A Rather Queer Banknote

An old Brazilian banknote represents a grand, historic scene, but reveals a surprising detail:  what appears to be a hermaphrodite.  Want to see?  Sorry to pitch like a sideshow barker, but we’re all grownups here, and there’s nothing wrong with curiosity.  Besides, I have a more legitimate theme or two here, found by sheer serendipity, the most fun way to discover; read on.  (Most of the images here can be seen larger just by clicking anywhere within them.)

A Brazilian banknote depicts “O Conquista do Amazonas”, but on close inspection reveals what appears to be a hermaphrodite among the various people depicted.  I discovered this quite by chance, and wondered about how it came to be this way.  A banknote engraver with a sense of humor?  I wrote this item in 2005 to send to a forum of Thomas Pynchon enthusiasts, on account of its relation to the crypto-histories hidden in postage stamps – in particular, the rare stamps which are the mysterious center of The Crying of Lot 49. *  (see below, Lot 49

Anyway, I looked up the subject of the painting – an oil on canvas of 1907 by Antônio Diogo da Silva Parreiras (1860-1937) – and learned a few things.  This led me in turn to other themes, much less frivolous than the one I started with – the social and political context of the making of the painting, and the interest of Parreiras and other Brazilian artists in indigenous people and their culture and folklore.  (It also led me to the theme of the representation in art of the sexual organs – which I hope to treat in another article.)  But first the mystery of the money with the person of bivalent gender, and for this, here is my original letter to the Pynchon forum, along with an image of the detail in question:

WoMan
Cinco cruzeiros (Retro):
A Conquista do Amazonas 

Thomas de la Rue & Company, Limited, London (engravers). 

A propos of the rare stamps of Lot 49, I thought I’d contribute this for the amusement (if that’s what you’re into) of you other Pynchon enthusiasts.

From time to time I make high-definition scans of coins, stamps, paper currency, and such, largely out of an admiration for the design.  (I’ve made several transfers to T-shirts.)  One was the Brazilian banknote for “cinco cruzeiros” (I don’t find a year anywhere), which has a beautiful engraving on the retro, “Conquista do Amazonas”. 

We have a lush scene from colonial history, the Conquest of the Amazons. We are on the beach, between jungle and sea.  We see various types – native people, Portuguese conquistadores, soldiers, priests, monks, and so on.  A central group of men seem to be reading some sort of proclamation, probably claiming the territory for the Portuguese crown.  There are some Portuguese ships in the background, and a few native canoes in the right foreground.

In the left foreground there is a mixed group of native and white, including a woman quite naked (a friar stands above her, rubbing his chin, apparently staring down at the native woman – I presume she’s a native – by the way, she doesn’t look too pleased at the event transpiring before her). 

Anyhow, what’s curious is that, although this woman has ample breasts, what she appears to have between her legs, when you look really closely, comes as a surprise (perhaps less so in Brazil). One friend said to me, don’t be silly, it’s a vulva.  But I see the curved fold between lowermost leg and groin clearly, and between that and the other leg, going up and to the left, I see left testicle, penis, right testicle.   If we’re looking at a vulva, what is that thing between uppermost leg and mons veneris – a brazil nut? 

I assure you that this is completely unretouched.  I haven’t been able to penetrate (if I can use that word) the mystery any further, but I noticed the name of the engraving house that produced the plates for printing the money – Thomas de la Rue & Company, Limited, London.  A little British joke, perhaps, to enliven the monotony of engraving?  There’s probably a big oil painting somewhere that was the source of the design; it would be interesting to check.  It may even be (simply) historically accurate.  After all, “the world is all that is the case.” ** (See endnote below, “The Case”.)

 Allen Schill, January 12, 2005

I guessed right about the design coming from a painting.  It’s huge – I’ve read 4 x 9 meters, and it hangs in the Museu Histórico do Estado do Pará – the Historical Musem of the State of Pará.  It was commissioned to celebrate the new Brazilian Republic, and thus we have this great gathering-together, as if unified, of all the peoples who made and made up Brazil.  Something like the idea of the U.S. motto “E Pluribus Unum” – out of many, one. 

