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Frans Post

Dutch painter at last wins his space together with the Flemish masters

reproductionDetail of View of Itamaracá (1637)reproduction

Even though Frans Post (circa 1612-1680) has had to wait hundreds of years to be recognized as a great Dutch master, his golden century seems to have arrived. Exactly 400 years from the birth of Count Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen, the governor-general who brought the painter in his entourage to the Dutch colony of Recife between 1637 and 1644, Post is back being discussed and reassessed world-wide. Closer and closer to the first line painters, he is little by little escaping from the neutral historical context of the traveler-painter of pictures of an irregular quality.

Much is due to recent Brazilian researches. For September 2005, Pedro Corrêa do Lago, the president of the National Library and a former Brazilian representative of the art auction house, Sotheby’s, a position he occupied for 18 years, and his wife, Bia Fonseca, are preparing a display at the Louvre museum, with seven canvasses from Post’s first phase, the period when he lived in Brazil and produced 18 canvasses, commissioned by Nassau.

In the following year, in 2006, it is the turn of Germany and Holland. The Haus der Kunst, in Munich, is organizing a great exhibition with about 50 pictures by the master. The curator is León Krempel and, at the Frans Hals museum, in Haarlem, in Holland, where the display will be following to this same year, it is Pieter Biesboer.At the exhibition at the Louvre, a catalogue raisonné is to be launched, with about 160 pictures and 40 drawings. In principle, there will be two different editions, one in Portuguese and another in English. “We have been researching all of Post’s work for eight years, doing a complete survey. The canvasses that may be false are being analyzed by an international committee that we created”, says Corrêa do Lago.

On the committee, there are Corrêa do Lago, Bia Fonseca, and Frits Du Parc, a director of the Mauritshuis museum, in the Hague, one of the great specialists in the Dutch 17th century. From Sotheby’s auction house, their world director George Watchner and their director in the United Kingdom George Gordon are taking part. Both are specialists in the “old masters”.

Amongst Gordon’s feats, there is the discovery of the canvas by the Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), The massacre of the innocents, sold by Sotheby’s, in 2002, for almost US$ 80 million. The canvasses by Post go so far as to cost about US$ 200,000 and have been in prominence from some 15 years back. “This is because the study of his work, until then, had not distinguished between his four different phases”, Corrêa do Lago says. “If viewed as one set, his work merely transforms him into an irregular painter.”

In the period in which he remained in Brazil, between 1637 and 1644, Post reproduced faithfully everything he saw, like a painter-reporter. Arriving in Brazil, at the age of 25, the great contrast to have been noted by him must have been the tropical light. And the themes. Post’s gaze incorporated technique into the new information, probably influenced by prestigious Dutch landscapers like Salomon van Ruysdael (c.1602-1670) and Pieter Molijn (1595-1661), among others. “In spite of Post having constructed his whole career by painting Brazilian landscapes, it is important to locate him in the tradition of the idyllic landscape. He was influenced by the work of Cornelis Vroom (1591-1661), who was perhaps his master. His theme ‘Brazil’ is unique, but the interpretation is based on the tradition of the Dutch-Arcadian landscape of Vroom”, says the Dutch curator Biesboer.

According to him, the first Brazilian paintings are very documentary and show a very pure closeness to reality, but, in the last canvasses, painted in Recife, it is notorious how Post follows the idyllic landscape conventions of Vroom, probably because this was much appreciated in the circle of his customers.”For the Haus der Kunst, Post’s work has, without a doubt, a present-day importance. It talks to us directly though a utopia preserved with documentary precision versus a creative fantasy, which are the two poles through which art develops to this day”, says Krempel, who says that his pictures reveal a veritable cosmos.

But Post did not walk unaccompanied in this new universe. In Nassau’s entourage, amongst scientists and artists, two other painters featured, keen to study and to document the Brazilian landscape: Albert Eckhout (1610-1666) and Georg Marcgraf (1610-1644). Eckhout, a painter born in 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.

“With the current exhibition of Albert Eckhout’s work, the Mauritshuis shows him as a great artist. In the still lifes and in some busts of a black king, this works, because he can concentrate on artistic aspects and is not obliged to paint in a documentary manner. Eckhout did the best he could, not always successfully, while Post, with apparent facility, let sweet Brazilian landscapes flow from his brush”, Biesboer says.

A son of the stained-glass painter Jan Janszoon Post (?-1614), Frans Janszoon Post, born in Haarlem, was probably presented to Maurits van Nassau through his brother, the architect and painter Pieter Jansz Post (1608-1669). There is little evidence, according to Corrêa do Lago, that Pieter may have ever come to Brazil. Indicated by Pieter, Frans would have been charged with documenting Brazil, from its local topography, military and civil architecture to battle scenes at sea and on land.

