Female Eyes on South America: Maria Graham

July 21, 2017

Women traveler artists and naturalists who journeyed to Latin America and the Caribbean in the 17th to 19th centuries were more common than one might suppose. As with their male counterparts, the promise of adventure and discovery made their voyages compelling, and economic and social privilege eased the way, but the women who traveled were in some ways more intrepid and determined, as they needed to push against societal norms of what was appropriate behavior for their sex in order to gain the credence and freedom needed to do the work they chose for themselves. In a series of four texts, of which the first is published here, Dr. Katherine Manthorne sheds light on some of these women traveler artists who succeeded in following their vision.

Taken from Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Maria,_Lady_Callcott_by_Sir_Thomas_Lawrence.jpgSir Thomas Lawrence, Maria, Lady Callcott, 1819. Oil on canvas. 59.7 x 49.5 cm (23 1/2 x 19 1/2 in.). Image taken from Wikimedia Commons

In 1819 Maria Graham (nee Dundas, 1785–1842), fresh from her travels in Italy and India, sat for the fashionable London portraitist Thomas Lawrence. While he painted they must have conversed about many subjects, given that she was an accomplished watercolorist, world traveler, author, naturalist and art historian. Lawrence captured this educated, adventurous woman gazing dreamily off into the distance. Two years later she boarded the frigate HMS Doris commanded by her husband Captain Thomas Graham, bound for South America. Upon her husband’s death en route she resolved to remain there on her own, living in Chile and then Brazil from 1821 to 1825, keeping diaries and making watercolor sketches that provided material for two publications: Journal of a Residence in Chile (1824) and Journal of a Voyage to Brazil (1824). Among the many accounts  by English-speaking travelers—male or female—Graham’s captured the public imagination with her distinctive and pioneering combination of scientific detail and personal observation.[1]

Graham distinguished herself from most travelers not only by her command of languages (she was fluent in Spanish, and in Brazil taught herself Portuguese), but also by her unprecedented access to inner politial circles. In Chile she was the frequent companion of Lord Thomas Cochrane, a member of the British Royal Navy who played a key role in the South American wars of independence. At Brazil’s imperial court she enjoyed friendship with the Empress Maria Leopoldina—recently arrived from Austria—and for a short time was governess to princess Doña Maria de Gloria (daughter of Emperor Pedro and Empress Maria), who would later become Doña Maria II of Portugal. Witness at the birth of these new nations, she intertwined her own story with that of their emerging independence. The daughter of a British naval officer, Maria grew up in contact with intellectuals and artists, and she drew from a young age. While increasing attention is being devoted to her remarkable written texts, our interest here is the art she created during her travels, a selection of which was engraved by Edward Finden to illustrate her books.[2]

Edward Finden after Maria Graham, Dragon Tree & Peak of Teneriffe from the book “Journal of a Voyage to Brazil” (1824). Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros

Graham was diligent in documenting her American travels in her diary, which both helped her to make sense of her experiences and provided the raw material for her books. Eager to position herself within the field of travel literature, she singled out the Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt as a model. His journey across northwest South America, Mexico, and Cuba (1799–1804) and his numerous subsequent publications —especially Vues des Cordillères et monuments des peuples indigènes de l’Amérique (1810–1813)—helped to awaken artists to these regions.[3]  She invoked him even before she arrived in South America, on the Island of Tenerife—the second stop on their voyage, half-way between Spain and Africa—where she drew “the Great Dragon Tree of Oratava, of which Humboldt has given so interesting an account.” She is referring to a passage in his Personal Narrative when, in the Canary Islands, Humboldt described a dragon tree “of enormous magnitude,” and called it “one of the oldest inhabitants on our globe.” Mindful that her sketch of the arboreal ruin was but a faint echo of Humboldt’s verbal evocation, she illustrated it in her book and added the caption: “He saw it in all its greatest; I drew it after it had lost half its top.” Through this visual document she not only established her credentials as a South American explorer but also created an opening for her distinctive persona—and does Humboldt one better by illustrating as well as describing the Dragon Tree.