Parreiras was not a great painter, but he was a very capable one, able to communicate feeling, and an effective illustrator.  It is difficult to get a sense of his brushwork from the reproductions available of this painting, however.  (Such a large painting deserves bigger and better than what I find.) As we have it, the Conquista seems a little pasty, frankly.  But it must be better than it appears here, as Parreiras was capable of some precision, even though he was what is called a painterly painter – that is, one who leaves a strong sense of his application of paint.  Some other paintings of his show this brushwork much better; we will look at some. 

The banknote is faithful in most respects to the painting, but there are a few differences.  I was able to compare my scan of the banknote not lonely to the images of the painting, but to a reproduction of an engraving based on the painting as well (see above).  The engraving seems to be an exact copy of what we see in the banknote, which is, after all, an engraving.  In fact, this file may have been obtained from the original printing plate (or a print made from it) after the plates were no longer in use:  one can see two large Xs in white in the left and right sides of the scene, applied in order to cancel the plate and so prevent its use by counterfeiters.  At any rate, the image is in much better condition than that of my scan of an old, worn bill, and certain things are much easier to see.

The engraving, like my scan of the banknote, looks just as I have described it above, with its amusing anomaly.  On the scale of a banknote, such a thing is never noticed without a lens, but when the scene is at its original four by nine meters, with the figures in the foreground almost life-size, it’s impossible that such a thing would escape notice – and no end of talk, even in Brazil.  So it is really no surprise that in the painting the woman is wearing a loincloth of some sort, made apparently of feathers.  (This is clearer still in Parreiras’s study for the figure, seen below.)  But in the engraving and banknote this is different – we do not see a loincloth, but rather nothing – nothing in the way of clothing, anyway.  So my inspection of the high-quality file of the engraving only confirms my interpretation.  It means nothing that the feathers extending to the right of her hips are suggested well enough in the banknote engraving; after all, the issue is what is portrayed between her legs, not off to the side.

But what is clear in both the painting and the engraving (which I hadn’t noticed in my banknote because the design is partly worn away), is that the more conspicuous figures, mostly female, of the group of figures gathered around the tree in the near background at left, haven’t got a stitch on.  Other representations of the indigenous people of the early colonial period (and even photographs of them from the 1800s) show that nudity or near-nudity was the custom.  Body paint, feathers, and piercings, but little or nothing covering the body itself.  Parreiras, depicting these figures as such, was just being faithful to the historical record of his time.  Perhaps he was able to leave these distant figures realistically unclothed, as they are not so prominent in the composition, but felt that the woman in the foreground had to be depicted more discreetly in this monumental, officially commissioned painting.  However (to repeat), in the engraving for the banknote, I am unable to detect any sort of loincloth on this figure. 

It may be that I am making a great deal out of nothing – that my reading of this configuration is simply due to the carelessness of the engraver (though he was precise enough elsewhere).  But I am still convinced that, had the engraver wanted to show that the woman was wearing a loincloth, he could and would have engraved her accordingly.  It would have only meant a few lines incised one way instead of another: some definition of the sides of the loincloth where it wraps around the hips, and a less ambiguous resolution of the central part.  But this is the art of engraving, and Thomas De La Rue seems like a pretty good shop.***  (See below, Anatomy.)  If the engraver was casual, careless, or sloppy with his burin, it’s a remarkable coincidence that the engraving should have turned out like this.

One senses this discretion also in Parreiras’s occasional paintings of a nude, reclining woman painted in an interior.  He often uses the classic device of a pose that hides the woman’s sex.  His very appealing “Frinéia” has one leg drawn up, this concealment only enhancing her allure.  The Frinéia of history was a Greek courtesan of the 4th century BC.  She also modeled for Praxiteles, the foremost sculptor of his time.  (The legend around these two gave rise to the well-known story of Pygmalion.)  My sense of Parreiras as a man, which I get both from photographs of him and from his treatment of the female figure, is that he appreciated women and sexuality very much, and was in no way a prude.  (The model who posed for “Frineia” soon became his wife.)

