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Elise Mitchell (COL 2014)
Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program (PURM)
Mentor: Dr. Larry Silver
This summer I assisted Dr. Larry Silver in the Department of the History of Art as a student researcher through the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program. The research that I did concerned Early Modern European art depicting other continents, particularly the Americas. I began by collecting images and reading secondary source texts concerning animals and plants in the New World. Later in the summer, I researched descriptions and depictions of the people of the New World, South and North America. I read translations of accounts by prominent artists, explorers, and missionaries of the time. I researched a number of scholars and artists including: Theodor De Bry, Albert Eckhout, John White, Thomas Hariot, Hans Staden, Jean de Léry, and others. I also examined primary source texts including: True History: An Account of Cannibal Captivity in Brazil by Hans Staden, A Briefe and True Report of the Newfoundland of Virginia by Thomas Hariot, and History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil by Jean de Léry. From this experience I learned the importance of reexamining primary sources, rather than taking secondary sources and translations at face value.
I found that in images of the New World, particularly Brazil, it was evident that the Europeans were becoming increasingly interested in ethnography and the conceptualization of race. For example, European depictions of South Americans, after European contact, show a distinctive class system, as well as the beginnings of racial classifications. In Brazil, an individual’s racial group was based on European relations with different Native American groups, gender, multiracial identity, and European heritage. Paintings by Albert Eckhout exemplify these racial categories. Depending on the “race” of a Native American they were depicted as violent and cannibalistic or depicted in a similar fashion to Europeans.
Dr. Silver was able to guide me to other texts that showed that Europe was not only beginning to create an ethnographical portrait of America, but also of other regions of the world. I examined a number of maps and other texts that showed the European struggle to define themselves as major world powers and define the rest of the world in the years succeeding the Reformation and discovery of the Americas. From the readings it was evident that Europeans were developing new class categorizations, based on European norms that would later develop into theories of race.
The most important thing that I learned from my research this summer was the importance of looking outside of one’s discipline for evidence and knowledge. There is a vast body of knowledge within Art History, that I feel is not always connected with the traditional study of History. As a history major, I intend to incorporate Art History in to my further research and to continue looking into other fields for information that can relate to my own research. This experience truly opened my mind to the value of interdisciplinary work.