Fig. 3. Maria Graham, View of Quintero Bay, seen from the place where the house was (Valparaíso) taken from the book “Journal of a Residence in Chile” (1824). © Trustees of the British Museum

A major earthquake rocked Chile on November 20, 1822. Living near Valparaiso, Graham vividly recounted the sounds and sensations that initiated the event:

At a quarter past ten [at night], the house received a violent shock, with a noise like the explosion of a mine. I sat still… until, the vibration still increasing, the chimneys fell, and I saw the walls of the house open… We jumped down to the ground, and were scarcely there when the motion of the earth changed from a quick vibration to a rolling like that of a ship at sea.

Quintero Bay, which she had drawn under calm conditions (Fig. 3), underwent great changes:

Mr. Cruiksank has ridden over from old Quintero; he tells us that there are large rents along the sea shore and during the night the sea seems to have receded in an extraordinary manner, and especially in Quintero Bay. I see from the hill, rocks above the water that never were exposed before.[4]

These first-hand observations led to her article entitled “Account of Some Effects of the Late Earthquakes in Chili” [sic], the first female-authored report in the Transactions of the Geological Society (1824). Of considerable importance, it was referred to by distinguished men of science including Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin. In 1834, however, George Greenough, President of the Geological Society, challenged the accuracy of Graham’s observations. Subsequent research has vindicated Graham, demonstrating that she possessed considerable geological expertise and the savvy to negotiate the contemporary scientific community.[5]

German traveler artist Johann Moritz Rugendas would later visit Valparaiso, which he depicted in a topographically detailed rendering of its strategic harbor filled with boats of all nations.[6] Graham's drawing by comparison is more picturesque and personal, subtly reinforcing her role as on-the-spot observer in its depiction of the house where she had lived before its destruction by the earthquake.

Johann Moritz Rugendas, View of Valparaíso, 1842. Oil on canvas. 63.5 x 92 x 2.5 cm
Excerpt of letter from Maria Graham to William Hooker, April 11, 1824.

Passages from her book, private correspondence and unpublished sketches all document Graham’s growing facility with botany.[7] She offered assistance to William Hooker, director of Kew Gardens: “I do not habitually draw flowers but I could do that—and also any peculiar form of seed & c—Only let me know how I can be useful & I will try to be so.”[8]  Studying the ferns growing between her cottage and the top of Corcovado she was able to collect twenty-two different varieties, which she dried and shipped to Hooker on the ship Aurora. In situations when she could not dry a plant, she substituted a careful drawing. Between 1824 and 1825 she made a hundred drawings of Brazilian flora, many of which depicted the plant against its landscape habitat.[9] Her range of visual strategies evidences a skillful hand and knowledge of a broad repertoire of floral illustration. Why then—with the exception of The Dragon Tree—did she omit dedicated botanical studies from her own travel account? Women, if they were acknowledged at all in the field of art, tended to be stereotyped as lady flower painters. So perhaps, having worked so hard to gain respect as a female intellectual, she resisted inserting pictures in her book that might induce such a branding.  Instead she chose to work behind the scenes, making drawings and collecting specimens to share not only with Hooker but also with David Douglas John Sims, and Carl Von Martius, all of whom acknowledged her in their publications.[10] By these means she functioned as an important link in the global network on which Kew and ultimately British natural science depended in its efforts to categorize the world’s plant population. Collecting botanical specimens, she engaged in an activity associated with both naturalists and female amateurs and synthesized those dual positions to create an individual perspective.

