Painting Brazil for the Dutch art market, Frans Post, Landscape with Ruins in Olinda

Frans Post, Landscape with Ruins in Olinda, 1663, oil on panel, 22.9 x 29.2 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:05] We’re in the Dutch and Flemish galleries at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, in front of a small landscape by the artist Frans Post, who is a Dutch artist. It’s worth mentioning that he is the first European artist to come to the Americas to create landscape paintings.

[0:21] The tree on the right looks like a papaya tree, and you can see ripe fruit on its branches. Birds are landing on some of the plant life that’s very close to us in the foreground. Post is trying to locate us in Brazil.

Dr. Anna C. Knaap: [0:36] What we’re looking at is [the] Dutch settlement of Olinda, which was in the middle of the 17th century known as an important sugar industry. In the 1630s, the Dutch took over this part of Brazil from the Portuguese because they wanted access to the tropical product of sugar that was in high demand in Europe.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:57] When the Dutch arrived on the northeastern coast of Brazil, they destroy the town of Olinda, and we’re seeing the ruins of what had been the Portuguese settlement in the painting.

[1:08] There is a road that winds us through this landscape, and in the middle ground, we see the ruins of what had been some of these Portuguese buildings. As we move farther into the landscape, we see the sugar plantation.

Dr. Knaap: [1:22] There is a plantation house and a religious building. Chapels were often part of sugar estates.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:29] This is a very structured, ordered landscape, and scattered in a few places on the road we see six figures. There’s a group of three closest to the foreground, and it looks like they’ve stopped to take a rest as they’re walking down this road.

[1:44] Post is showing the different enslaved Africans who have been forcibly brought here to work on the sugar plantation. We’re also seeing a local Indigenous Tupi individual. He’s showing them in a rather relaxed, almost informal, romanticized way.

[2:01] After the Dutch defeat the Portuguese, you have the appointment of the Governor, Johan Maurits, come to Brazil. He brings artists, such as Post, and another artist, Albert Eckhout, to document what they are seeing around the Dutch settlement here in Brazil. While Eckhout is documenting populations as well as flora and fauna, Post primarily paints the landscape.

Dr. Knaap: [2:29] He depicts recognizable landmarks, but he’s also clearly interested in the main industry of Brazil. There’s many paintings of sugar mills. Those paintings he continues to produce after his return to the Netherlands.

[2:44] He realizes that in 1644, to be competitive on the art market, his unique depictions of Brazil are a great brand for him.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:54] Post will continue to paint these Brazilian landscapes throughout the rest of his career. The painting that we’re standing before was made after he left Brazil.

[3:02] Many of Post’s landscapes share similar conventions. They often have this winding road that starts in the foreground and leads us into the background to the horizon line. We often see trees framing the scene. And then we typically see the landscape receding into this blue-green horizon line.

Dr. Knaap: [3:21] Post is overlaying the foreign place with recognizable landscape traditions.

[3:26] The figures are descendants of rustic laborers that you might see in a pastoral image by Rubens or Pieter Bruegel, where the peasants were one with nature and were dressed in brightly colored outfits, carrying the produce of the land. These African laborers are shown in that guise of the contented peasant, which is a fiction.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:49] Generally, he is painting for the art market. What they wanted were these scenes of what they felt were the exotic inhabitants and animals and plants of Brazil, which most people would not see firsthand in their lifetime.

Dr. Knaap: [4:03] The figures that Post depicts are idealized, and the clothing they wear is based on European finery. We know from firsthand account that that was at odds with what enslaved people would’ve worn, which would’ve been cheap linens.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:19] This is not showing us an accurate portrayal of what life would’ve been like working on a sugar plantation.

Dr. Knaap: [4:25] Sugar really revolutionizes the consumption and labor market in this period. Sugar becomes from a rarity into an everyday commodity that people use as a preservative.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:38] That interest in sugar is so present in Dutch visual culture of the time. If we look around the galleries here, we can see a still life by Osias Beert that’s showing us plates filled with sweets. We also see a painting of a woman who is dipping her finger into a bowl of sugar.

Dr. Knaap: [4:57] Because of the high demand for sugar, there is a drive to expand plantations in the New World, which is the only place where sugar can be grown because of the climate. Because of a need for more labor, the Dutch entered the slave trade at this moment when they’re in Brazil. Around 1637, Maurits instigates the slave trade.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:18] In some ways, it makes a lot of sense that Post would become well known for showing sugar plantations. It’s a powerful reminder that Post was not only seeking to represent the Brazil that he had seen, but he is also creating or inventing parts of that landscape to suit the needs of his Dutch audience.

[5:38] [music]

This work at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Center for Netherlandish Art at the MFA Boston

Hochstrasser, “Visual Impact: the long legacy of artists of Dutch Brazil,” Legacy of Dutch Brazil, ed. Michiel van Groesen (2014), pp. 248–283.

Quentin Buvelot, “Frans Post (1612–1680): Catalogue Raisonné by Pedro & Bia Corrêa do Lago,” Burlington Magazine 150 (2008), pp. 116–117, note 2.

Frederick J. Duparc, “Dutch and Flemish Masterworks: From the Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo,” Collection: A Supplement to Golden (Boston: 2020), pp. 78–82, cat. no. 15.

Pedro & Bia Corrêa do Lago, “Frans Post, 1612–1680: catalogue raisonné,” (Milan: 2007).

“Bewogen Beeld: op zoek naar Johan Maurits (Shifting image: in search of Johan Maurits),” The Hague, (Mauritshuis: Waanders Publishers, 2019).

Carolina Monteiro and Erik Odegard, “Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen and his Role in Slavery, Slave trade, and Slave Smuggling in Dutch Brazil,” Journal of Early American History, 2020.

Cite this page as: Dr. Anna C. Knaap and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank, "Painting Brazil for the Dutch art market, Frans Post, Landscape with Ruins in Olinda," in Smarthistory, January 10, 2023, accessed June 18, 2024,