The Power of Pictures
Friday, October 4, 2013 to Monday, December 16, 2013

Illustrated Travels

    The emigration of people set in motion by Columbus produced dramatic encounters across the globe. When early explorers returned without pictures of the people and places they visited, publishers did not hesitate to employ fanciful depictions of the “new world.” In 1590, nearly a century after Columbus first crossed the Atlantic, the Frankfurt engraver and editor Theodor de Bry published Thomas Hariot’s A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia, illustrated from watercolors made in America by John White, an artist. White’s watercolors survive in the British Museum, but they were rarely exhibited until the 20th century. In the meantime, de Bry’s images established a stereotype of Native Americans that dominated Western European culture until the late 18th century.

     Before Buffalo Bill there was John Smith, an Elizabethan adventurer whose self-assurance, dramatic sensibility, and command of popular media anticipated William Cody’s appreciation of how to grow wealthy by turning one’s life into theater. Like Cody, Smith was an accomplished frontiersman. Also like Cody, Smith felt no shame in presenting to the public an exaggerated, schematic summary of his adventures. In The Generall Historie of Virginia… (1624) Smith inserted himself among Indian scenes appropriated from de Bry. He used the illustrations to adorn a detailed, accurate map of Virginia with a visual narrative of harrowing and heroic episodes of his life in the colony. Readers interested in understanding the geography of Virginia could not avoid Smith’s advertisement for himself.

     By the late 18th century, government and private expeditions routinely included artists whose work supplemented literary accounts of adventure and exploration. Tomás de Suría studied at Spain’s Royal Art Academy of San Fernando. In 1778 he moved to Mexico where he pursued a quiet career as an engraver in Mexico City’s mint until 1791, when the Spanish naval officer Alejandro Malaspina recruited him for an expedition to the Pacific Northwest. Suría’s illustrated diary, the only private diary of the expedition, provides a candid counterpoint to official accounts. His pen-and-ink sketch of the head man at the port of Mulgrave conveys the intensity that must have accompanied initial encounters between Europeans and indigenous people.


     In the post-Columbian world, many travelers were transported involuntarily, forcibly driven from their homes to strange lands. Their descendants frequently retain a sense of dual identity, of being from (or of) two places. The contemporary artist Tom Feelings explained, “When I am asked who I am, I say, I am an African who was born in America. Both answers connect me specifically with my past and present ...” When a Ghanaian friend asked him, “What happened to all of you when you were taken away from here?” Feelings began to conceive the images that eventually formed his book, The Middle Passage: White Ships/Black Cargo (New York, 1995). We are unaware of any surviving images of the middle passage made by enslaved Africans, but Beinecke now holds the full set of fifty-one drawings and collages that Feelings created to answer his friend’s question. He aspired to tell the history of slavery in such a way that the chains of the past could become “spiritual links that willingly bind us together now and into the future.” His reworking of the iconic image of the slave ship suggests the powerful spiritual force of human suffering. The ship is borne forward, perhaps aloft, by a chained black body whose appearance evokes images of Christ’s crucifixion.


     Newcomers in strange countries often captured essential components of local culture. In 1837, American painter Alfred Jacob Miller met Scottish adventurer William Drummond Stewart in New Orleans. Stewart had traveled to St. Louis in 1832, determined to see the Far West. He had attended several of the fur trade fairs held annually in western mountain valleys, and now he wanted Miller to document his experiences. Miller became the only artist who ever attended a fur trade rendezvous. Four of his watercolors from 1837 evoke the carnival-like atmosphere of the event.

     The work of indigenous artists provides intriguing glimpses of their life before and after they were confined to reservations. In April 1875, Richard Henry Pratt escorted 71 Native Americans 1,200 miles from the southern plains to prison at Fort Marion, Florida. Pratt shared white Americans’ disdain for Indian culture, but he harbored an unconventional belief that individual Indians, freed from what he considered the constraints of their culture, could accomplish anything. He organized a school and encouraged prisoners to paint and draw. Scholars have identified nearly 750 artworks from Fort Marion; approximately 15 percent were made by a young Kiowa artist, Zotom. His decorated fans became legendary among local women, but he also created sketchbooks, including one that so impressed Harriet Beecher Stowe that she asked him to prepare another. Many of Zotom’s drawings recorded events from his youth. “A Special Occasion” appears in a sketchbook given to Pratt.


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