In his paintings of the female nude, Parreiras may have felt constrained by public expectations, but his discretion never quite concealed his enthusiasm for the subject.  On the other hand, understatement may have been simply an esthetic choice for him – that is, he did not feel obliged on principle to be more explicit.  These paintings exude a strong sensuality, and are even provocative in a way that only the erotic can be, but they can’t be accused of being indecent.  I found only two paintings of his with a more revealing pose, but one is only a very rough oil sketch, done in a few minutes, in which the pubic patch is quite distinct.  He probably never meant to execute this composition as a finished painting.  In the other, “Dolorida”, a finished work, the pose is quite frontal, but her whole private area is completely smoothed out, without a hint of hair or cleft.  Like a Barbie doll!  I’m astonished that he felt he couldn’t be a bit more naturalistic – or that he didn’t find a better way to resolve this area.

But maybe I am unfair to Parreiras.  When I consider other examples from the history of art, I must admit that the representation of sexual anatomy has been fraught with discretion, simplification, and slight-of-hand.  Even artists of a much higher stature than Parreiras painted the figure in ways that either concealed the sexual parts or smoothed them out, more or less plausibly, as Parreiras did.  (Even the great Da Vinci gave his Leda a hairless, featureless mons veneris – although we can only judge from contemporary copies by his followers – but somehow it works a lot better than Parreiras’s “Dolorida”, and not only because Da Vinci is a greater painter.)*** (See below, Representation of Anatomy.)

When I look back at the painting of the Conquista, I see that this is roughly what he did with the aforementioned group of women around the tree, at least with the most prominent figure in the group, the standing woman who is holding a spear or a pole. She is young and appealing, and obviously a full-grown woman, but without a hint of pubic hair.  This is certainly unnaturalistic and ahistorical, unless it was the custom for those women to shave.  Possibly the artist hesitated to add those few touches that would have made her look more like a natural woman.

The other odd thing about this woman is her complexion: she looks really rather light for an Indian.  Although this group is in the sun and thus must be brighter than the foreground group in the shade, and although one must allow for artistic license, to me she looks like any pretty white girl standing in the sunlight.  The rest of the sitting women of the group also look pale for indigenous people.  The details of their bodies are a little vague in the painting, but are more sharply delineated in the engraving, despite its drastically reduced scale.  Sometimes a few lines can suggest more than rough brushwork, and in a format the size of a banknote they may be necessary for definition even if not highly noticeable.

The theme of the painting bears mentioning again.  The title, I think, means the conquest of the Amazon people, not the Amazon region.  I am able to decipher Portuguese only to the extent that it is similar to Italian, but it seems to me “Amazonas” is a plural and so must refer to the people. Against the background of the historical triumph over the indigenous peoples of Brazil dating from 1500, and given the circumstances of Brazilian society of 1900, no doubt still very stratified by race and class, it may seem implausible to suggest pan-Brazilian unity.  In fact, the title of the painting implies the subjugation of the Amazons, and this is not a good premise for a republic that pretends “we are all Brazilians”.  But the other circumstance of Brazil in 1900 was the political need to promote a myth of national unity, regardless of the facts.  So we are not surprised by the wishful thinking or hypocrisy in commissioning Parreiras’s painting – it’s ordinary government work, and sometimes an artist is needed to shill for the myth-makers who need to reaffirm their idea of the public order.

