See Brazil without crossing the ocean!

The very recent Dutch publication Brazilië zien zonder de oceaan over te steken. De wandtapijten van Johan Maurits [See Brazil without crossing the ocean. The tapestries of Johan Maurits; bibliographic info below] is a very intriguing and detailed research publication. And especially interesting to a Danish audience as some of the main ‘characters’ constitute the National Museum of Denmark’s impressive collection of life-size representations of the Brazilian population as well as twelve fascinating still lifes with flora from the Dutch colony in Brazil. These works are by Albert Eckhout (1610-1665), one of several painters that Johan Maurits (1604-1679), prince of Nassau-Siegen, brought with him to Brazil 1637-1644.

Albert Eckhout, Images of Brazilians. Oil on canvas, each ca. 275 x 165 cm. The National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen.

In 1654 Johan Maurits donated these paintings to the Danish king Frederik III (1609-1670). In the donation letter, he explains that the gift consists of a total of 26 paintings of various kinds, some in full format of people and fruit. Speculation as to whether the many paintings were actually made in Brazil, and if so whether they had constituted a prominent decoration program in Maurits’ palace Vrijburg in Recife, have been numerous. A breakthrough in this discussion came in connection with technical investigations of the National Museum’s works and a re-examination of Johan Maurits’ gift letter to Frederik III. Here the Dutch donor writes that if the king so wishes, he can have the paintings copied “to other media.” It was the then director of Rosenborg Castle, Mogens Bencard, who in 2002 first interpreted this cryptic sentence as a hint to the king that the paintings were intended as templates for tapestries. The technical studies of the paintings further questioned their origin and suggested that the paintings may not, as previously assumed, have been executed in Brazil, but rather after returning to the Netherlands – in the busy studio of Jacob van Campen (1596-1657) in Amersfoort.

From left to right: Albert Haelwegh, Portrait of Frederik III, 1654-58. Engraving, Statens Museum for Kunst; Jan de Baen, Portrait of Johan Maurits., 1668-70. Oil on canvas, Mauritshuis; Jacob Vennekool or Abraham Lutma, Portrait of Jacob van Campen, 1665. Engraving, Stadsarchief Amsterdam.

In his book, the author and art historian Michiel Roscam Abbing succeeds in a detective-like manner to describe the immensely complicated spin of celebre studio-visits, unfortunate ambitions, as well as several major contemporary decorative works in the Netherlands and their interrelations. Based on extensive archival studies convincing arguments are presented in support of the suggestion that the paintings were conceived as cartoons for an intended decoration of count Maurits’ Dutch domicile in The Hague, the Mauritshuis. This city palace, conceived by Jacob van Campen, was in 1652 put into detailed drawings by Pieter Post (1608-1669).

Johan Maurits wanted to make a massive impression in the republic, as if he were a powerful monarch. When he returned from Brazil in 1644, he commissioned Van Campen to design a complete program for the interior design of Mauritshuis based on the unique visual material he had brought with him. The same artists, who had travelled with him to Brazil and who produced hundreds of drawings and annotations, were now employed for this purpose.

The idea that there must have been a grand plan for the interior design of the Mauritshuis with Brazil as its theme is eloquently brought forward by Roscam Abbing. The book decodes the supposed decoration program step by step using new sources, especially hitherto overlooked notes from Ernst Brinck (1582-1649), a collector of curiosities and mayor of Harderwijk, a town in central Holland. Brinck visited van Campen’s workshop in 1647, where he noted that he saw at least 25 paintings being painted at Johan Maurit’s expense. Brinck’s notes unusually large painting with all kind of Brazilian animals. These must have been intended as cartoons for a series of tapestries for the large upper floor of the Mauritshuis.

Michiel Roscam Abbing, Brazilië zien zonder de oceaan over te steken. De wandtapijten van Johan Maurits. Hardcover, 192 pages. Publisher Lias, Amsterdam, 2021.

The project failed, however, as Johan Maurits was appointed governor of Cleve in 1647 and his priorities changed. He sold the large tapestry cartoons for the large upper floor of the Mauritshuis to Friedrich Wilhelm I (1620-1688), Elector of Brandenburg, in 1652. In 1654, twentysix paintings were donated to Frederik III, and landscapes by Frans Post (1612 -1680) remained kept in boxes in the attic of the Mauritshuis until Johan Maurits gave them to King Louis XIV (1638-1715) of France in 1679.

However, a new opportunity to resume the decoration program in the Mauritshuis arose in 1667 after Johan Maurits was appointment field marshal of the Dutch Republic. He had his interior design plans revised and decided to decorate the large upper hall with tapestries. The large templates sold in 1652 were brought back and in 1667 Johan Maurits commissioned the tapestry weaver Maximiliaan van der Gucht (1603-1689) from Delft to make two series, one for the Elector of Brandenburg and the other for the Mauritshuis. Thus, by doing this he finally implemented a significant element of the interior design program, albeit twenty years later than planned. In 1668 and 1669 the tapestries were greatly admired by the Tuscan prince Cosimo III de ’Medici (1642-1723), but Johan Maurits was not able to complete the entire program; after all, he had given a large part of the tapestry cartoons to the Danish king.

Roscam Abbing has reconstructed the original plan using architectural drawings of the Mauritshuis from 1652. In addition to the large upper floor, the intention must also have been to display tapestries in the main landing and the landing halfway. Seventeenth-century visitors to the Mauritshuis would have been amazed by the proposed decoration program – had it been fully implemented. In addition to the tapestries, there were Brazilian birds painted in the hall itself, and there were exotic objects on display, such as stuffed animals brought from Brazil. If you visited this hall, you no longer had to cross the ocean to experience Brazil.

Bibliographic note (while we may hope for an English edition):

Michiel Roscam Abbing, Brazilië zien zonder de oceaan over te steken. De wandtapijten van Johan Maurits. Hardcover, illustrated, 192 pages, English summary. Publisher Lias, Amsterdam, 2021. ISBN 978 90 8803 1120

Albert Eckhout, Still life with melons and other fruit, ca. 1640. Oil on canvas, 91 x 91 cm. One of the twelve still lifes at the National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen

Published by Jørgen Wadum

Jørgen Wadum is a Danish technical art historian.

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