Maria Graham, Corcovado from Botofago from the book "Journal of a Voyage to Brazil" (1824). Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros

Corcovado or Hunchback Mountain—a 710 m (2,300 ft.) high peak—looms over Rio de Janeiro, a major landmark with a long history in the visual arts. Depicted by innumerable travelers, the vista of Corcovado from across the bay, where its distinctive form is most evident, became the canonical view. Graham, by contrast, positions herself on a garden terrace, revealing the peak’s profile between the forms of a house at right and left and framed below by the fence that divides the cultivated zone in the immediate foreground from the wilder or more sublime nature beyond. The foreground references the hortus conclusus, a Latin term meaning “enclosed garden,” the title of the Virgin Mary in Medieval and Renaissance art, thus marking this intimate space as distinctly female.[11] A comparison with Leon J-B Sabtier’s View of the Bay of Rio de Janeiro (comparative figure 1) reveals that he, like most of the male delineators of this famed site, established his perspective from across the harbor. Graham instead positioned herself on the edge of a fenced garden looking over the low-lying shrubs and trees—especially the Royal palms—so that the famous peak seems to emerge from the womb of tropical nature. While final assessment awaits identification of further imagery by female hands, this preliminary evidence demonstrates a departure from the traditional approach, pointing to a distinctly feminine perspective on this mountain icon.

Léon Jean-Baptiste Sabatier, View of the Bay of Rio de Janeiro, 1850. Oil on canvas. 81.3 x 113 cm
Edward Finden after Augustus Earle, Val Longo or Slave Market at Rio Janeiro from the book "Journal of a Voyage to Brazil" (1824). Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros

Chattel slavery was a fact of life in Brazil until it was abolished in 1888, and depictions of it were common. Graham’s Journal of a Voyage to Brazil featured a scene of the Val Longon or Slave Market at Rio opposite the title page. The author encountered slavery first-hand in Recife on her initial landing in Brazil in 1821. But the shock and physical disgust she described upon seeing the enslaved Afro-Brazilian people prevented her from taking out her sketchbook and rendering it on-site. She therefore created an image based on a work by Augustus Earle (1793-1838) to provide her readers with visual documentation of the buying and selling of human beings imported from Africa on a street in the capital.

Travel narratives should be understood as an intricate network of texts in which one traveler conducts an internal conversation with his predecessor or successor: Humboldt quoted La Condamine, Darwin quoted Humboldt, Agassiz quoted Spix and Martius. Travel art is similarly in dialogue with prior imagery, and opens the door to future efforts. In this spirit Maria Graham referenced and at times inserted the work of another hand into her volume, including that of independent traveler artist Augustus Earle, who in March 1818 left England on an around-the-world sojourn. Beginning in January 1821 he spent three years in Rio de Janeiro, where he produced a significant body of sketches and watercolors that included landscapes, portraits, and scenes of Brazilian slavery such as this one.

Edward Finden after Maria Graham, Larangeiros from the book "Journal of a Voyage to Brazil" (1824). Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros

A constant of nineteenth-century travel literature is the fact that female visitors were confined to major cities, unable to experience rural life on their own. However strong-willed or independent-minded she was, a solitary woman was prevented from extensive travel in the sparsely populated, poorly mapped and dangerous territories by physical barriers as well as social norms. Graham chafed against these constraints, and complained of her inability to travel freely about the countryside. She made the city of Rio became her object of study and adopted expeditionary practices of journal keeping, mapping, and drawing to study it and make it comprehensible to her readers. Exploring the area south of the city she came upon Larangeiras in the valley of the Carioca River. Founded in the seventeenth century, it constitutes one of the oldest residential neighborhoods:

I walked … up one of the little valleys at the foot of the Corcorado [sic]: it is called the Laranjeiros, from the numerous orange trees which grow on each side of the little stream that beautifies and fertilizes it. Just at the entrance of that valley, a little green plain stretches itself on either hand, through which the rivulet runs over its stony bed, and affords a tempting spot to groups of washerwomen of all hues, though the greater number are black; and they add not a little to the picturesque effect of the scene….Round the washerwoman’s plain, hedges of acacia and mimosa fence the gardens of plantains, oranges, and other fruits which surround every villa… (p. 161)

Surveying her picture punctuated by vibrant trees and shrubs, we can almost sniff their pleasant fragrance permeating the atmosphere. Beyond these pleasures Graham’s attention to Larangeiros signals to a key feature of her enterprise: aside from brief stops in the ports of Recife and Bahia, she remained on the central coast. She compensated for her inability to see the Amazon or visit the interior with close study of Rio de Janeiro and its environs, including not only major landmarks but sites of personal discovery.

