A new Huntington exhibition spotlights rare artworks depicting Latin American nature, from the time of Columbus to Darwin’s era.

In 1492 Christopher Columbus sailed west in search of a new route to India and its spices. During his five-month exploration of the Americas, he paid close attention to to the flora and fauna. When he returned he wrote a long letter to his patrons, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, and word of his remarkable voyage quickly spread. That was aided by an invention launched just a few decades before his voyage the printing press with movable metal type developed in the mid-1450s by Johannes Gutenberg. Columbus wrote of “many sierras and very lofty mountains…All are most beautiful, of a thousand shapes,” and “trees of a thousand kinds and tall, so that they seem to touch the sky.” There were colorful birds, and plants that were a “wonder to behold.”

Many explorers and soldiers of fortune followed Columbus, and they brought along draftsmen and cartographers. In the new exhibition Visual Voyages: Images of Latin American Nature from Columbus to Darwin (through Jan. 8, 2018) at The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, co-curators Catherine Hess and Daniela Bleichmar outline the early European views of the New World, using a deft combination of maps and artifacts, art and illustrations, manuscripts and books, three-quarters borrowed from other institutions. Some of the period accounts were by actual visitors, but many were by fabulists who freely adapted known accounts and drew imagined scenarios, both plugging into and creating myths and stereotypes about indigenous culture.

Of course the arrival of the Europeans in the Americas is now a morally contentious subject. Europeans claimed the land and resources for their own, subjugated the local population and introduced devastating diseases. Visual Voyages, part of this year’s Getty’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative focusing in Latin American and Latino art, deliberately offers some indigenous views. For example, in the late 1500s the Spanish Council of the Indies ordered administrators to draw maps of their townships and resources, and many were done by indigenous artists.

The two in the exhibition are delightful maps that present surrounding features such as mountains and rivers in multiple perspectives. “It is not the trained, vanishing-point perspective of European depiction,” says Hess, leading a preview tour of the exhibition. “It is a more creative way of depicting one’s surroundings.” A couple of centuries later, the Royal Botanical Expedition to the New Kingdom of Granada (in what is now Colombia and Venezuela) of 1783–1816 recruited some 60 local artists, many of whom must have been of mixed heritage. Hess has chosen 20 of these beautiful illustrations, borrowed from the Archivo del Real Jardin Botanico in Madrid, and they are gems of elegantly arranged leaves, tendrils and flowers on paper.

“PST: LA/LA gave us the opportunity to look at our three collecting areas  — research library, art and botanical  — and see what topic might be relevant to the initiative,” says Hess, the Huntington’s chief curator of European Art and interim director of the Art Collections. “Partnering with Daniela allowed us to celebrate, and put to use, the amazingly rare and rich Latin American material on nature and natural history that’s in the library’s collections and doesn’t often come to public light.” Bleichmar is an associate professor of Art History and History at USC, specializing in the history of science with a particular interest in how intercultural contacts have transformed what we know. Deeply familiar with the Huntington collections since she came to Los Angeles 13 years ago, she proposed the exhibition idea to the Huntington when the PST: LA/LA initiative was announced.

The lobby of the MaryLou and George Boone Gallery en route to the main exhibition displays several taxidermied animals from the new World, borrowed from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles and other sources. They include a colorful macaw, a brown sloth hanging upside down and a beautiful black-and-white anteater with a long, elegant snout  — examples of wildlife European visitors would have found so astounding. So bizarre and astonishing as to inspire His Majesty’s Giant Anteater, a large painting from 1776 now hanging in the middle of the exhibition. The anteater had been shipped from Argentina to King Charles III of Spain, who was so proud of his unusual pet he had his court painter do her portrait. The perspective is at the animal’s eye level, and her long, skinny tongue protrudes. One can almost hear the oohs and aahs of visitors to the Spanish court as they admired this oddity of nature.

Perhaps the exhibition’s most striking object is on view in the center of the first gallery  — a long red cape composed of thousands of feathers, dating from the 17th century and displayed in its own showcase. The cape is not only gorgeous, it is rare  — only one of 12 existing feather capes made by the Tupinambá people of Brazil. “They are really important prestige objects,” Bleichmar says in a phone interview. “Very important men wore them in ceremony. It’s an object that helps us to begin to understand a different world view, one in which humans and the natural world are not separate, but completely fluid. The person who put this on was becoming a bird, transforming from human to animal-like.”

A nearby vitrine showcases two illustrations about the cultural contact Bleichmar studies. They are two versions of the same image, circa 1600,  one an original ink drawing borrowed from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the other an engraving in the Huntington’s own collection. The Discovery of America: Vespucci Landing in America depicts the imagined meeting between Amerigo Vespucci, the “discoverer” of America, and a female figure representing America. Standing on shore, Vespucci is fully clothed, wearing a suit of armor beneath his tunic and holding a staff topped with a cross in one hand and an astrolabe in the other — symbolizing Christianity and civilization, respectively. Meanwhile, “America” is nude, about to step down from a hammock where she has been resting. The nudity indicates her “savage” state. In the background, members of her tribe are roasting a human leg, since cannibalism was thought part of the uncivilized culture she represents. The image seems almost comical, except that this played into prejudices of the time and encouraged Europeans to look at indigenous peoples as less than human.

What a contrast this image is to the two large paintings at the end of the show, which exalt the grandeur of the Latin American landscape and suggest the civilization there. One is by the famous American Hudson River School painter Frederic Edwin Church, who traveled to South America twice, in search of vistas. His 1864 painting, Chimborazo, shows a highly picturesque view of a jungle and mountains beyond.  In the foreground is a cute hut on a river with a couple on the dock and their child nearby. Through an opening in the trees, we see a town beyond. Mount Chimborazo, a volcano, hovers like a ghost even farther in the distance.

On the other hand, Jose Velasco’s Valle de Mexico (1877) has details only a native could offer. Standing on a hill, one looks down a valley with Lake Texcoco on the left and two landmark volcanoes beyond. A long aqueduct leads down the center of the painting to a small town at the base of a small mountain, and from there two roads lead to Mexico City. One can barely make out spires and rotundas of a burgeoning metropolis. In the foreground is a prickly pear and an eagle in flight: two symbols of Mexican nationalism, which was no accident.  The artist wrote after his signature on the painting, “mexicano.” 

Visual Voyages: Images of Latin American Nature from Columbus to Darwin runs through Jan. 8, 2018 at The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Monday (closed Tuesday). Adult admission costs $25 on weekdays ($29 on weekends and holidays), $21 ($24) for students 12 to18 and seniors 65+ and $13 ($13) for kids 4 to 11; children under 4 and members are admitted free.