In canvasses like Ilha de Itamaracá [Island of Itamaracá] (1637), Paisagem do Porto Calvo [Landscape of Porto Calvo] (1639) or Forte Hendrik [Fort Hendrik] (1640) some of the characteristics that clearly mark Post’s production can be seen: low horizon lines with large skies which open up high into a vast area, contrasting with the foreground, with meticulously painted vegetation or motifs.

There is in these painting a certain homogeneous coloring in understated tones, closer to Dutch painting than to the color of the local landscape. These compositions from a low perspective were common to a kind of panoramic, spatial painting, developed in those days by the Dutch, in which the presence of the expansive sky is fundamental. Post adds to these canvasses the landscape of the new world. From this encounter, informative paintings arise of the social iconography present. At the same time, the landscapes are serene and reserved before the tropical exuberance.

A characteristic of Post’s work was to darken the foreground and to illuminate the more distant region, from which he redeems a diffuse atmospheric luminosity. He used simultaneously several techniques for getting light in his painting. Amongst them, chiaroscuro, an effect achieved by the contrast between the luminosity of the white clothes and the dark of the black slaves, always on their way, carrying white burdens on their heads.

The 18 paintings done in Brazil went back with Nassau to Holland and, later on, in a quest for an alliance with the king of France, Louis France, they were exhibited for the court at Versailles in 1679. They ended up staying in France, distributed over a few royal collections. Today, there are only four canvasses in the Louvre.

“Three more were found, respectively in 1880, in 1930 and in 1990. Which means that if every 50 or 60 years one of these paintings is found, we have plenty of time to gather together the remaining 11”, jokes Corrêa do Lago, to observe afterwards, seriously, that the missing ones “may have been destroyed in catastrophes, in fires, and not all of them must have been signed”.

A curious factor that may make it even more difficult to capture these 11 remaining pictures from the first phase is that in one of the four belonging to the Louvre, Post signs himself “Correio” ( which is the word for post, mail in Portuguese). “He enjoyed translating his surname into Portuguese. Now just imagine someone, in the hinterland of France, with a dusty picture in the basement and reading ‘F. Correio’. He is never going to find this name in some art guide or dictionary”, Corrêa do Lago says.

Back from Brazil to the Netherlands, the Dutch artist carries with him several notebooks with sketches made in Brazil. Even after his return to Europe, Post does not cease to paint tropical views, specializing in Brazilian themes.According to Krempel, “specialized painting” was a characteristic of Dutch painting of the 17th century. This need for specializing ended up as an incentive too for the exoticism of Frans Post and of other Dutch painters. As an example, Krempel cites the school of the “Bamboccianti” (Dutch painters who portrayed daily life in Italy) or Allaert van Everdingen, a Dutchman who worked in Haarlem, like Post, and specialized in Scandinavian landscapes.

During the first ten years back in Holland, according to Corrêa do Lago, Post supplies some very fine pictures, of an exceptional quality, taken from the sketches: “He basically ‘colors’ the drawings and does the ‘landscaping caprices’, that is, a rearrangement to the painter’s taste where all the elements are true, but set out in isolation. This formula from the second phase, of “not lying in isolation, but lying in the whole” is transformed into the pinnacle of his career.”

In the same period, his drawings also serve as a basis for the engraved plates published in the volume Rerum per octennium in Brasília, by Gaspar Barleaus (1584-1648). He leaves Nassau, but continues to paint tropical landscapes for which he finds a market. This production, carried out distant from the motif, from the studies carried out in America, follows different courses.

Until about 1659, the topographical landscapes have a documentary precision. However, it is common to find in the scenes painted in Europe a certain loss of serenity. Post gives a new emphasis to the tropical landscape by peopling the foreground of the picture with wild animals. Lizards, serpents, armadillos, or snakes eating rabbits appear. The diffuse light is also replaced, little by little, by the contrast of more intense colors. From 1660 to 1669, Post’s phase of maturity, or the third phase, a growing mastery is to be seen of technique and of Brazilian themes, taking advantage to the utmost of the exotic elements. The paintings are no longer spontaneous, and the documentary concern ceases to exist.

Post shows his great ability as a miniaturist and remakes his compositions, “enriching” the landscape, in a rearrangement of the plant and animal shapes, in a dialog with the imaginary topographical and architectural elements. The paint becomes thicker, and the atmospheric dimension is supported on a chromatic background in tones of green and blue, in the tradition of Flemish painting. In this phase of the commercial acme, the painter does not risk new compositions. They are always the same themes, “revisited”: landscapes with sugar mills, with houses, or with views of Olinda. In the last few years of his life, Frans Post has a somber existence, a victim of alcoholism and with little capacity for creation. His artistic success as the greatest painter of Brazilian landscape of the 17th century, though, was marked by the homage paid by his friend Frans Hals (c.1581-1666) who, in mid-1655, did his portrait. Post probably died at the age of 68, 25 years later.