Through the recognizable names of Columbus and Darwin, focus is made on the period from the late 1400s to mid-1800s. Explore what this period means for scientific and artistic engagement around Latin American nature. Look at the full range of contributions in knowledge making during this period: the contributions of indigenous people, those born in the Americas of Spanish descent, as well as of European explorers. None of the fundamental transformations that took place could have happened without engagement across a wide cross-section of people. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that these advancements were fueled by a troubling power dynamic—the fact that native peoples were oppressed and otherwise exploited for what they knew. This is a story of the visual evidence that remains of scientific and artistic collaboration—fraught as those relationships may have been—that defined the beginnings of what we now know as globalization.
Text in this instructional tool is drawn from the exhibition labels and catalog.
Europeans initially explored the Americas searching for potential natural riches. Maps of the American continent in the French Vallard Atlas depict verdant territories bursting with natural commodities and exotic animals. This map of South America focuses on Brazil (note that North is oriented to the bottom of this map). In it, two men carry heavy logs of a reddish wood known as pau-brasil (brazilwood), a tree that the Portuguese valued for use in construction and as a dye, and that gave the region its European name.
The Vallard Atlas shows how, amid the rapid pace of cartographic and technological discoveries, old pictorial traditions continued to thrive. While the printing press revolutionized communications at this time, artists still created hand-made manuscripts, like this one, using techniques, designs, and materials that dated back to the Middle Ages.
This portolan chart of the world highlights routes for mariners; portolan comes from the Italian word porto for harbor. The chart was drawn on an entire sheepskin, the neck of which can be seen at the left side. It was designed to be rolled up.
The map primarily shows the discoveries made by the Portuguese along the coasts of Africa and China in the East Indies. However, this is also one of the earliest world maps to show the American continent. European mapmakers rendered their expanding world by adding tentative squiggles to articulate the coasts of the West Indies, Venezuela, Brazil, and Newfoundland (seen on the left of the map).
In 1577, the Spanish Council of the Indies distributed a document with fifty questions to town officials throughout Mexico and Central America. The goal of the questionnaire was to compile information about each town, including its infrastructure, geography, landscape, flora, fauna, and minerals. Local artists painted maps that show both the continuity of native traditions and the radical changes introduced by Europeans. Elements from indigenous art include pictographs providing place names and wavy lines and whirlwinds marking bodies of water. These maps present local visions of the landscape at a time of rapid cultural and social transformation.
Printing, a technology developed in Europe from around 1450, allowed texts and images to circulate in large numbers, at fast speeds, and across great distances. To create books and prints, authors and artists often employed existing sources, freely copying and adapting them. This was particularly so with rarities from the Americas, which few Europeans could see firsthand.
One example of the religious interpretation of American nature is the passionflower, a plant named after the Passion of Christ. Passion is the term for Christ’s suffering and death; this woodcut in a Jesuit publication shows the plant’s features as symbols of Christ’s death on the cross: his crown of thorns, the three nails driven through his body, the whips that struck him, and the sponge offered to him. For Catholic missionaries, such signs of God’s presence in the Americas validated their missionary work.
In 1699, German artist Maria Sibylla Merian traveled with her daughter to Suriname, a Dutch possession in South America, to study rare insects and flora—an exceedingly unusual undertaking for a woman at the time. Merian observed from nature and received samples and information from the local populations. After her return to Amsterdam, she published this book, which is the first work on the natural history of the region. Her book focused on insects to an unprecedented degree and provided detailed portrayals of the various moments in each animal’s life cycle, presenting carefully observed accounts of change over time rather than static snapshots.
Rather than the commonly depicted subject of isolated specimens, Merian focused on the interrelationships between plants and animals, making her images particularly remarkable and captivating.
The Royal Botanical Expedition (1783–1816) sent by the King of Spain to the Viceroyalty of New Granada (which encompassed parts of modern Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and Venezuela) employed almost sixty artists—most from South America—who created over seven thousand illustrations. These were often colored with paints made from such local ingredients as saffron, indigo, and lichens.
The paintings show not only the artists’ mastery of the techniques and conventions of European botanical illustration but also their inventive reworking of that tradition. They would depict various stages in the life of a plant in a single imaginary specimen, chop a tall plant into segments displayed side by side, or squeeze a reedy example onto a page by bending it into sinuous curves. Frequently, leaves of plants curl over so that both sides may be seen.