History, Biography and the Paintings of Frans Post in Dutch Brazil

South America, from the 16th century on, was interpreted by the conquistadors not only through words, but also through images.

However, it was only after the Dutch invasion  invasion in Northeast Brazil, between 1630 and 1654, that European artists with solid technical training, still built along the lines of the medieval guilds, began to paint the American tropics in loco.

The Dutch settled in the city of Recife, and after unsuccessful attempts to occupy the Portuguese administrative headquarters in Bahia, they preferred to go straight to the source of Brazilian wealth: the Captaincy of Pernambuco and its sugar.

Map of Brazil from 1652 - Magnificent representation of Brazil with the north oriented to the right by a beautiful compass rose. The map is inserted with two regions of Dutch interest in the area; Baja de Todos los Sanctos and Pernambuco. The interior is devoid of geographic information except for largely imaginary rivers and forests. Instead, the region is filled with dramatic scenes of the indigenous peoples, including warfare and cannibalism, and some curious wildlife. The hereditary captaincies established by the Portuguese are marked along the coast. The decorative title card is flanked by a native family and the seas are adorned with sailing ships, a sea monster and a compass rose. French text on the reverse, published between 1652-58.
Map of Brazil from 1652 – Magnificent representation of Brazil with the north oriented to the right by a beautiful compass rose. The map is inserted with two regions of Dutch interest in the area; Baja de Todos los Sanctos and Pernambuco. The interior is devoid of geographical information, except for largely imaginary rivers and forests. Instead, the region is filled with dramatic scenes of the indigenous people, including warfare and cannibalism, and some curious wild animals. The hereditary captaincies established by the Portuguese are dotted along the coast. The decorative title card is flanked by a native family, and the seas are adorned with sailboats, a sea monster, and a compass rose. French text on the back, published between 1652-58. “Accuratissima Brasiliae Tabula”, Hondius/Jansson

If the first years required a strong hand and the main objective was to expand the area under the domain of the West-Indian Compagnie (WIC), from 1637 on, the scene changed with the government of Count Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen: cartographers, painters, engravers, physicians, botanists, and other professionals arrived with his entourage, with the express mission of registering the New World that promised so much wealth to Dutch investors.  

The Nassau entourage (Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen) and their views on Brazil.

What Brazil experienced in the first half of the 17th century with the Nassau court had no parallel in any other stop in the Americas.

Artists and scientists were brought to the muddy and shabby streets of a port far from the Brazilian coast by the simple whim of an illustrious nobleman who wanted to show local investors the viability of such a risky undertaking and also, according to the spirit of the time, bring civilization to those still practically unknown lands.

The work of these men brought to Brazil by Nassau bore fruit in maps, books, oil paintings, engravings, and a mass of scientific knowledge about the tropics that became the first uniform set of geographical, botanical, zoological, and ethnic information about America that merited some credibility in Early Modern Europe, despite its commercial motivations. 

Besides Frans Jansz Post, the painter Albert Eckhout and the scientist Willem Piso also came to Brazil in 1637, to join the cartographer Zacharias Wagener. George Marcgraf, a naturalist who was also part of the entourage, arrived in Recife only the following year, and like some of the soldiers who served the WIC in Pernambuco, also contributed to Nassau’s project.

The work that these men produced in and about Brazil is very diverse among themselves, and can be interpreted from the most diverse perspectives.

Albert Eckhout is considered the first European painter to cast an ethnographic eye on Native Americans.

The maps by Marcgraf, Wagener and other auxiliary cartographers who served with the Dutch troops, such as Claes Visscher, Hessel Gerritz and Izaak Commelyn, give the exact dimension of the small – but important – urban centers of the northeastern coast and its military defense structure, with a considerable number of forts, forts and artillery batteries scattered along the coast between Alagoas and Ceará, and show the special interest in the sugar producing area and its outlets: the rivers and natural moorings that were to come under Dutch rule to guarantee the WIC’s profits in Brazil.

