- Historic Sites
America Illusion And Reality
No event in the history of Western man provided so profound a shock as the discovery of America
August 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 5
It was only quite late in the sixteenth century that Indians were depicted more accurately, placed in more exact settings, and their customs, dances, and villages shown with some appreciation of reality. John White’s water colors of the Indians of Virginia, among whom he lived briefly in 1585-6, show greater precision and accuracy, even though he refrained from depicting the more primitive and savage of their customs. A Frenchman, Jacques Le Moyne, had been far more candid in his sketches of Florida Indians, but true realism had to wait until the seventeenth century, when two fine Dutch painters—Frans Post and Albert Eckhout—painted Brazilian landscapes and people exactly and vividly. And yet the art of fantasy in European paintings of Indians was not eradicated for centuries; even Delacroix in the early nineteenth century could paint Indians who looked like well-bred Europeans in fancy dress. The tradition of realism started by John White developed more slowly and only reached its apogee with Catlin, Bodmer, and Rosa Bonheur, just before the genocide of the Indians had begun in earnest.
It was not only the exoticism of the people that both entranced and horrified Europeans. Columbus had gone in search of riches, of the fabulous Cathay. The Spaniards wanted gold. And they found it, bountifully in Mexico and beyond their wildest hopes in Peru; and the gold in the end led to the mountains of silver in Potosi and Taxco. This success in the search for riches came slowly. There were very barren decades, so that every object that was rich and exotic to look at was valuable as propaganda in the courts of Europe, which had to finance the early voyages of exploration and colonization. So the splendors of Central and South American civilizations were soon on their way to Europe—the great golden disks, the brilliant featherwork cloaks, the terrifying death masks in jade and greenstone, works that when Albrecht Dürer saw them in Brussels made him marvel at “the subtle ingenia of men in foreign lands.”
To the emperors they were indicators of riches to come, not works of art, and the golden vases, fountains, and animals that passed into the court of Charles V were quickly melted down for the money he always lacked. The feather cloaks were thrown away or left to rot in the attics of his palaces. Only a few men of taste or of obsessive curiosity found a home for them in their cabinets, and today only a handful of objects survive from the first century of European discovery.
Among the earliest collectors to appreciate the singularity and beauty of Mexican art were the emperor Ferdinand 1 (who died in 1564) and his two sons; the extraordinary Rudolph II, a patron of everything exotic; and not surprisingly, perhaps, the greatest family of art patrons in Italy—the Medici, who as early as 1539 had brought together, as Hugh Honour reminds us, forty-four pieces of featherwork as well as carved masks and animals in semiprecious stone. Perhaps the strangest fate of any American object in the sixteenth century was that of a Mexican obsidian disk that fell into the hands of John Dee, Queen Elizabeth I’s astrologer and magician, who used it to conjure up spirits. It was, however, the common objects, novel to Europe yet totally adaptable, that were most quickly diffused—the first being the hammock, unknown to European gardens and ships until discovered in the West Indies; equally adaptable but later in time came the canoe of the American Indians and the kayak of the Eskimos.
Just as amazing to Columbus as the inhabitants of the West Indies were the flora and fauna of the New World. Some, of course, were easy to assimilate. The rather subdued colored parrots of Africa had been greatly prized possessions of the Europeans in the late Middle Ages, but the brilliant colored parrots of Brazil rapidly replaced them. These were represented as early as 1502 in Europe and appeared in a painting by Carpaccio, the Venetian artist, as early as 1507. Along with hummingbirds and Mexican quail, they were used as brilliant decorative motifs in the Loggetta of Raphael at the Vatican.
Hugh Honour has demonstrated the astonishing speed with which the artists of the Renaissance seized upon American birds and animals as well as Indians to use as dramatic motifs in their painting and sculpture. The turkey—now the all-pervasive Christmas dish of English families—reached Europe almost as quickly as the parrot. It was bred in Spain shortly after 1500, and the bird had reached Britain by 1525. Ironically, a hundred years after its discovery by Columbus the turkey had reached the East Indies. But it was the odder birds and animals that excited the most curiosity—the iguana, which was thought to be a dragon, discovered at last; the armadillo, whose true nature baffled scholars for decades; the opossum, which was the first marsupial known to Europeans; and the tapir and the llama, both of which defied description.