A red-coated man in a tricorn hat looks up at a distant white mountain cap. He stands apart from a wooden cross that tilts into the earth. The sky runs in dark streaks but shines blue just beyond the mountain. A river cuts into the heart of a leveled, fertile land, devoid of any being except the man in the tricorn hat.
This is a description of Frederic Edwin Church’s “Cotopaxi,” one of the paintings at the New Britain Art Museum’s new exhibit, “Vistas del Sur.” The collection curates landscapes of Latin America during the time of colonization, portrayed by both native artists and European travelers.
Another piece named “Urao Lagoon” by Ferdinand Bellermann attempts to capture the mountainous beauty of Venezuela. Dusty, jagged hills reach down from the cool haze of the Andes, dropping into a deep blue lake that reflects the never-ending skyline. Llamas graze amongst the studded cacti and boulders in front of the lake and there isn’t a person to be seen.
Now, if you are a llama enthusiast or aware of South America’s fauna, you probably just balked, “But llamas aren’t native to Venezuela!”
And you’d be right. Bellermann added the llamas to make the land appear more exciting and exotic. He actually didn’t even complete the painting while in Latin America. He added the woolly-haired finishing touches several years later in his home country of Germany. He also darkened the painting’s foreground in the fashion of Europe’s traditional aesthetic. Bellermann did all this in order to sell the painting for more money.
In fact, a sizable portion of the exhibit depicts not the realities of Latin America, but rather the imagined beauty of European colonizers. Much of the art was used by American and European businesses to encourage investing in their operations abroad.
In another piece titled “The Heart of the Peruvian Andes” by Norton Bush, a mountain’s massive white slopes cascade into a land of red dirt and exuberant palm fronds. In a little two-hut village set on the mountainside, a squiggly puff of steam rises. It is the steam of a train, a wispy reference to the European colonialism that devours so much of the exhibit.
It is not a passenger train. What is left of the native populations in these lands has few places to go. Rather, the train is for transporting the land’s resources such as minerals. Bellermond added the detail so that the piece could function as an advertisement for U.S. investments in the exploitation of South America’s land. The piece was commissioned by Henry Meiggs, a U.S. mining magnet.
The exhibit’s defining feature of colonialism is best captured in the lightening of the paintings. In so many of the works, a soft golden glow shines from just behind the next snow-capped peak. It’s a treacherous beauty, and an elusive one, always just beyond the grasp, just one more venture away. In a world without high-tech photography, these paintings shaped much of Americans’ and Europeans’ views on what was still “a new world.”
The capitalistic glorification of Latin America did not go on without a fight, however. Between the Bellermann’s and the Bush’s of the exhibit stood artists such as Mexican painter José María Velasco. Velasco painted to preserve the authentic image of his homeland. In his paintings, the beauty does not lie over the next ridge but is the ridge itself, its inhabitants engaged in various activities under the beating sun.
In one painting named simply “Valley of Mexico,” Velasco portrays a highland plateau between snow-capped peaks. Two distant volcanoes, Popocatépetl and Iztaccihuatl, look out at each other. They are named after lovers in an old Aztec legend.
But Velasco and other likeminded nationalists were, sadly, outnumbered. “Vistas del Sur” clearly displays a greater number of European artists than native ones. There is, however, a contingent of the European painters not driven by profiting from creating Edenic advertisements. These painters focused purely on portraying the life and environment of the land exactly as it was.
Auguste Morisot is the most prominently featured of these Darwinian-esque artists. His drawings and paintings come from a French excursion up Venezuela’s Orinoco river. He was tasked with making scientific drawings of the region’s flowers, but went well beyond this assignment, providing extraordinarily detailed depictions of Venezuela that now cover an entire room of the New Britain Museum. He depicted leaves in faint gray sketches, fish in vivid colors, and slaves withering away on the coffee and sugarcane plantations.
“Vistas del Sur” ultimately displays a beautiful collection of paintings, subtly tracing a devastating process of colonialism. This exhibition demonstrates art’s intimacy with social and political forces and is certainly worth the trip off campus to experience.
“Vistas del Sur” will be on display until Apr. 17 at the New Britain Museum of American Art, 56 Lexington Street, New Britain, Conn.