For as long as explorers have been leaving Europe and the United States to investigate South America, artists have been going with them to document what they find there. Some of their artistic endeavors were realistic. Some were idealized. All of them had an impact on how non-Latin Americans perceived Latin America.
An enlightening exhibit at New Britain Museum of American Art, "Vistas del Sur," has examples of both. Realists sketched, printed and painted flora and fauna, crockery and villages, people and landscapes, with less concern for beauty than for accuracy. Others romanticized vistas to such a degree that their approach seems almost wistful, as if European artists longed for the time before Europeans showed up, or preferred South America not as it was but as European and Americans wanted it to be.
The curator of the show is Harper Montgomery, who presented "Vistas del Sur" in 2015 at Hunter College in New York. She used pieces from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros collection, one of the world's most prestigious collections of Latin American art. The exhibit was brought to NBMAA by director Min Jung Kim, who is dedicated to using special exhibits to expand the museum's definition of "American art."
"Vistas del Sur" not only focuses on another America than the one we inhabit, it is the first exhibit at NBMAA with signage in both Spanish and English and the first to offer tours in two languages.
The focus on a different America is spelled out by a map in McKernan Gallery, of Alexander von Humboldt's 1799-1804 trip to Latin America. That Prussian explorer's itinerary included a dozen research locations,
Guanajuato the northernmost, Lima the southernmost. Many scientists and artists — many of them ship captains by trade, artists on the side — followed in Humboldt's wake. Humboldt was dedicated to natural science and exactitude. But in practice, many of his admirers couldn't stop themselves from creating landscapes using European compositional standards that manipulated views of valleys and mountains and wiped harbors clean of the mundane details of everyday living, leaving only the picturesque.
The earliest pieces in the show, created by Dutchman Frans Post, show Frederica City in Brazil (1638), a settlement of the Dutch West India Company, and a Brazilian chapel (1663). The 1663 piece shows one of the earmarks of European colonialization — African slavery — already in place. Frenchman Émile Goury's 1839 view of Basse-Terre, Guadeloupe, also shows a man, seemingly subservient, following on foot behind a man on horseback.
After Humboldt, artists such as Hartford native Frederic Church, Martin Johnson Heade, Ferdinand Bellermann, Eduard Hildebrandt and Johann Moritz Rugendas came to create their own visions of Brazil, Venezuela and Mexico. Alessandro Ciccarelli's 1840 depiction of the harbor at Rio de Janeiro removed large industrial buildings and featured a "native" couple wearing Grecian togas. Charles de Wolf Brownell's "Havana Bay," created between 1856 and 1866, shows no signs of trade or labor in that busy harbor.
Other artists showed full-on the domination of these nations to colonizing Europeans. Fritz Georg Melbye, a Dane and good friend of Camille Pissarro, painted a view of the Caracas waterfront where European ships tower over simple canoes piloted by natives. Rugendas' 1842 view of Valparaiso shows a clutch of European-dressed men and women in the foreground, and in the background European flags flying on ships in the wharf, which is filled with European-style architecture.
These visions are shown in the gallery along with images created by regional natives such as Pissarro, born in the Danish West Indies, and Mexican José María Velasco. Velasco used his realistic images of Mexican flora, fauna and landscapes to promote nationalistic sentiments. After the South American wars of independence, which took place from 1808 to 1833, Velasco's work became popular among idealistic Mexicans who revered their country.
The vast exhibit spills over into the adjoining Stitzer Gallery, which is dominated by sketches by Auguste Morisot, an artist who accompanied explorer Jean Chaffanjon down the path of the Orinoco River in 1886. The pairing was not harmonious; Chaffanjon was aggressive and dishonest about his findings, and the two of them parted ways. But the partnership resulted in a series of sketches by Morisot that show life along that river with simple observational accuracy. The marvelously straightforward Morisot drawings are nowhere near as grandiose as the work of the painters and printmakers who preceded Morisot, but his work forms the heart of the exhibit, as it reflects the true heart of the people of South America.
"VISTAS DEL SUR: TRAVELER ARTISTS' LANDSCAPES OF LATIN AMERICA FROM THE PATRICIA PHELPS DE CISNEROS COLLECTION" is at New Britain Museum of American Art, 56 Lexington St., until April 16. nbmaa.org.