The Rijksmuseum has acquired one of the earliest depictions of America — a painting by Jan Mostaert from circa 1535 titled “Landscape with an Episode from the Conquest of America.”
The work shows an imagined landscape of the recently “discovered” continent, with a scene of the Spanish explorers arriving and fighting the indigenous people. This helps explain why the landscape, though quite beautiful and striking, also looks more otherworldly than realistic. In its announcement of the acquisition, the museum calls the painting “one of the earliest attempts by an artist to give an impression of the new continent” and explains that it’s singular in Mostaert’s ouevre: he was primarily a painter of portraits and religious scenes. “It forms the basis for North Netherlandish landscape painting and, as such, is a milestone in art history.”
Mostaert depicts the indigenous people as naked (and, predictably, very European-looking), which may have been the interpretation or rumor of their appearance at the time: the fresco that includes possibly the first image of Native Americans in European art — from 1494, two years after Columbus came upon America and 41 years before the Monstaert — also shows them nude. There’s now fairly definitive proof that they wore clothing of some sort, but according to the Rijksmuseum, “Mostaert portrayed them as such to contrast the violent Spaniards and the peaceful, heavenly landscape with its ‘unadulterated’ inhabitants.” That makes the painting even more remarkable — not just a Western depiction of the European conquest, but one sympathetic to the Native Americans at that.
There’s no word on how much the museum paid for the painting, but Art Fix Daily reports that it was purchased through Simon Dickinson Gallery, which had been offering it for $14 million at the European Fine Art Fair. The work itself also has an interesting history, having been stolen during World War II from Jewish art dealer Jacques Goudstikker by Nazi minister Hermann Göring for his personal collection. The painting went back to the Netherlands after the war and was displayed at the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem for a long time. In 2006, it was restituted to Goudstikker’s heirs, and now comes full circle, returning to the hands of the state.