Europe’s earliest views of America

Images drawn from the expedition that founded the lost colony of Roanoke

James Wooldridge, Indians of Virginia, c. 1675, oil on linen, 75.6 x 108.6 cm (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art), a Seeing America video Speakers: Dr. Mindy Besaw, Curator of American Art, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and Dr. Steven Zucker

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Wooldridge, Indians of Virginia

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Key points

  • Testifying to the ongoing processes of European exploration and colonization, James Wooldridge’s Indians of Virginia is a third-generation image, created 200 years after the original artistic records. This painting was based on a popular series of engraving by Theodor de Bry from the late 16th century, which were themselves based on watercolors made by John White around 1585.
  • John White was a cartographer and naturalist during Sir Walter Raleigh’s exploration of territories in present-day Virginia and North Carolina. White’s watercolors, and the prints and paintings based on them, interpreted aspects of Native American life —in this case Algonquin people— for a European audience. The paintings combine his observations with European traditions of art, blending the exotic and the familiar in order to interest people in either investing in or participating in Raleigh’s ventures.

Go deeper

This painting at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Read more about Theodor de Bry’s engravings at Smarthistory

Compare White’s watercolors and the de Bry engravings, on Virtual Jamestown

Read John White’s 1590 report on his failed attempt to rescue the Roanoke colonists

View primary sources from the first centuries of colonial expeditions in the Americas

Explore primary sources and discussion questions about colonial exploration in the 16th century

Read about recent efforts to understand the fate of the colony at Roanoke

Read recent art historical scholarship about White’s watercolors Kim Sloan, ed., European Visions, American Voices, British Museum Research Publication 172 (2009)

Learn more about the expeditions to Roanoke Island in 1584 and 1585

More to think about

John White’s watercolors, turned into prints by de Bry, and then reinterpreted by Wooldridge fueled the imagination of Europeans of what the “New World” looked like. Compare this standing figure depicted by White and de Bry with the contrapposto figure highlighted in the video. What changes in each version? How does the visual context for each version affect our understanding?