Tupuya Woman Holding a Severed Hand
Dutch Brazil, Netherlands (1641)
oil on canvas
265 × 157 cm
National Museum of Denmark
This Week on MedievalPOC: Eckhout’s series on Dutch Brazil
Albert Eckhout was a Netherlandish still-life painter commissioned by John Maurice, Prince of Nassau-Siegen, to paint the plants, animals, and human beings that inhabited the newly colonized Brazil.
This painting of a Tupuya woman by Eckhout is probably the most famous painting of the series, due to its sensationalized depiction of “New World Savagery”.
It’s fairly obvious that many of these paintings were meant to serve as fantasy and wish-fulfillment for Europeans, and yet were touted as faithful depictions of the inhabitants of Brazil. Although the setting and costume are different, many aspects of this life-size painting are taken from Medieval European Wodewose myths, literature, and artwork.
For example, this tapestry (which also depicts Wodewose or “Wild Men” fighting some Moorish soldiers ensconced in a castle) also has a scene in which Wild Men appear to be bringing tidbits of human flesh to feed their forest bride:
The connection between the Medieval Wodewose and the “New World Savage” in regards to the European artistic and literary imagination is made obvious in the Shakespeare’s character Caliban…According to Shakespearean scholars Vaughan and Mason:
Caliban conforms strikingly to the wild-man tradition, and Shakespeare’s audiences may have recognized him accordingly. That of course does not rule out the possibility that Shakespeare added touches of his own-from the New World, where the wild man’s savage ways were often attributed to Native Americans, or from other literary traditions.
They go on to describe the European Medieval fascination with grotesque, people-eating monsters who supposedly lived in far-away lands, as well as the revival of such literary traditions during the age of colonization.
This depiction has a lot more to do with what Europeans wanted to see than what Albert Eckhout actually saw.
Virginie Spinle goes into the popularity of this motif further:
Indeed, the female cannibal with a severed foot in her basket became a popular motif in the latter half of the seventeenth century. The motif was introduced by the Dutch painter Albert Eckhout, who stayed in what is now Brazilian territory from 1637 to 1644 to document, along with other artists and scholars, the achievements of Johan Maurits of Nassau-Siegen in Dutch Brazil.
Eckhout based his figures on members of the Tapuya (actually Tarairiu) tribe who inhabited the coastal hinterland of eastern Brazil. Upon returning to Europe, Eckhout painted from oil sketches (now lost) the large-format pictures, with life-size figures, presented by Johan Maurits in 1654 to King Frederick III of Denmark to decorate the Copenhagen Kunstkammer (fig. 3).
The paintings might seem to view the indigenous peoples of Brazil objectively. However, the painter exploited stereotypes that had become commonplace in European painting. Since the sixteenth century, the severed limbs of victims had figured as principal attributes of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
The woman carrying a severed foot undoubtedly represents a nod to the previously mentioned series of engravings published by De Bry, who had stigmatized the Tupinambá, the tribe whose territory adjoined that of the Tapuya, as cannibals. It was, in fact, the unlikely combination of studied allegory and empirical observation that made Eckhout’s paintings so successful.
In fact, the De Bry series of engravings was the predecessor of this series, which shows once again that the inhabitants of Brazil were no more than political tools for Europeans engaging in a religious and social war with Brazil as their batleground:
Though he made them more “familiar” with scenes of peaceful communal life and classical European physical forms, it seems he did so in order to turn them into more useful victims, to give Spain’s slaves a human face and consequently stir up sympathy for the more “benevolent” Protestant colonizers. They retain their basic pagan inferiority, their barbaric habit of cannibalism that Europeans, like their representative Staden, must disapprove of.
At their best, when they are obstacles to Spanish colonial interests, de Bry’s Indians have shapely bodies and humble souls. At their worst, when they are obstacles to Protestant colonial interests, they degenerate into the howling, contorted, blade-wielding baby-killers ubiquitous in colonialist propaganda.
For de Bry, the Indians, although “human,” were still ripe for enslavement, just not by the papists who had driven him and his family from Flanders. And the cannibals? They were quaint, just as long as it was a Spaniard on the butcher block.
Too many modern Art Historians still seem to view Eckhout’s series of paintings in a vacuum, but it is clear that a painting like the one above is adhering to an agenda-one of bloody conquest, enslavement, and cultural as well as physical genocide.
This depiction of sexualized violence, debauchery, and the juxtaposition of innocence with vice, ripe for conversion, subversion, and exploitation would have been nigh-irresistible to European viewers. This painting is not about Brazil as it is, or ever was. It is about European desires and very little else.
[x] [x] [x] [x] [x]