The two artworks I’m writing about today are the reason I took American Art History this semester.
I have to admit, I was a bit wary of taking a class about how America has been crafting an identity and a history through art. (Do you blame me?) I told my parents that this class would probably only consist of me being incredibly angry and talking far more than necessary for a good participation grade. But then I realized that the whole reason I wasn’t too thrilled about taking this class was precisely the reason why I should take it! I am incredibly passionate about art being used as a tool to illustrate history in the way that the artist — or the patron of the art — wants it to be seen. I shouldn’t shy away from a difficult conversation about American history because I’m afraid I’ll be annoyed! I should be stepping up to the plate, ready to bat a thousand.
And I am. I’m only a few days into this class, and I already can’t stop thinking about some of the things I read about in my textbook!
So why these two artworks? They display perfectly my frustration about American history and the way it’s been documented. There is a danger of looking at art without first donning a critical eye, for you may miss an imposed bias that tells more than you’d think. Let’s dive into the 1580’s and see that bias!
The watercolor on the left was painted by an artist named John White, who accompanied Sir Walter Raleigh on his expedition to Virginia. He was concerned with documenting, with accuracy of information, what the “New World” was like. His paintings were for European eyes and were made to inform. This is an incredibly important piece of information! Because we know his motive and audience, we can get a lot from this work. He was trying to depict an Algonquin couple, sitting together eating boiled maize. He was trying to capture the way they sat, what their clothing and hairstyles were like, and the contents of their dish. Whether or not he did this accurately, however, doesn’t matter when we look at the image on the right, which was the image that was relayed to most English eyes.
Theodor de Bry took John White’s watercolors and transformed them into copper engravings in order to publish them in a book about the “New World” called “A Briefe and True Representation of the New Found Land of Virginia.” So many of those words in that title are horribly misleading. The land of Virginia wasn’t found by the English, and the contents of this book certainly aren’t true representations!! A prime example of the untruth to this documentation is right there in de Bry’s engraving.
Looking at these images side-by-side, there is obvious artistic liberty taken by de Bry. He firstly adds other studies of corn, fish, and pottery to give Europeans a sense of what else was found in the “New World.” Next, he imposes English beauty standards onto this couple. Notice how they now sit with their legs out instead of bent, to make their pose more familiar. The man is obviously shown in a Classical style, with his bulging musculature reminiscent to a Greek or Roman statue. The most infuriating part of this engraving, in my opinion, is the representation of the woman. Not only is she depicted in a more Classical style, with a more slender than round face and definition in the musculature of her body, but the repositioning of her face changes the narrative of the whole image.
In White’s painting, she is looking at the food she is eating, and not at the viewer. She is simply enjoying her meal. In de Bry’s engraving, she looks out at the viewer in what is instantly recognizable as a look of seduction. De Bry makes her the focus of this engraving, changing her narrative from “enjoying her meal” to “enjoying being watched.” Overtly sexualizing what was formerly not a sexual scene is incredibly dangerous when we remember that this engraving was published in a book that was meant to educate English people about the Native Americans in the “New World.” They would walk away with a notion that the Algonquian people are mysterious and erotic instead of humans with different customs.
This is just the tip of the art history iceberg when it comes to the importance of understanding the context of artworks from American history. I suspect this won’t be my last blog post on this topic! Until then, enjoy your week!