The theme was chosen (in or before 1907) to celebrate the Brazilian Republic (declared only in 1889) and the unity of all Brazilians, including members of all walks of Brazilian life.  Although the composition was established to illustrate the theme (despite its inherent hypocrisy) and basically follows this paternalistic program, the painting does not lack ambiguous notes.  Besides the woman in the foreground, who looks diffident about the events transpiring, the three others near her include two young men who look toward the ceremony with foreboding and incomprehension, and an old man with his back turned away from the action, apparently reduced to tears. **** (See below, Empire and Inclusion.)

I don’t know how Parreiras might have explained the attitudes of these figures – especially the weeping man – to an official interested in effective myth-making for the new Republic, but I suppose someone must have asked him about these notes of skepticism.  (The allegorical and symbolic are principal, habitual ways for non-experts to “read” a painting.)  Whatever he may have said, I suspect these skeptical notes to be Parreiras’s way of injecting the painting with more moral and historical depth than a blandly hagiographical, triumphalist treatment would have provided.  For his sensitivity to the people of the Amazon, Parreiras wins my respect. ***** (See below, Ambiguity in National Mythology.)

Among Parreiras’s works I found some that strongly suggested the artist’s historical (and possibly Christian) conscience, a sensitivity to the position of the subjugated natives of Brazil, and an admiration for their native culture.  Two paintings, set apparently in the 16th century, show scenes of the capture of Indian women by small groups of soldiers or other Portuguese.  It is impossible not to think with horror at the fate of these women. 

Besides a thoroughly-finished and attentive study of the woman we know from the large painting of the Conquista, “India” (shown above), there is “Marabá”, a similarly-treated composition of a woman sitting on the ground and weeping, which could have fit well in her place.  She also has the same type of feathered loinpiece as India (which leads me to think of the fashion possibilities here, though I would fear for the birds)  The name “marabá” in Tupi-Guarani means something like “mixed”, and was given to the children of Indian mothers and white fathers during the 16th century.  Marabá is of mixed race, and as such suffers the discrimination of others of her tribe, because of her features, hair, eyes, and skin.  Parreiras obviously shows pity and compassion for her.  Given the basic attitude and position of the body, and the fact that the handling of the paint is very similar to that of Parreiras’s India of 1907 (above), I would think it could have been a preliminary idea for the painting, subsequently toned down in consideration of the public function of the commission.  However, the painting is dated 1911 in the upper left corner.  Hence, my speculation is all in vain.  It may still be, however, that Parreiras was developing the idea for his India figure in another way a few years later.  

The “Marabá” is related to another work, the “Iracema”, which also depicts a weeping young woman on a beach, with a sort of feathered arrow implanted in the ground next to her.  (She is nude but turned to the side, the dunes and sea behind her.)  Iracema is a personage of local legend – “the most romantic Indian in literature”, someone commented.  The arrow in the ground – which I saw also in a painting of Iracema by another artist, Jose Maria De Medeiros – appears to be what provokes her tears.  If I can hazard a guess, perhaps it is a message from her lover who has spurned her, or it means that she has been dishonored in the eyes of her family and tribe. There seems to be a familiar figure in Brazilian folklore of the woman who drowns in her tears, a tragic-romantic heroine, a type well-known in many cultures; she and Marabá are both exemplars.

Just to underline the considerable degree of interest in native culture on the part of Brazilian artists of (I presume) Portuguese extraction (a strong tendency of the time, Romantic or post-Romantic, known as Indianism), I offer three more examples of the portrayal of such tragic figures: Lindóia (1882), again by Jose Maria de Medeiros, Moema (1866) by Victor Meirelles, and The Last Tamoio (1883) by Rodolfo Amoedo.  The Death of Lindóia is the subject of a poem by the Portuguese poet José Basilio da Gama, part of a lengthier epic poem “O Uruguai” of 1769.  Her story is somewhat complicated, with the personal and the political intertwined.  From what little I can gather from the Portuguese original itself, and from Google’s English translation (scarcely easier), I can’t pretend to understand it, so I won’t go into it.  What we see here in the painting is the dramatic moment of her death, seconds after she allowed herself to be bitten by a poisonous snake. The snake is now impaled on a nearby tree by the arrow shot by Lindóia’s brother – seen approaching from a distance – who tried, belatedly, to save her.  

