In 1600s Brazil, Blacks Stuck in 2 Worlds

Image of the Week: This 1641 Dutch painting, inspired by the artist's time in Brazil, shows the complexity of slavery.

Black man in a tropical landscape, Albert Eckhout, 1641.Oil on canvas, 264 by 162 cm. Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen
Black man in a tropical landscape, Albert Eckhout, 1641.Oil on canvas, 264 by 162 cm. Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen

(The Root) — This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

In 1636 Count Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen was appointed governor-general of New Holland, a recently established Dutch sugar-producing colony in northeastern Brazil. With an attitude typical of European noble princes of the period, the cultured aristocrat embraced his duties with a studied curiosity about the land and its people. To supplement his prodigious collecting habits, he brought along a small but varied team of artists and scholars to compile a comprehensive visual record of this new land.

Albert Eckhout, along with the landscape artist Frans Post, was one of two formally trained painters charged with recording the complexity of the local scene. The seven years he spent in Brazil constitute an invaluable contribution to the understanding of the European colonization of the New World. During his stay he created hundreds of oil sketches — mostly from life — of the local flora, fauna and people.

At some point, either in Brazil or back in Holland, Eckhout painted eight large canvases depicting life-size images of the native population of Brazil. The series consisted of four pairs of male and female figures, seen in spacious landscapes of typical scenery. There were two pairs of native Americans, and another pair representing individuals of mixed race.

The last pair, arguably the finest of the group, shows a black man and woman. The woman stands with a child of lighter complexion, her waist and thighs draped by a garment made of striped cloth. The companion male figure (pictured) is nearly nude, wears a loincloth with the same pattern and is armed with spears and an ornate sword. Unlike the other figures in the series, each is placed before a view of the sea. Around them is a mixed assortment of the natural bounty of the Old and New Worlds.

The series was intended ostensibly as a record of New World ethnography. As recent investigations have made clear, however, much more is on view than a straightforward presentation of its subjects. This is especially true of the black pair, whose dress and other accoutrements do not conform to the actual appearance of enslaved blacks in the colony. In both images the nonnative origin of the figures is stressed.

The woman wears expensive European jewelry and an ornate hat variously identified as oriental or Congolese, while the man carries weapons of status typical of those owned by the elite of the Akan peoples of Ghana. Carried on his back and in his right hand are several assegais, or metal-tipped spears. Tucked into his waistband is a tasseled ceremonial state sword, the akofena. It is sheathed in a ray-skin scabbard decorated with a highly prized, imported pink oyster shell. This particular kind of sword was often used by emissaries of an Akan king on official diplomatic missions and conveyed the right of the bearer to deal on his behalf. 

The black man and woman stand in two worlds, one the land of their origin and the other an unchosen place of forced servitude. This dual reference was motivated by the rather high-minded “scientific” conception of the series: defining the presence of Africans in Brazil in terms of natural history, tinged with references to commerce, but with no clear acknowledgment of the institution of slavery.

Scholars have suggested the intended placement of the series — as a prominent feature within one of the residences of Johan Maurits, either in Brazil or in his magnificent new home in Amsterdam. The paintings, however, seem never to have been installed in this fashion. After the failure of the Dutch colony in Brazil in 1654, their relevance may have seemed moot. In fact, that very year the series was given to the king of Denmark. Today it is found in the Nationalmuseet in Copenhagen, displayed in an ethnographic context among actual artifacts from African tribal cultures, some of which had also been part of Maurits’ donation.