum in 1631. Vossius was a prolific historian and his Ars historica (1623) was the most highly esteemed book on this subject written in the seventeenth century. History, according to Vossius, is a knowledge of particular facts whose memory allows people to “live well and happily.” To achieve this beneficial end, facts must be provided with effective narrative form, and Vossius allowed considerable leeway in this matter, even arguing that, in order to preserve the stylistic coherence of a history, an author could compose speeches for the characters without necessarily having evidence for them. Historical accuracy was important, of course, but the humanist needed to couple accuracy with eloquentia. This was the orator’s skill in creating a harmonious union between wisdom and style, and its pursuit was a defining characteristic of Renaissance humanism.
The writing of history, in other words, was more than setting down facts on the page, just as the painted istoria was more than descriptive brushwork alone. Both of them looked toward the oration and its performative power to move the auditor as their model. It is this underlying oratorical model, moreover, that permits such apparently dissimilar creations as Mantegna’s Crucifixion and Barlaeus’s history of Dutch Brazil to be encompassed under the single genus istoria historia. The flexibility of the humanist concept of history can be seen in the writing of Vossius himself, author not only of an influential ars historica but also of a book about the four arts of writing, gymnastics, music, and painting entitled De quatuor artibus popularibus (1650), in which he declares that painting “not only equals or exceeds poetry, but may also make a companion of historia.” To count both the compositions of the painter and written accounts of famous deeds within the category of historia may seem to make the word so vague as to lose all its critical purchase, but this would be to ignore what humanists sought in common across a range of cultural production: the capacity of a well-expressed story to affect and improve its audience.
Barlaeus, in pursuit of eloquence, follows his friend’s advice to incorporate speeches into his history. Not only does he quote extensively from Johan Maurits’s correspondence, but in multiple instances, he puts speeches into his mouth, particularly on those highly performative occasions when the count stands before his men and incites them to take up arms against the enemy, as when he addresses his admirals and captains on January 1, 1640, in the harbor at Pernambuco: “You will fight bravely, doing your utmost on this occasion presented you by heaven. Nowhere can the Spaniards be conquered more surely than along these shores.” One might even describe Barlaeus’s entire history of Dutch Brazil as a 340-page speech. Indeed, he invites us to do so in his dedication to Johan Maurits, in the opening sentences of the book: “I offer you Brazil, Most Illustrious Count, radiating the brilliance of your supreme rule and military glory. If the country were able to speak [loqui] and could address you, it would surrender itself to you.” Brazil, of course, could not speak of its own accord, and so Barlaeus, the eloquent historian-orator, felt obliged to speak for it.
Standing in for Brazil in Barlaeus’s Historia, providing the visible but silent occasion for the author’s speech, are Frans Post’s landscapes. In the etching of Fort Maurits, as I have suggested, the tiny figures of the Portuguese soldiers fleeing across the river visualize the efforts of Barlaeus, and of historical writing more generally, to bridge place and event, to reintroduce an argument into the parergon. Performing a similar kind of work in all of Post’s illustrations for the Historia is another remarkable feature, one that is not present in any of the paintings: the winged banner that floats in the sky, identifying each site and expressing its significance vis-á-vis Barlaeus’s text. In most cases, this ornamental label consists of a flowing banner inscribed with a place name and attached to a pair of wings (attributes of Fame) with dangling vegetation or military ornaments. Often it also includes a heraldic device, designed by Johan Maurits himself, that corresponds to the particular province, or capitania, depicted in Post’s landscape. Barlaeus writes, for example: “The capitania of Rio Grande, named for the river, was given the image of an ostrich on the riverbank, for these birds are frequently seen there” (see Figure 2.11). These labels range in complexity from the simple winged banderole aloft over the São Francisco river (see Figure 2.10), to the more elaborate, triumphal compositions that appear in Post’s seascapes with naval battles, such as the ornament composed of wings, a laurel wreath, heraldic banners and blasting trumpets hovering above the fourth and final battle with the Spanish fleet that was fought at the mouth of the Rio Grande on January 17, 1640 (Figures 2.12–2.13). In this etching, Clio’s trumpet, which is so quietly held in the model’s hand in Vermeer’s Art of Painting, bursts into cloudy action to declare the fame Johan Maurits has achieved for the Dutch in a great naval victory.
Post’s landscapes and seascapes need these labels because, lacking any clear argument, they are not self-evidently linked to the narrated history. Without the banner, this could be any naval battle. Nor is it by any means obvious that the etching identified as Fort Maurits on the São Francisco river in fact shows Fort Maurits: the fort is barely discernible in the distance, and indeed, by any strict narrative standards, it should not even be pictured, since it had not yet been built at the time the Portuguese were driven across the river. We need the winged messenger to arrive and deliver the landscape’s meaning to us. Post introduced these identifying elements into his pictures in order to accommodate his silent landscapes to Barlaeus’s eloquent historia. Yet it would not be accurate to say the gap between landscape and event is in fact bridged by these efforts toward the reintroduction of an argument: the retreating Portuguese remain tiny and insignificant details in Post’s vast, airy, and empty landscape as they beat their hasty retreat offstage. And the winged banner, entering like a deus ex machina to save the landscape for history, simply begs the question: to what extent can the historian’s voice account for Post’s landscapes? The most remarkable quality of Post’s early Brazilian landscapes, in both their painted and etched versions, is not their “historicity,” not their capacity to deliver the past to us, but the way they ask us to hesitate before attaching landscape to history.
The capybara in Post’s painting of the São Francisco river is a compelling presence (Figure 2.14). It immediately catches us with its single, dark eye and holds us in its stare. Its look is different, however, from that of the man who engages us from within Eckhout’s Tapuya Dance. However foreign the Brazilian dance may seem to us, this man offers access to it. With his lips slightly parted, he even seems to greet us with speech or song. We cannot hear him, of course, just as we cannot hear the trumpets sounding in Post’s winged banner. As Barlaeus reminds his reader, the trumpets of Fame have the appearance (speciem), not the power, of speech. But, if a picture cannot in fact be heard, it may still ask that we lend it our ears. This is what a good painting should do, according to Alberti, and therefore he advises painters to include a figure—like Eckhout’s dancer—who looks out and invites the viewer to examine the action of the istoria more closely. Post’s capybara provides no such invitation. One can spend a good deal of time looking at this animal and still not find the words for it. Its silence confirms its distance. Like the capybara’s unreadable gaze, the empty, silent river running through the painting, dominating the landscape, solicits a pause from the historian. What Frans Post’s paintings “say” is that landscape will always be awaiting the entrance of history’s voice onto its stage, and this is the crucial but easily overlooked work of landscape in the American encounter. Before Post’s landscapes make Brazil over into an image of Europe, they provide the background against which a story of the New World might be voiced.