Moema is also a legendary figure of Brazilian history, and of the historical poem Caramuru, which was based on the life of Diogo Álvares Correia, a Portuguese who in 1509 was shipwrecked on the shores of Bahia and accepted by the Tupinambá people who found him.  They gave him the name Caramuru, which in Tupi means “lamprey” or “moray eel”, because he had been found among the rocks at the sea’s edge.  He soon became a leader among them, and the lover of Moema, a native girl, and they were very happy.  They taught each other their respective languages and much else.  But eventually he was called to fight with the Tupinambá against another tribe. The war was a success, and as a reward the Tupinambá chief offered Diogo/Caramuru his most beautiful daughter, Paraguaçu.  They fell in love, and Caramuru forgot all about Moema.  When he sailed away with Paraguaçu to return to Portugal, the broken-hearted Moema swam desperately after the ship, but it was too far, and she drowned.  Here we see her graceful, powerful body, washed up on the beach.  Some versions of the legend relate that numerous other women drowned while trying to chase the ship, women who had also been awarded to Caramuru as war booty (but whom Caramuru never touched, out of loyalty to his beloved Paraguaçu), who nevertheless were in love with him.

Finally, we have The Last Tamoio (1883), in which Rodolfo Amoedo represents (with admirable precision) the drowned figure of Aimberê, the chief of the Tupinambá, who around 1554-1567 led the Confederation of Tamoios in a rebellion against the Portuguese.  (Amoedo also took inspiration from an epic poem, “The Confederation of Tamoios” of 1856 by Gonçalves de Magalhães.)  Aimberê’s body is overseen by Anchieta, a Jesuit priest who had mediated between the natives and the invaders.  The composition recalls the classic Christian theme of the Pietà, with Aimberê as the dead Christ and Anchieta as Mary.  It also resembles the composition of a famous lithograph of 1834 by Honoré Daumier, “Le Massacre de la Rue Transnonain, April 15, 1834” (which Amoedo probably knew), which testified about the massacre of a whole building full of people by a detachment of soldiers – all to avenge the killing of one of their officers the day before at a barricade in that street.  For Amoedo, this painting surely was an expression of sympathy for the republican ideals crucial to progressive thinkers of that time in France, and of his recognition of the terrible brutality the Indians suffered at the hands of their colonizers.  In Brazil, this had implications relating both to the colonial period and the current day, not unlike Parreiras’s great canvas of the Conquista dos Amazonas.  Amoedos’s choice of a title recalls that of Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel The Last of the Mohicans; surely he was driven by similar romantic-dramatic impulses and a fascination with indigenous people.

I have seen some scholarly commentary on the Conquista and other works by Parreiras, but have found no skeleton keys to the figures in the painting – whether to historical figures who were supposed to have been present, or to generic types of people (Indians, soldiers, priests, and so on). These are not always obvious to the inexpert viewer, and I’m surprised that no one – whether a contemporary of the painter or a scholar of our era – seems to have identified at least the major ones.  Paintings of scenes from the great panoramas of history tend to be schematic.  Knowing Parreiras’s artistic seriousness and sensing his feelings for the indigenous people, one would like to know specifically what and who he had in mind.

In the subway station at Columbus Circle there is a long corridor that takes you toward the 57th Street exits.  The walls are – or were – decorated with a beautiful series of ceramic tiles on the theme of Columbus’s discovery (as it is called) of America, done by school students in a project commemorating the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage.  One of them expressed that momentous occasion with brilliant economy of means: a tight close-up of two feet facing one another – one, a naked, reddish-brown foot, the other, the armored boot of a conquistadore.  That simple image spoke volumes about the relationship that was just beginning. Unfortunately I can’t show it to you (perhaps it has been stupidly destroyed in the course of the recent heavy renovations), so I offer another from the same series. 

