The New Golden Land
Hugh Honour’s The New Golden Land tells with words and visual images what the Europeans saw in America, from the first discoveries to the 1970’s. They saw America as many things—an experiment, a refuge, a curiosity, a new Heaven, and a real Hell. A torrent of books has been written by hundreds of European visitors over the last 450 years. Libraries have been filled with travelers’ accounts and studies of travelers’ accounts, but few authors have attempted to study the European artist and his view of America. Honour, a prolific British art historian and author of Horace Walpole, Chinoiserie, The Vision of Cathay, and other works, is an urbane and literate writer, an intellectual who enjoys the broad sweep and the study of cultural contrasts and who has a profound grasp of his subject. This study has been done in conjunction with the Bicentennial exhibit “The European Vision of America,” organized by Washington’s National Gallery of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and France’s Reunion des Musees Nationaux.
Although only a few of these European artists were outstanding and only a few ever came to America, their works have had a lasting significance on how Europeans have viewed America. Goethe wrote “We see only what we know.” The artist relying upon geographical lore and oral tradition has had great difficulty in separating fact from myth. The Europeans saw what they expected to see. This is not unique, for the mind needs to grasp the familiar and known in order to lessen the shock of the unknown and unfamiliar.
This book is basically a study of stereotypes. The first European painting of the New World was Jan Mostaert’s West Indian Landscape. Here we see the Europocentric artist grappling with the need to comprehend America within the frame of the two central European traditions, classical and Judeo-Christian. The artist clearly misunderstood the oral description in depicting the fauna of the American Southwest, for this unusual landscape of Coronado’s attack on a Zuni village includes animals which a Dutch farmer would recognize, as well as a parrot and a monkey. Further, the painting shows a garden-like setting of innocents being attacked by the more advanced Spaniards who, in this action, we condemn. The atrocities committed against the Indians were an issue of deep concern even before Coronado’s 1540 campaign. Priests told of the massacres of entire tribes. In response to this horrendous issue, Mostaert’s painting serves as an important historical depiction of European impressions and concepts of America only fifty years after Columbus.
American Indians were placed by the European within the traditional Christian concepts of mankind. Based upon classical ideas about progress and human development, Europeans began to accept the fact that all peoples went through different stages of development. The appearance of these natives offered the Europeans an insight into their own ancestry. With this comparison, Europeans could view themselves in new ways. In viewing America, the Europeans were in part viewing themselves—their own golden past and their age of barbarism. Honour omits John White’s drawings of Indians that were used to represent the Ancient Britons and which show “how that the Inhabitants of the great Bretannie have bin in times past as sauvage as those of Virginia.”
Another skilled artist who came to America was Frans Post, who was commissioned to paint the official landscape for the Governor of Brazil, Count Maurits of Nassau. His “Sao Francisco River and Fort Maurice” is one of the finest works Post did while he was in Brazil. The painting offers a fresh, almost ethereal, world view. The unfamiliar flora and fauna in the picture, the large opuntias cactus, the amazing capybara, and the unlimited horizon must have left a lasting impression on the Europeans. However, once Post had returned to Europe, with its expectations and prejudices, his landscapes became exotic, the natives happy children, and the vegetation lavish and contrived.
Honour defines the European images as “bifocal vision”—an ambivalence of admiration and abhorrence. On one side the European artists represent America, as did Mostaert and White, as an Arcadian paradise populated by noble savages whose golden way of life was shattered by the conquistadores. These paintings parallel the words of Columbus and Las Casas and represent the newness and excitement of their first contacts. Here the European not only created the myth of...
(The entire section is 1862 words.)