Map of Eastern Brazil 1664
Map of Eastern Brazil 1664 – This beautiful map of the Brazilian coast is richly decorated with a scene of natives with a watchtower and a huge fleet of ships. With north oriented to the right, the map covers the coastal region from San Francisco to Recife. It was drawn after actual research by Georg Marcgraf, Elias Herckmanns and others and was among the first maps of Brazil based on non-Portuguese data. Blaeu first issued this and his complementary maps in 1647 to Gaspar Barleus’ Rerum per octennium in Brasilia. They have also been assembled into a large wall map, Brasilia qua part paret Belgis. The maps then appeared in the Atlas Major starting in 1662. This example is the second state with the addition of a native in the watchtower. “Praefecturae Paranambucae Pars Meridionalis”, Blaeu, Johannes
Map of the East Coast of Brazil from 1647 - This beautiful map of the Brazilian coast is adorned with a huge garland on top with many native fruits and a jaguar, tapir and capybara. With the north oriented to the right, the map covers the coastal region from the São Francisco south to the mouth of the Vaza-Barris River. The map traces the rivers inland with place names and topographical details along their banks. There is a naval skirmish, three Dutch ships and a canoe on the Atlantic coast. It was drawn after actual research by Georg Marcgraf, Elias Herckmanns and others and was among the first maps of Brazil based on non-Portuguese data. Blaeu first issued this and his complementary maps in 1647 for Gaspar Barleus' Rerum per octennium in Brasilia. They were also collected in a large wall map, Brasília qua parte paret Belgis. The maps then appeared in the Atlas Maior starting in 1662.
Map of the East Coast of Brazil from 1647 – This beautiful map of the Brazilian coast is adorned with a huge garland on top with many native fruits and a jaguar, tapir and capybara. With the north oriented to the right, the map covers the coastal region from the São Francisco south to the mouth of the Vaza-Barris River. The map outlines the rivers in the interior with place names and topographical details along their banks. There is a naval skirmish, three Dutch ships and a canoe on the Atlantic coast. It was drawn after actual research by Georg Marcgraf, Elias Herckmanns and others and was among the first maps of Brazil based on non-Portuguese data. Blaeu first issued this and his complementary maps in 1647 to Gaspar Barleus’ Rerum per octennium in Brasilia. They have also been assembled into a large wall map, Brasilia qua part paret Belgis. The maps then appeared in the Atlas Major starting in 1662. “Praefectura de Ciriii, vel Seregirppe Delrey cum Itapuama”, Blaeu, Johannes

Piso and Marcgraf’s treatise, Historiae Naturalis Brasilae, published in Holland in 1648 under Nassau’s patronage, with its rich illustrations of the fauna and flora of Northeast Brazil, represents one of the “greatest scientific contributions to the knowledge of the nature of the New World,” and remained the “only illustrated work on the natural history of Brazil available until the 19th century.

After the return of Nassau and his entourage to the Netherlands, in 1644, historical treatises were also produced about their stay in Brazil, among which stands out the one by Caspar Barlaeus, written at the express request of the Dutch nobleman and illustrated with engravings based on the paintings by Frans Post.

In the seven years that the Nassovian entourage stayed in Brazil, however, an eager market for images and accounts of the New World was built up in Europe, especially among the Dutch nobility and bourgeoisie.

It would be precisely this demand, which would remain constant for most of the 17th century, that would be the source of income for Post until 1680, when he died in Haarlem. 

Biography of Frans Post

Even if Frans Post (circa 1612-1680) must have waited hundreds of years to be recognized as a great Dutch master, his golden century seems to have arrived.

Frans Post
Frans Post

Count Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen, the governor-general who brought the painter in his retinue to the Dutch colony of Recife between 1637-1644.

Closer and closer to the first-rate painters, he slowly escapes from the historical neutral context of a painter-traveler of paintings of irregular quality. Much is due to recent Brazilian research.

During his stay in Brazil, between 1637 and 1644, Frans Post faithfully reproduced everything he saw, like a painter-reporter.

When he arrived in Brazil at the age of 25, the first great contrast he noticed must have been the tropical light. And the themes.

Frans Post’s eye incorporated the new information into the technique, probably influenced by prestigious Dutch landscape designers such as Salomon van Ruysdael (c.1602-1670) and Pieter Molijn (1595-1661), among others.

Although Post built his entire career painting Brazilian landscapes, it is important to situate him in the tradition of the idyllic landscape.