Endnotes

The Crying of Lot 49:  If you’ve read the book, you’ll recall the stamps used, from the late 1400s to the present day, to post mail via an “underground” system of mail delivery.  In Lot 49, The Trystero, the rebels who conspire against the (non-fictitious) Thurn und Taxis postal hegemony of centuries ago, evolves into W.A.S.T.E., a present-day clandestine mail system.  (Along the way there were those who harried the Pony Express and Western Union – if I remember rightly.)  They also issued their own postage stamps, superficially counterfeits of the official ones, which passed easily for genuine unless very closely inspected.  The only changes were little details hinting at subversion – a Pony Express horse with the rider missing (assassinated), or an air mail plane flying upside down.  Anyway, such stamps are now up for auction, as the Lot 49 of the title.

All this may sound humorously innocuous, until you consider the inevitability of turf wars between authorized and free-lance couriers. This is an iteration of the theme dear to Pynchon, the struggle between the-powers-that-be and the little guys. Read it if you haven’t – it’s short (you can read it in an afternoon, even while paying close attention), and a lot of fun – much more than you’d expect if you think philately is just a hobby for dusty old men. And you will never look at your mail carrier in quite the same way again.

** The Case:  Ludwig Wittgenstein’s axiom, which Pynchon used and elaborated in his novel V..

*** Anatomy:  Although I readily admit that as an art historian (and as an expert on female anatomy), I am a mere dilettante, I still wish to uphold a certain degree of academic rigor in this article. Therefore, I consulted a higher authority in the matter of female anatomy – a Wiki article – which includes a montage of 36 vulvas of different women, photographed in a standard way, for the purpose of suggesting their considerable variety.  This will be unfamiliar territory to most people except gynecologists and porn movie talent scouts (who bring an esthetic point of view).  I won’t show it here – not because I’m embarrassed but because esthetically it doesn’t go well with the other images in this article (if I were that embarrassed I wouldn’t be writing this at all).  But I’ll give you the link; it may be helpful to consult the illustration while reading the next paragraph: 36 Vulvas, Wiki.  I should say in passing, however, that had Wikipedia existed when I was thirteen or so and was extremely interested in these matters, I would have found it very educational, although I probably would have missed a few days of school.

More to the point, however, although I was personally surprised by some of these vulvas – especially the very different morphologies of the inner labia – there is nothing quite like what I see in the woman in this Brazilian banknote engraving.  There are a few with very prominent inner labia (such that “inner” can only mean “between” the outer labia, but not “within” or inside) to the degree that their shape might suggest a small penis.  (Most prominently, second row from the top, second vulva from the right.)  However, although the proportion of the length (going from head to foot) of the inner labia is considerable, its width tapers off near the top where the cleft begins, in the clitoral area, to something very narrow compared to further down.  On the other hand, our indigenous woman has two parallel lines in the center that correspond better to the thickness of an average penis.  If we insist that the woman in the banknote has a vulva and not a penis and testicles, we must admit that we are viewing an extreme type of vulva, and that the engraver for some reason chose to represent such a one.  (If that is the case, could this be the result of some weird, stereotypical notion about Amazon women?)  But whatever she has, it sure isn’t a loincloth.

**** Representation of Anatomy:  I am still struck that as recently as Parreiras’s time – well after Manet and Courbet and others had established the esthetic doctrine of naturalism – there were still such strong taboos as to oblige him to resolve his “Dolorida” as he did.  Perhaps it was made for a client – or a clientele – that from prudery couldn’t have accepted that she be shown the way a woman really looks, although that seems laughable now.  But progress of this sort is messy and complicated; different people have very different ideas, some of them behind the times.  Since then, in the 20th century, we have had “sexual liberation” in many ways, and are no longer so beholden to prudish habits and attitudes, but at the same time sex (like most else) has been commodified, and that means, in part, that we are always getting the pictures pushed in our faces.  Due to our familiarity with sexual imagery, we find incongruous all this finessing of the representation of sexual parts in the art of past ages.  We easily forget how little it took, only a few generations ago, to shock.  “Dolorida” still has an erotic charge.

