Many Amersfoort hands: Revisiting the making of Albert Eckhout’s Brazilian paintings (1641-1643)

In: Oud Holland – Journal for Art of the Low Countries
Jørgen Wadum
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Albert Eckhout’s twenty-one paintings, signed and dated 1641-1643, kept at the National Museum of Denmark, has stirred much speculation as to their making, meaning, and function. Eight impressive larger-than-life depictions of native Brazilian inhabitants and a huge dancing scene of the Tarairiu Indians were presented as gifts to the Danish King Frederik III (1609-1670) in 1654, together with twelve almost square still lifes of exotic fruits and vegetables from Brazil. The present was from the initiator of the paintings, Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen (1604-1679), the governor of the Dutch possessions in north-eastern Brazil.

Following on the archival, historical and technical reports that have been presented over the years, a re-evaluation of the technical examinations combined with new comparative research points to a more complex genesis of the paintings. The canvases and ground layers suggest that the tall single-figure pieces were made in one batch, while the large dancing scene and the still-lifes were prepared in a small number of separate batches. Infrared imaging visualises different approaches in paint handling within the group of nine figure pieces. The working up of the final paint layer in the faces of the figures has been approached in two different ways, either opaquely or with semi-transparent layers in the shadow areas. Idiosyncratic manners of rendering the eyes complement these findings and reveal details hardly studied so far.

The article concludes that the Tupi man, the Black man, and the Mulatto man are painted in a different and more transparent technique. Further, the manner of mixing black paint with white to render a nuanced whiteness of the eyes of the three figures, is not found in any of the other six paintings. These tall figures were painted by another hand than Eckhout, and most probably someone active in Jacob van Campen’s large Randenbroek workshop in Amersfoort. Here, together with the still anonymous painter, Eckhout completed the impressive series of large Brazilian figures and twelve still lifes around 1647-1650. This research exemplifies the seventeenth-century collaborative practice of working on larger commissions, yet all the works continue to demonstrate Eckhout’s legacy and how studies from his Brazilian sojourn were used by a larger community of artists in the Netherlands to satisfy the need for exotic images of the time.

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