Frans Post’s Brazilian Landscapes Capture the Dismal Dawn of the Colonial Era


In the 16th and early 17th centuries, various European states signified their claims to slices of North America with the addition of a simple prefix: along the eastern seaboard arose New Sweden, New England, New France and New Netherlands. South America, meanwhile, was largely left to Spain and Portugal. By the early 1630s, however, the lure of the Brazilian sugar cane plantations proved too great for the new Dutch West India Company and a successful invasion against the ruling Portuguese and subsequent consolidations meant that in the middle of the decade, the Dutch controlled a large and profitable part of the country.

In 1637, Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen, a relative of William of Orange, arrived in the territory as Governor General of New Holland. He was determined not only to supervise, but to improve and register his new stronghold, which is why he counted among his retinue the German naturalist Georg Marcgraf, the doctor Willem Piso and two painters, Albert Eckhout and Frans Post. Eckhout was commissioned to record the inhabitants of the colony and Post its landscapes. Post thus became the first professional artist to show what the terrain of the New World looked like.

[See also: Mildred Eldridge devoted her life and art to a windswept natural world]

Nothing of Post’s early work is known, so it seems likely that he owed his place in the Brazilian entourage to his architect brother Pieter. Pieter Post was one of the architects responsible for building Johan Maurits’ new palace in The Hague – now the Mauritshuis Museum – built during the Governor’s South American stay. What Frans Post clearly took with him, however, were the lessons of the Dutch landscape school.

Post (1612-1680) was born in Haarlem to a father who was a stained glass painter and who may also have been responsible for his son’s artistic education. Haarlem was a particularly bright nugget during the Dutch Golden Age and Post’s immediate peers there included Frans Hals, who would later paint his portrait; the landscape painters uncle and nephew Salomon van Ruysdael and Jacob van Ruisdael; and Isaac and Adriaen van Ostade. Whether they knew each other or not, Salomon van Ruysdael specialized in views with low horizons and land cut by rivers under vast skies – exactly the type of format Post would apply to his Brazilian images.

Landscapes of the country became Post’s specialty, even after his return to the Netherlands in 1644. During his seven years there, however, he only painted 18 views, of which only seven are known today. What’s striking about them is how un-exotic they are: a few incidental details of palm trees and slaves aside, the scenes might pass at first glance as images of the wet, low-lying countryside of its homeland .

Intentional or not, this corresponded to Johan Maurits’ intention to imbue his colony with the civic attributes of the Netherlands. He expanded the capital, Recife, with public buildings, gardens and bridges, then quickly had the new town Mauritsstad renamed in his honor. He promoted religious tolerance, not only for long-established Portuguese Catholics and monastic orders who were allowed to retain their privileges, but also for the Jewish population. To further integrate the Portuguese, he included them alongside his Dutch supporters in new local councils. This enlightenment, however, did not extend to the indigenous Tupi people and the African slaves, mainly from Angola, who continued to work in brutal conditions on the sugar cane plantations that financed the entire enterprise.

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In the table above, View of Itamaracá Island in Brazil, 1637, the first he executed after his arrival and now on loan to the Mauritshuis, Post shows precisely this social and racial structure. Two white settlers and their horses are accompanied by a pair of African slaves with baskets of fruit. The island in the distance, where Maurits first intended to build a new capital, is bound by the Amazon, and one of the figures points out to Fort Orange across the river a boat in which to cross. When the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam acquired the painting in 1879, its director, Johann Wilhelm Kaiser, claimed that the man on horseback was Maurits himself in his “Brazilian costume”; in fact, it is Portuguese, so it is a painting of the world that the Dutch settlers inherited.

It is a surprisingly simple and topographical image, where all ideas of the picturesque are carefully ignored. There is little foliage, the bare bank dominates, the water takes on the brown color of the sky. A European river scene would be full of boats and a sense of recession; here, however, the water is empty and the far shore unfolds with little differentiation and only a spine of palm trees to provide variety. It’s a no-frills, factual and unflattering image, stating little more than: here’s the landscape, here’s its people, and all is quiet. There is nothing triumphant there, no signifiers of the benefits of Dutch suzerainty and nothing that sings the glory of its patron.

[See also: Walter Sickert’s fascination with the mundane, gaudy and sordid]

When Post was back in the Netherlands, he continued to produce Brazilian scenes, finding a ready market among the former settlers. In these images, however, drawing on the many sketches he had made in situ, he created composite landscapes with brighter blue skies and greener foliage than he had painted in Brazil, and in which slices of real views have been exoticized with added flora and fauna.

About a decade ago, a group of 34 watercolors and drawings of animals unknown to the post office were discovered in the North Holland Archive in Haarlem. He drew most of these animals from life – Maurits had usefully established a menagerie to house his collection of wild South American animals – and used them to pep up his photos. Among them, accompanied by his own annotations, are a “Chilean sheep” (a llama), an armadillo (“a kind of armored pig, the size of two feet. Good to eat, it tastes like chicken”) , a jaguar (“a tiger, as big as a common calf; they are very fierce and strong”), as well as anteaters, alligators and pythons.

Post’s landscape drawings were also made into prints for an illustrated edition of Rerum by octennium in Brasiliaan account of Maurits’ tenure, published in 1647, while in 1679 no less than 27 of his pictures of Brazil were given by Maurits to the Sun King, Louis XIV of France, as a peace offering at the end six years of the Franco-Dutch War.

Post’s success was such that he was appointed treasurer of the painters’ guild in Haarlem and included by Arnold Houbraken in his book The Grand Theater of Painters and Dutch Painters, published in the early 18th century. However, at some point Post turned to alcohol – possibly due to the untimely deaths of two of his sons – and this may have been the reason why he did not travel with him. Maurits in Paris to give his Brazilian paintings to Louis XIV himself and why for the last decade of his life he seems to have stopped painting altogether.

Post’s demise mirrored that of the overseas territories of the Netherlands: Angola was taken over by the Portuguese in 1648, Brazil in 1654; in 1664 the British took New Amsterdam and soon after renamed it New York, and in 1674 the Dutch West India Company itself was declared insolvent. Against this narrative, Post’s down-to-earth paintings register a transitory moment and are not only scrupulously descriptive but prescient.

[See also: How the Ukrainian painter Arkhip Kuindzhi laid out the spirituality in nature before Russian eyes]

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This article originally appeared in the May 18, 2022 issue of The New Statesman, Putin against NATO


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