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Europe's earliest views of America

The painting "Indians of Virginia" by James Wooldridge offers a third-generation view of Algonquian Indians. Created for the Earl of Conway, it's based on late 16th-century prints and watercolors by John White. The artwork combines European artistic conventions with the exotic, presenting a familiar yet intriguing image of the New World.

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Video transcript

We're in the galleries at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art looking at a painting by an artist named James Wooldridge. It's called the "Indians of Virginia." These are Algonquian Indians in what was called Virginia, but it's actually the outer banks of what we now call North Carolina. The painting was done for the Earl of Conway. His grandfather was a shareholder in the 1609 Virginia Company. This is a painting that is a third-generation view of the people and the place that we're seeing. The painting was based on a very popular series of prints that were made in the late 16th century. Those prints were based on a highly detailed set of watercolors that were produced by a man named John White. John White has a series of watercolors based on his voyages to this place, probably 1585. That voyage took place because Queen Elizabeth had granted Sir Walter Raleigh the right to explore areas that had not yet been claimed in the Americas in order to bring back gold and silver. White was sent as a cartographer, as a naturalist, as part of this exploratory journey. He was the first governor of the very famous settlement that we know as the Lost Colony, the colony of Roanoke. This painting, the prints that it was derived from and ultimately, the watercolors that those were derived from were an attempt at documentation. Contemporary historians are still looking back to these paintings and prints for evidence. Yet we also know that these are products of European society. I'm not sure it's possible to untangle this relationship between what was observed and the conventions that were imposed on those observations. We're looking at portrait conventions, European artistic conventions overlaid on documents or images of actual people. Just simply taking one figure as an example. Look at the standing man in the front. What we see is someone standing in a contrapposto stance, which was common from classical Greek and Roman art. That shift of the weight, this is a familiar stance for the viewers of De Bry's engravings. Because of that, there's something familiar and easily accessible right away. The documentary part of that could have been what the figures were wearing, how their bodies were decorated, but the conventions of the stance come from European sources. What we're seeing is this blend of the exotic, of the foreign, with something that was deeply familiar. There may be artistic reasons for that, but there were probably also economic reasons to make this world familiar, to make this world not completely apart. There are settlements, so that would have been a familiar concept to build cities. There is agriculture, so there's cultivated crops. There's organized religion. Whether that religion is familiar or not makes less of a difference as an overarching idea that there are some similarities to our culture from a European viewpoint. It seems as though trade might be able to be established, for example. It's also a land of plenty. We see the fish, we see the crops really thriving. All of that would be enough of a balance of there's something new here that I want to be a part of, but it's not too scary. For Europeans for about 200 years, these were the images that served to fuel the imagination of what that so-called New World looked like and its inhabitants.