We have been referring mostly to vulvas here – what about penises?  The various putti and the Christ Child have their little button penises and scrota, but in classical European art I can’t think of a single representation of an adult male with his member exposed.  (There are occasional representations of the Circumcision of the infant Christ.)  I have heard, however, that the Vatican Library has a collection of works considered obscene – apparently fit only for private consultation by the pure in spirit.  But rather than get involved with this subject here, I refer you another (future) article, “The Representation of the Human Genitalia in Art”.

***** Empire and Inclusion: In the case of the U.S.A. and its national myth, much has been made of our independence from Britain.  It would be hypocritical and absurd to suggest that we of the US should vaunt ourselves for how well we have integrated our own indigenous people into our society, since nothing of the kind has ever been attempted.  (Nor with the millions who were brought here as slaves.)  We not only vanquished the red Indians, but completely pushed them aside to make Lebensraum for our expanding nation.  The North American Indian, for us, is only a part of the legend, or myth, of the West.  In Latin America, perhaps there have been a few degrees more of integration of indigenous people into a predominantly European society.

****** Ambiguity in National Mythology:  For comparison, think of the scene of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on the back of the rarely-circulating two-dollar bill. (I happen to have one.)  The Founding Fathers are all grouped with perfect, dull decorum.  The viewer can just barely sense the gravity and drama of what they are doing.  Moreover, speaking of racial and gender integration in a colonial society that has just become a republic, not a single one of these men is a woman (as far as we can tell, as they are all clothed), and all the men are white.  Or are they? Let’s lay an urban legend to the eternal rest it deserves:

Others have noticed with curiosity the heavy-set, dark-skinned man seated at the table about halfway back in the assembly.  He sure looks black on the $2 bill (though his hands are pale), but the corresponding figure in the John Trumbull’s original painting of 1786-1820 (identified as Robert Morris of Pennsylvania) sure looks white (though ruddy), as he does in Trumbull’s monumental 1818 version of the painting, and also in Asher Brown Durand’s large engraved rendition of 1823. (The engraving for the $2 bill was not executed by Durand.)  You could say that his face is in shadow, and that the engraver simply rendered him like this.  But in the paintings and large engraving, there are others whose faces are equally or more in shadow who are not rendered so dark on the bill.  So, just as with the odd figure on the Brazilian note, here again we must decide whether the engraver just happened to do it this way, or whether he deliberately incorporated a little private joke into his engraving.  What fun it is to be clandestine!

By the way, we can take Trumbull’s portrayals to be faithful to the appearances of all these men, as he decided not to include any person whose portrait he could not take from life.  (This is partly why he needed 34 years to complete this small painting – he rolled it up and traveled with it, throughout the states and to Europe, so he could carry on the project.  When it was about finished, he enlarged the design for the monumental version, seen now in the Capitol Rotunda, and painted that is short order.)  It also may be worth pointing out the difference between the two paintings: whereas the small painting shows fresh, lively brushwork, the much enlarged version (12 x 18 feet) is precise but stiff.  Asher Brown Durand’s engraving of 1823, about the same size as the small painting (21” x 31”), also resembles it for feeling and spontaneity.

I saw on the web a photograph of a black man, supposedly named John Hanson, who was said to be a signer of the Declaration, or the President of the council that produced it.  Aside from the other reasons why such a thing would be extraordinary, the claim is sheer nonsense, as photography had not been invented yet, and wouldn’t be for another 60 years or so.  (The photo looks like a daguerreotype from the 1840s or 1850s.)  Another site gets that partly right, and imparts some information about who this black John Hanson was (a Liberian diplomat), but ignores the fact that the figure in the $2 bill (and in the painting it was based on) is someone else.

© Copyright Allen Schill

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