Dreams of paradise
1493 - 1667
Visions from the New World
In the fifteenth century, Europeans fantasised about unknown corners of the world, which they endeavoured to find and then eventually conquer. When they began exploring the American continent it was depicted as an exotic paradise. They called it the New World.
The visualisation of an exotic paradise continued as the Europeans started to colonise the area. Flora, fauna and the indigenous people were depicted as an alien, lush world.
The imagery often drew heavily on idealised arrangements and poses found in Christian visual culture. In this way the pictures could send the message that the New World was created for the Europeans.
First view of the West Indies as paradise
Unknown artist. De Insulis nuper in mari Indico repertis Woodcut. Illustration for Columbus’s letter ”Epistola de insulis nuper in mari Indico repertis”, reproduced in Carolus Verardi: Caroli Verardi Cæsenatis Cubicularii Pontificii in historiam Bætecam ad R. P. Raphaelem. Riarium S. Gerogii Diaconum Cardinalem, 1494
The woodcut shows Christopher Columbus arriving in present-day Haiti in 1492. It is now considered the first European illustrated testimony from the West Indies that still exists today.
Popular legend has it that he named the many small islands in the region the Virgin Islands after the 11,000 virgins in the Catholic story of Saint Ursula. His naming stated that the islands were untouched. The illustration also depicts the indigenous Taíno people as naked and welcoming the Europeans. One of the men gives Columbus a nugget of gold in an exchange of gifts – a characteristic motif in depictions of travel at the time. The idea of a paradisiacal exchange forms a stark contrast to the actual suffering that the indigenous people were subjected to in the years to come as the Europeans brought them new diseases, genocide, slavery and displacement.
Present-day history books often use this picture as if it were an accurate depiction of Columbus’s actual landing. However, it is clearly an idealised representation, and one that even borrows elements from other artworks. For example, the large Mediterranean galley in the foreground and the small island at the top have been copied directly out of Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam, a travelogue about a pilgrimage (1486).
Sébastien Le Clerc Couple Beneath a Papaya Tree Engraving. Illustration for Jean-Baptiste du Tertre: Histoire générale des Antilles habitées par les François, 1667
Seventeenth century art depicts indigenous people as simple, noble savages who are closely attuned to nature. These portrayals draw on Christian illustrations of Adam and Eve or the gods of classical antiquity. The naked couple underneath the papaya tree are Caribs, the people who made up the indigenous population of the islands alongside the Taíno. They were drawn by the French artist Sébastien Le Clerc at a time when many islands of the West Indies had come under French rule.
Le Clerc followed a classical tradition for depicting foreign peoples as noble savages who lived lives that were closely attuned to nature – often on islands. Indigenous people were portrayed with traits and features obviously borrowed from the Christian idea of paradise and from classical antiquity. In this illustration the man and woman are shown in an upright contrapposto, a classical pose in which the model rests his or her weight on one leg. The woman’s genitalia are modestly covered by a leaf. They look like Adam and Eve or Apollo and Aphrodite.
The illustration was part of the French monk and botanist Jean-Baptiste du Tertre’s treatise on the history, geography and natural history of the Caribbean. According to du Tertre’s portrayal, the European colonisers ruined the Caribs’ affinity with nature. His descriptions of the lives led by the indigenous population expressed an early ethnographic curiosity that existed concurrently with the Europeans’ purely economic interest in the West Indies.