Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The old New World

From the North Carolina Collection, a new online exhibit: Picturing the New World: The Hand-Colored De Bry Engravings of 1590. From a rare edition of Thomas Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. The book includes the first images of North Carolina published in Europe.

As you can see in this picture of a man and woman eating, and many of the others, there's a lot of interpretation going on. From the collection guide,

While the De Bry engravings shown on this site represent the earliest published images of Native Americans, viewers should be careful not to interpret these as accurate depictions of the inhabitants of North Carolina in the late sixteenth century. The images shown here are twice removed from John White's original watercolors. In the engravings created by Theodore De Bry, there are many subtle but significant changes from White's originals: the facial structure of most of the people has been altered, resulting in portraits that look more like Europeans; the musculature on most of the people is much more defined in the De Bry engravings; and the poses of many of the subjects seem to reflect classical statuary. The colorist for this volume has contributed to the distortion of the original images by adding a pale skin tone and blonde hair to some of the people and decorating much of the vegetation in colors that are unlike anything that occurs naturally in this part of the world.
These are striking images, and they are important primary sources, if only because of their age. However, they are also significant cultural documents. By making the changes that they did, De Bry and the colorist for this volume demonstrated either an unwillingness or inability to understand the differences between European and Native American culture and physiognomy. This lack of understanding and appreciation for Native American culture, combined with a stubborn tendency to view the world and its inhabitants through a narrowly European perspective, were likely key factors in the widespread destruction of many of the indigenous peoples and cultures of North America.

Via North Carolina Miscellany.

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