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The Brazilian landscapes of Frans Post capture the dismal dawn of the colonial age

The 17th-century Dutch artist was the first professional painter to record the New World – and the view was far from exotic.

By Michael Prodger

In the 16th and early 17th centuries assorted European states signified their claims on tranches of North America with the addition of a simple prefix: along the eastern seaboard cropped up New Sweden, New England, New France and New Netherland. South America, meanwhile, was left largely to Spain and Portugal. In the early 1630s, however, the lure of Brazilian sugar plantations proved too much for the newly formed Dutch West India Company and a successful invasion against the ruling Portuguese and subsequent consolidations meant that by the middle of the decade the Dutch controlled a large and profitable swathe of the country.

In 1637, Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen, a relative of William of Orange, arrived in the territory as the governor-general of New Holland. He was determined not just to oversee but to improve and record his new fiefdom, so among his retinue he included the German natural scientist Georg Marcgraf, the physician Willem Piso and two painters, Albert Eckhout and Frans Post. Eckhout was tasked with recording the people 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 he owed his place in the Brazil entourage to his architect brother Pieter. Pieter Post was one of the architects responsible for building Johan Maurits’s new palace in the Hague – today the Mauritshuis museum – constructed during the governor’s South American sojourn. What Frans Post clearly took with him, though, 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 the artistic education of his son. Haarlem was a particularly glittering nugget during the Dutch Golden Age and Post’s immediate peers there included Frans Hals, who would later paint his portrait; the uncle-and-nephew landscapists Salomon van Ruysdael and Jacob van Ruisdael; and Isaac and Adriaen van Ostade. Whether or not they knew each other, Salomon van Ruysdael specialised in views with low horizons and land cut by rivers under big skies – exactly the sort of format Post would go on to apply to his Brazilian pictures.

The country’s landscapes became Post’s speciality, even after his return to the Netherlands in 1644. In the seven years he was there, however, he painted just 18 views, of which only seven are now known to exist. What is striking about them is how unexotic they are: some incidental details of palm trees and slaves aside, the scenes could pass at first glance as images of the wet, low-lying countryside of his homeland.

Intentional or not, this was of a piece with Johan Maurits’s intention to imbue his colony with the civic attributes of the Netherlands. He aggrandised the capital, Recife, with public buildings, gardens and bridges and then promptly had the new town renamed Mauritsstad in his own honour. He promoted religious tolerance, not just for the long-established Portuguese Catholics and the monastic orders that were allowed to keep their privileges but for the Jewish population too. To embed the Portuguese further he included them alongside his Dutch followers in new local councils. This enlightenment did not, however, extend to the indigenous Tupi people and the African slaves, mostly from Angola, who continued to work in brutal conditions on the sugar plantations that funded the entire enterprise.

In the painting above, View of Itamaracá Island in Brazil, 1637, the first he executed after his arrival and now on loan to the Mauritshuis, Post shows just this social and racial structure. Two white settlers and their horses are attended 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 signals to Fort Orange over the river for a boat in which to cross. When Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum acquired the painting in 1879, its director, Johann Wilhelm Kaiser, claimed the man on horseback was Maurits himself in his “Brazilian costume”; in fact he is Portuguese, so this is a painting of the world the Dutch settlers inherited.

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It is an unexpectedly simple and topographical image, with all ideas of the picturesque studiously ignored. There is little foliage, the bare riverbank dominates, the water takes on the dun colour of the sky. A European river scene would be full of boats and a sense of recession; here, though, the water is empty and the far bank unfurls with little differentiation and with only a spine of palm trees to give variety. It is a no-nonsense picture, factual not fawning, stating little more than: here is the landscape, here are its inhabitants, and all is calm. There is nothing triumphal about it, no signifiers of the benefits of Dutch suzerainty and nothing to hymn the glory of his 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 former colonists. In these pictures, 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 were exoticised with added flora and fauna.

About a decade ago, a group of 34 unknown Post watercolours and drawings of animals were discovered in the North Holland Archives in Haarlem. He drew most of these animals from life – Maurits had helpfully established a menagerie to house his collection of South American wildlife – and used them to pep up his pictures. Among them, accompanied by his own annotations, are a “Chilean sheep” (a llama), an armadillo (“a kind of armoured pig, two feet in size. Good to eat, tastes like chicken”), a jaguar (“a tiger, as large as a common calf; they are very ferocious and strong”), as well as anteaters, alligators and pythons.

Post’s landscape drawings were also turned into engravings for an illustrated edition of Rerum per octennium in Brasilia, an account of Maurits’s tenure, published in 1647, while in 1679 no fewer 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 of the six-year Franco-Dutch War.

Post’s success was such that he was made treasurer of the Haarlem painters’ guild and included by Arnold Houbraken in his book The Great Theatre of Dutch Painters and Paintresses, published in the early 18th century. However, at some point Post turned to alcohol – perhaps prompted by the early deaths of two of his sons – and this may be the reason he did not travel with Maurits to Paris to give his Brazilian paintings to Louis XIV in person and why for the last decade of his life he seems to have stopped painting altogether.

Post’s demise mirrored that of the Netherlands’ overseas territories: Angola was retaken by the Portuguese in 1648, Brazil in 1654; in 1664 the British took New Amsterdam and shortly afterwards renamed it New York, and in 1674 the Dutch West India Company itself was declared insolvent. Against this narrative, Post’s matter-of-fact paintings record a transient moment and are not just 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 appears in the 18 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Nato