He was influenced by the work of Cornelis Vroom (1591-1661), who may have been his master.

His theme ‘Brazil’ is unique, but the interpretation is based on Vroom’s Dutch-Archaic landscape tradition.”

The first Brazilian paintings are quite documentary and have a very pure approximation of reality, but in the last canvases painted in Recife, it is noticeable how Post follows the conventions of Vroom’s idyllic landscape, probably because this was very much appreciated in the circle of his clients.

Post’s work is undoubtedly of current importance. It speaks directly to us through a utopia preserved with documentary accuracy versus a creative fantasy, which are the two poles through which art develops until today.

But Post was not unaccompanied in this new universe.

Nassau’s entourage included, among scientists and artists, two other painters willing to study and document the Brazilian landscape: Albert Eckhout (1610-1666) and Georg Marcgraf (1610-1644).

Eckhout, a painter from the province of Groningen, probably had his first contact with painting through his uncle, Gheert Roeleffs, and, in Brazil, he painted several pictures of plants, fruits, and human races.

Albert Eckhout with his still lifes and in some busts of a black king this works because he can concentrate on artistic aspects and is not forced to paint in a documentary way.

Albert Eckhout did the best he could, not always successfully, while Post, with apparent ease, let flow from his brush sweet Brazilian landscapes.

Son of the stained glass painter Jan Jaszoon Post (s.d.-1614), Frans Janszoon Post, born in Haarlem, was probably introduced to Maurits van Nassau through his brother, the architect and painter Pieter Jasz Post (1608-1669).

There is little evidence, according to Corrêa do Lago, that Pieter ever came to Brazil.

Named after Pieter, Frans would have been tasked with documenting Brazil, from the local topography, military and civil architecture to naval and land battle scenes.

In canvases such as Ilha de Itamaracá (1637), Paisagem do Porto Calvo (1639) or Forte Hendrik (1640) one can clearly notice some characteristics that mark Post’s production: shallow horizon lines with big skies that open high to a vast area, in contrast to the foreground, with vegetation or meticulously painted motifs.

There is in these paintings a certain homogeneous coloring of undertones that is closer to Dutch painting than to the color of the local landscape.

Such compositions in low perspective were common to a type of panoramic, spatial painting developed at the time by the Dutch, in which the presence of the expansive sky is fundamental.

To these canvases, Post adds the landscape of the new world. From this gathering emerge paintings informative of the social iconography present. At the same time, the landscapes are serene, reserved in the face of tropical exuberance.

Characteristic of Post’s work was to darken the foreground and illuminate the more distant region, from which he recovers a diffuse atmospheric luminosity.

He simultaneously used various techniques of obtaining light in painting. Among them is the chiaroscuro, an effect obtained by the contrast between the brightness of the white clothes and the darkness of the black slaves, always on their way, carrying white loads on their heads.

Frans Post’s 18 paintings made in Brazil returned with Nassau to Holland, and later, seeking an alliance with France’s King Louis France, were exhibited to the court at Versailles in 1679.

They ended up staying in France, distributed in some royal collections. Today, there are only four canvases in the Louvre.

A curious factor that may make it even more difficult to capture these remaining 11 paintings from the first phase is that in one of the four belonging to the Louvre, Post signs “Post”.

Frans Post had fun translating his last name into Portuguese.

Now, imagine someone, in the French countryside, with a dusty painting in their basement and reading ‘F. Post’. He will never find this name in any art guide or dictionary.

Back from Brazil to the Netherlands, the Dutch artist carries with him several sketchbooks made in Brazil.

Even after his return to Europe, Post does not stop painting tropical views, specializing in Brazilian themes. “Specialized painting” was a characteristic of 17th century Dutch painting.

This need for specialization also encouraged the exoticism of Frans Post and other Dutch painters.

As an example, Krempel cites the school of the “Bamboccianti” (Dutch painters who depicted daily life in Italy) or Allaert van Everdingen, a Dutchman who worked in Haarlem as Post and specialized in the Scandinavian landscape.

During the first ten years on his return to Holland, Frans Post provides very beautiful paintings of exceptional quality taken from sketches: “He basically ‘colors’ the drawings and does ‘landscape whimsy,’ that is, a rearrangement in the painter’s taste where all the elements are true but arranged in isolation. This formula of the second phase, of ‘not lying in isolation but lying in the whole’, becomes the pinnacle of his career.”

