Painting of Tupinamba cannibals of Brazil set in a local landscape on wooden panel.
The oak panel has on verso the title "America". The oak panel is beveled down at the back along all four sides to a thickness of a few millimeters at the edges, probably to allow the panel to be fixed into the shallow rabbet of a frame later. Practically all seventeenth-century Dutch panels correspond to this description.
The iconography of this painting and another well-known painting by Jan van Kessel II are directly derived from one of the plates in the "Grands Voyages" by Theodore Bry published in 1592. The title of the engraving : "How the Slave Who Had Spoken Ill of Me Was Eaten Himself" was actually based on a woodcut from a 1557 book on Brazil by Hans Staden.
Van Staden was an adventurer from Hesse who had twice traveled to Brazil, where he spent nine months as a prisoner of the Tupinamba cannibals.
In the 17th century paintings of curio cabinets and paintings of Dutch, Colonial interest seemed to be very much in demand. Brazil played an important role and painters such as Albert Eckhout (1637–1664) and Frans Post (1612-ca.1680), as well as naturalists such as Zacharias Wagner (1614–1668), who documented Brazil's flora and fauna, visualized the exotic county and produces.
Cabinets of curiosities seemed to be very popular in the 17th century and these cabinets were filled with preserved animals, horns, tusks, skeletons, minerals, as well as other types of equally fascinating man-made objects, ethnographic specimens from exotic locations. Often they would contain a mix of fact and fiction, including apparently mythical creatures.
Dutch and Flemish painter's like Jan van Kessel I (Antwerpen 1626 - Antwerpen 17-apr-1679) also painted curio cabinets. Van Kessel I was a grandson of Jan Brueghel the Elder through his mother Pachasie.
He worked in Antwerp and several of his thirteen children were also painters, among Jan Van Kessel II and Jan van Kessel III (1654-1708) . Together with Erasmus Quellinus (1607-1678) van Kessel I painted four Allegories of Continents in the form of wonder chambers. The four paintings give an intercultural, ethnographic comparison of the four continents that were known at the time.
A painting by Jan van Kessel shows the same scene of cannibals as our painting but set in a prison environment in the same format as is known. Van Kessel's paintings frequently exhibited a fascination with the bizarre, the exotic, and even the grotesque, as in his Cannibalistic Indians.
Recently, a painting with the text America on the verso was auctioned with Hargesheimer & Günther, Düsseldorf in Germany.
This painting belonged to a larger series of works on copper plate, which symbolize the four continents and were painted by Jan van Kessel in the 1660's. They come from the royal collection of Charles IV of Spain and 40 panels are now in the Prado Museum (see also exhibit Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, 1980), two more tables in a private collection in Paris.
A second, complete series of the same theme today preserved in the Alte Pinakothek Munich. It consists of 4 big and 64 small tables, a variant of which included painting.
The European interest in cannibalism was little short of an obsession. It became a favorite theme in Renaissance art almost overnight, and was additionally a fundamental aspect of nearly every sixteenth-century tract dealing with the New World.
French travelers of the mid-16th century who tried, at the instigation of Admiral Coligny, set on an island in the current bay of Rio de Janeiro, a colony of "Antarctic France", were indeed confused by cannibalistic habits of the natives.
Some tribes ate their enemies killed in battle so they thought, to appropriate force. The prisoners were in turn incorporated into the tribe where they were cared for and fed until they were to be consumed. They were then fatally knocked down, their bodies cut into pieces and cooked by women in earthen pots with water and corn.
It is much less certain that the members were grilled on the fire like game, where the pin runs including a leg man is probably an invention of European artists who exploited the taste of the thrill and horror without attributed to these savages as any related real brutality.
Still, the De Bry illustrations of cannibalism achieved canonical status, based on the account of Hans Staden, the adventurer from Hesse who had twice traveled to Brazil, where he spent nine months as prisoner of the Tupinamba cannibals of Brazil. His clearly authentic account was illustrated by crude but informative woodcuts made under his supervision. Although eating human flesh, according to theories of the similarity of food, could be seen as nutritionally perfect, it was by no means to be tolerated, and no early modern reader needed advice on how to interpret the practice of eating human flesh.
Thierry Lefrancois, New World Museum. Manual visitor and amateur, La Rochelle, 1990.
Thierry Lefrancois, The Allegory of America through the collections of the Musée du Nouveau Monde, La Revue du Louvre Museums of France, 1992.
Par Benjamin J. Kaplan, Mary Beth Carlson, Laura Cruz, Boundaries and Their Meanings in the History of the Netherlands.
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