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A little Old World spin

Paintings depicting Americas' early history got more than smooth edges in a European engraver's hands.

April 27, 2008|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

NEW HAVEN, CONN. — Visitors who pass quickly by may detect nothing unusual about the 500-year-old woodcut of Brazil's Tupinamba Indians, shown in decorative feathered garb. But those who stop and examine it will certainly notice the severed arm in the background -- and someone about to gnaw on it. In this early depiction of the New World, made following a Portuguese explorer's trip, the natives are cannibals.

"People in Europe thought the unknown world was full of monsters and very frightening savages," said curator Elisabeth Fairman, leading a group past the 1505 woodcut on the wall of the Yale Center for British Art.

The frightening scene is just a setup for very different scenes to come -- in the historic watercolors that gave Britain and much of the world its first images of what became known as America, images used to this day to teach school children what Native Americans looked like and how they lived before Europeans put their stamp on this land.

"These are the 18 drawings . . . the iconic images everyone knows," Fairman said as the group stood before colorful renditions of friendly Indians in a land of plenty. Fish virtually jump from the water into their canoe. Corn grows in neat rows. Families wave. People sit around a fire. A dog romps.

Perhaps the earlier woodcut from Brazil was another era's version of the horror film, but the suggestion is that these images -- part of "A New World: England's First View of America" -- are something else. "Propaganda," said Fairman, the Yale museum's curator of rare books and manuscripts. Or perhaps they can be seen, more charitably, as a limited snapshot of a small group of people at a short-lived moment -- right before the clash of cultures began to take its toll.

The watercolors were the work of John White, a British gentleman who was on several voyages sponsored by Sir Walter Raleigh to the coast of what was then called "Virginia" -- after England's Virgin Queen, Elizabeth -- but is now North Carolina.

White's watercolors provided visions of Native Americans that would be viewed as near gospel for two centuries, but they were based on a mere two-week encounter with one tribe, the Algonquians, during a 1585 voyage to establish an English military presence in the New World. Two years later, White returned to lead a delegation of 115 civilians, hoping to establish a permanent settlement at the "Cittie of Raleigh," that group including his daughter Eleanor Dare, who gave birth to the first English child born in North America, the aptly named Virginia Dare. White then left them behind to go back to England for more supplies and by the time he returned, in 1590, there was no trace of them -- not his daughter, granddaughter or any member of what became known as the "Lost Colony of Roanoke."

So the settlers vanished, but White's watercolors endured, thanks to their use in illustrating popular books on the New World whose text ("A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia") was written by mathematician Thomas Harriot, who also was on the 1585 expedition. Of course, that was long before there was technology to easily duplicate a painting. Mass reproduction in this case was achieved through engravings made by a Belgian goldsmith, Theodore de Bry, whose images of the same Indians also are part of the exhibit.

And there's the catch -- the engravings made by De Bry took liberties with White's original watercolors, pushing them in a clear direction. While the Native Americans were shown as benign to start, De Bry made them even more palatable to audiences back home and clear candidates for conversion to Christianity.

One stunning example is White's "Indian Man and Woman Eating" ("Their Sitting at Meate"), showing the pair squatting around a platter of what appears to be boiled corn. But they are squatting in a way that may have seemed uncomfortable to the British audience, so the engraved version has their legs stretched out; and their facial features appear European.

Another White watercolor shows an "Indian Woman and Young Girl," with the mother looking off into the distance and the girl holding a doll that's obviously a gift from the visitors from across the ocean. In the engraving that became the circulated image, "A Cheiff Ladye of Pomeiooc," the mother's gaze is redirected at the girl, who now is playing not only with the doll but a Western rattle. The message to the folks back home: These people may dress differently than we do, but they are not all that different.

"What he's paying attention to," Fairman said of White, "is how they eat, what they eat, how they catch their food, how they treat their children, how they interact with each other . . . and how you tell who's in charge, who the priests are . . . all the kind of information people in the Elizabethan court, and the people on the next voyages, need to know."

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