Laboring for Paradise

By Joseph Litts, WPAMC 2020

A beautiful cactus grows up the left side, branching and dividing in green lobes that almost seem to wave toward the viewer. Vines grow up and around, connecting us across the unbridgeable gap between the framed edges. The pineapple is larger on the other side, the cactus replaced with a palm tree, and the leaves carefully splayed as in a botanical illustration. Fluffy white clouds snake across the dusky ultramarine sky.  Undulating hills snake gently backward. The scene starts, stops, and then starts again: the two canvases seemingly linked and the represented landscape supposedly continuing without end.

Two landscape paintings hang on a white wall. The landscapes are scenes of dark green jungles and golden pasture, with small figures interspersed.

Fig. 1, Installation view, Frans Post, Pair of Brazilian Landscapes. Oil on panel, 1649. Alte Pinakothek, München. Photograph by author.


We almost certainly skip over the laboring figures, almost certainly enslaved. They are the financial and logistical raison d’être of both the landscape itself and this particular representation. Small figures, black or dark or taupe-colored variously toil or celebrate. What matters is less their status as humans—indeed, they are so cursorily painted that specificity or interiority is impossible—and more their actions. The thousands of enslaved laborers of both African and Native descent required for Dutch Brazil not only to function but also to be profitable are compressed into a handful of figures. The figures do not sweat or struggle; they are elegant geometric shapes in the landscape, small dots of pure black and white that break up the larger planes of saturated color.

Large green leaves in the foreground frame a gold field with several msall black figures and a person riding a horse.

Fig. 2, Detail of Post, Brazilian Landscape. Photograph by author.


In these landscape representations, in Frans Post’s idealized projections of Dutch Brazil, bodies hardly matter. Excising them from the ground does little to alter the composition. They are merely decorative effects and their presence argues for Brazil’s bounty, without the need for human intervention. This, of course, is a fiction. Every aspect of the land surveilled by the artist and the viewer is a product of enforced labor and the act of viewing is, in itself, a significant human intervention of power. Farming or industrial labor is pushed to the very edges of the canvases. The most central figures are engaged in promenading or ritual. In particular, the figures carrying the hammocks were a common method of elite calling. In the 1630s, Zacharias Wagner wrote :

“ The wives and children of notable and wealthy Portuguese are transported in this manner, by two strong slaves, to the houses of their friends or to church; they hang the beautiful cloths of velvet or damask over poles so that the sun does not burn them strongly. They also take behind them a variety of beautiful and tasty fruits as a present for those that they wish to visit.”[1]

Post’s Brazil is a landscape of leisure, beauty, and bounty—at least for a white elite.

Two black servants carry a white woman in a hammock through a jungle. Two additional black servants carry baskets of fruit behind.

Fig. 3, Zacharias Wagner, Slaves Carrying a Covered Hammock. Watercolor, 1630s. Private collection. Reproduced in Dutch Brazil: The “Thierbuch” and “Autobiography” of Zacharias Wagener.


As Frances Gage writes, the viewing of landscape paintings in the seventeenth century was a consciously embodied act, with the eye drawn through the painted world in as measured and rigorous a pace as the body hiking through the physical world. The period eye exerted itself, travelling an optical distance equivalent to the ambulatory one painted.[2] Post paints us as the observers, as the colonizing explorers traversing the depths of darkest Brazil, to borrow from Paddington. The ease with which the artist leads us back into the horizon implies an inevitability of complete seeing. Seeing, in this landscape, is tantamount to colonization.

A landscape with large palm tree at right. An anteater walks through the foreground. The middle- and back-grounds are dominated by bands of golden pasture and darker forest, all below a large blue sky.

Fig. 4. Frans Post, Brazilian Landscape. Oil on panel, 1649. Alte Pinakothek, München. Photograph by author.


Post produces a visual memory. Prosperity dominates the central visual plane. The grim physical realities of slavery are excised for a sort of luxurious pastoral. Tumbling jungles threaten from both sides of the canvas, however, and the dark bands of forest intrude on the productive pastoral land. Humans, of any sort, are only present in this cultivated part of the landscape. Jungles are populated only by cacti and bizarre animals. A seemingly certain course of colonization becomes uncertain. The tension between the two visions of landscapes is necessary. This tension ultimately enables the landscape to work as a paradise that was almost inadvertently productive, a place in which colonization was an ongoing process and not a settled historical fact. This is an image of a landscape that existed more in the mind than in reality. It needed to be created in pigment on canvas, however, to enable the ultimate colonizing act of reshaping and controlling the physical ground to actually happen.


[1] Dutch Brazil: The “Thierbuch” and “Autobiography” of Zacharias Wagener. Vol. 2. C. Ferrao and J. P. Soares, eds. and D.H. Treece and R. Trewinnard, trans. (Rio de Janeiro: Editora Index, 1997) 191.

[2] Frances Gage, “Exercise for Mind and Body: Giulio Mancini, Collecting, and the Beholding of Landscape Painting in the Seventeenth Century.” Renaissance Quarterly 61, Nº. 4 (Winter 2008): 1167–1207.

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