- Historic Sites
Artist Of A Buried World
In the dense jungle lay the ruins of an imposing culture, unknown and unsuspected. But Frederick Catherwood, with his pencil and brush, made the silent stones speak
June 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 4
The contract between the two men, curiously enough, is still extant, in the Stephens papers at the Bancroft Library at the University of California. Dated September 9, 1839, three weeks before they set sail to Central America, it is written in Stephens’ hand and constitutes a “memorandum of an agreement this day between John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood … who agrees to accompany Stephens on his journeys to Central America … [and] throughout the said tour [to] exercise his skill as an artist making drawings of Palenque, Uxmal, Copén and other ruined cities.” Catherwood was to see these made into engravings, and to publish no narrative or descriptions of his own. In turn Stephens agreed to pay all expenses and the sum of fifteen hundred dollars. The agreement was to last all their lives. Catherwood turned his panorama over to George Jackson, bookseller, and also gave into his care a wife and two children. On the night of October 3 they sailed on the evening tide aboard the Mary Ann .
Our next recorded date is November 17, 1839, and it is a memorable one in American archaeological history, for it was on that day that Catherwood and Stephens stood before the jungle-covered remains of Copân. “I am entering,” Stephens recalled later, “abruptly upon new ground.” And so they were. While Stephens directed the clearing of the forest, Catherwood put up his easel and came to grips for the first time with Maya art. “As we feared,” wrote Stephens of his companion’s efforts, “the designs were so intricate and complicated, the subjects so entirely new and unintelligible, that he had great difficulty in drawing.”
In the end Catherwood succeeded, so well that a century later an American archaeologist looking at these pictures made at Copán in 1839 wrote that “his drawing … is so accurate that it is possible to decipher the date inscribed from it.” After finding more hitherto unknown ruins in Guatemala, they went on to Palenque, in the jungles of Mexico. The two explorers would have gone on to find more cities in Yucatan if malaria had not laid Catherwood low; as it was, their first look at Maya civilization had been a clear one, and was to have many consequences.
Within less than a year of their return to New York, Stephens’ first book, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan , with its wonderful Catherwood engravings, was ready for the press. Edgar Allan Poe, reviewing it for Graham’s Magazine (and he was the only critic who really had anything significant to say about it as a book), wrote that it was a “magnificent one—perhaps the most interesting book of travel ever published.” In the autumn of 1841, hardly giving themselves time to savor their success (the book went through eight editions in three years), Stephens and Catherwood were again in Yucatan. Now they were three, for Dr. Samuel Cabot of Boston, physician and ornithologist, had joined them. This time their archaeological researches were confined to’ the Yucatan peninsula, and it was quite enough. Within less than a year they found forty-four Maya sites and laid the base, for all time, of the history of Maya culture.
Among the greatest of the cities that Stephens and Catherwood discovered and recorded, in the dry-jungle interior and along the wind-swept north coast, was Uxmal, without doubt one of the most architecturally uniform and consistently beautiful cities in the entire Maya kingdom. Catherwood made many detailed drawings of it; one of them—over eight feet in length, showing the intricate façade of the Nunnery Quadrangle—is to be seen in the Museum of the American Indian, New York. Numerous other originals of the House of the Governor attest to Catherwood’s skill as an architectural draftsman.
On June 17, 1842, the expedition ended. The three men set sail for New York loaded down not only with Catherwood’s drawings, Stephens’ notes, and Cabot’s stuffed birds but with numerous objects taken from the ruins as well. The owners—there was then no official protection of the ruins—gladly allowed this. These sculptures were the first to be seen outside of their place of origin, and it was Stephens’ plan to see them made the basis of a museum for American antiquities.