In the same period, his drawings also serve as the basis for the engraved plates published in the volume Rerum per octennium in Brasilia, by Gaspar Barleaus (1584-1648).

He quits Nassau, but continues painting tropical landscapes for which he finds a market. This production carried out far from the motif, starting with the studies carried out in America, takes different paths.

Until about 1659, topographic landscapes have documentary accuracy. However, it is common to find in the scenes painted in Europe a certain loss of serenity.

Frans Post gives new emphasis to the tropical landscape by populating the foreground of the picture with wild animals. There are lizards, snakes, armadillos, or snakes devouring rabbits. The diffuse light is also gradually replaced by more intense color contrast.

From 1660 to 1669, Post’s mature phase, or the third phase, there is a growing mastery of Brazilian technique and themes, making the most of exotic elements. The paintings are no longer spontaneous and the documentary concern is no longer there.

Frans Post demonstrates his great skill as a miniaturist and remakes compositions, “enriching” the landscape in a rearrangement of plant and animal forms, in dialogue with imaginary topographical and architectural elements.

The paint becomes more full-bodied and the atmospheric dimension is backed up against a chromatic background in shades of greens and blues, in the tradition of Flemish painting. In this phase of commercial peak, the painter does not venture into new compositions. They are always the same themes, “revisited”: landscapes with mills, with houses, or views of Olinda.

In the last years of his life, Frans Post has a bleak existence, given over to alcoholism and with little capacity for creation. His artistic success as the greatest painter of the Brazilian landscape in the 17th century, however, was marked by the tribute from his friend Frans Hals (c.1581-1666) who, in mid-1655, made his portrait.

Post died probably at the age of 68, 25 years later.

Portrait of Johan Maurits (1604-79), Count of Nassau-Siegen and Governor of Brazil (1670 - 1680)Michiel Van Musscher (Dutch, 1645-1705)
Portrait of Johan Maurits (1604-79), Count of Nassau-Siegen and Governor of Brazil (1670 – 1680)
Michiel Van Musscher (Dutch, 1645-1705)

Paintings and Works by Frans Post

View of the Jesuit Church in Olinda, Frans Post (1665)
View of the Jesuit Church in Olinda, Frans Post (1665)
View of Itamaraca Island, Frans Post (1637)
View of Itamaraca Island, Frans Post (1637)
View of Olinda, Frans Post (1662)
View of Olinda, Frans Post (1662)
River Landscape Senhor do Engenho, Frans Post (1670 - 1680)
River Landscape Senhor do Engenho, Frans Post (1670 – 1680)
Landscape in Brazil with sugar plantation, Frans Post (1660)
Landscape in Brazil with sugar plantation, Frans Post (1660)
Landscape of Brazil, Frans Post (c. 1665 - ca 1669)
Landscape of Brazil, Frans Post (c. 1665 – ca 1669)
Landscape of Brazil, Frans Post (1652)
Landscape of Brazil, Frans Post (1652)
São Francisco River, Frans Post (1635)
São Francisco River, Frans Post (1635)
Brazilian Landscape, Frans Post (1656)
Brazilian Landscape, Frans Post (1656)
Church in Brazil, Frans Post (1675 - 1680)
Church in Brazil, Frans Post (1675 – 1680)
Brazilian landscape with workers' house, Frans Post (circa 1655)
Brazilian landscape with workers’ house, Frans Post (circa 1655)
Sloth, armadillo, monkey, anteater, tapir and porcupine are some of the animals portrayed by Frans Post during his stay in Northeast Brazil, Frans Post
Sloth, armadillo, monkey, anteater, tapir and porcupine are some of the animals portrayed by Frans Post during his stay in Northeast Brazil, Frans Post
A landscape in Brazil looking out over the várzea, Europeans and natives approaching a church in the foreground, Frans Post
A landscape in Brazil looking out over the várzea, Europeans and natives approaching a church in the foreground, Frans Post
Landscape of Brazil, Frans Post (1650)
Landscape of Brazil, Frans Post (1650)

History, Biography and the Paintings of Frans Post in Dutch Brazil

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