Edward Finden after Maria Graham, Watering Place Juan Feniandez from the book "Journal of a Residence in Chile" (1824). © Trustees of the British Museum

Graham's account of her party’s excursion to the once-thriving Juan Fernández archipelago 360 island off the coast of Valparaiso, Chile, reveals her impulse to invoke the trope of the male explorer asserting his authority to be master of all he surveys as she comments on the experience and quotes lines from the eighteenth-century writer William Cowper:

I went ashore with Lord Cochrane’s party early to-day, as I wished to make some sketches, and, if possible, to climb up some of the hills in search of plants; therefore, when they all resumed their scheme for reaching the highest point in order to see the other side of the island, I remained behind…. And now I reached a lonely spot, where no trace of man could be seen, and whence I seemed to have no communication with any living thing. I had been some hours alone in this magnificent wilderness; and though at first I might begin with exultation to cry—

            I am the monarch of all I survey

            My right there is none to dispute.

Yet I very soon felt that utter loneliness is as disagreeable as unnatural; and Cowper’s exquisite lines again served me—

            Oh, solitude, where are thy charms

            That sages have seen in they face?

            Better dwell in the midst of alarms,

            Than reign in this horrible place.[12]

Her text alternates between moments of self-assuration and palpable loneliness and fear. She deploys the master trope only to turn it on its head, retreating behind an expression of feelings more suitable to a woman traveler. For a brief moment, however, she had revealed herself as equal to any male explorer and that’s the image that the reader retains. About ten years later British-born Charles Chatsworth Wood Taylor did a watercolor of the same place, probably from aboard ship. We observe it across the waters of Cumberland Bay with its craggy cliffs extending to the top of the page and veiled in fog, creating an unwelcoming and oppressive scene.[13] Graham by contrast selected a shoreline perspective with boats and figures, inviting us to  step into the scene and explore it with her.

Charles Chatworthy Wood Taylor, Town of Juan Fernández, Cumberland Bay (Juan Fernández Island), 1834. Watercolor on paper. 30.4 x 49.9 cm
Maria Graham, View from L’Angostura de Paine from the book “Journal of a Residence in Chile” (1824). © Trustees of the British Museum

During her residence in Chile, Graham had the opportunity to travel from the coast inland to the area of Angostura de Paine, located in the narrow passage between the mountain ranges of the Andes in the east and the Cordillera de Costa in the west. “The road is bordered on each side with magnificent trees, chiefly maytenes,” she wrote in her journal, “and country-houses and rich plantations take place of the wide and wild plain that we had passed.” She seemed especially taken by this settled landscape, which she selected as one of fourteen plates for illustration.

Maria Graham, Peepshow of "View of L'Angostura de Paine in Chile," c. 1835. Image taken from Victoria and Albert Museum

London’s Victoria and Albert Museum has recently acquired an early Victorian paper peepshow of a Chilean landscape, attributed to Graham based on its similarity to her illustration View from L’Angostura de Paine in Chile.  Peepshows were said to provide the world’s stage in the palm of your hand. This one is an accordian-style device consisting of three cut-out panels attached along the sides by paper bellows to a front and back board. We peer through branches attached to the front panel to behold a landscape with two cut-out figures: a man and woman, possibly a self-portrait. As the viewer’s eye journeys past the successive panels, s/he experiences the features of the scene that recede expertly back into depth, from the fisherman at the water’s edge to the distant hamlet.[14] We can imagine the peepshow’s magical effects captivating adults and children alike. From reports in scientific journals and contributions to natural history collections to her popular travel accounts and peepshows, Graham helped bring to life the land and people of Chile to a broad spectrum of the British public.

Edward Finden after Maria Graham, Traveling in Spanish America [Self-portrait], frontispiece to “Journal of a Residence in Chile” (1824). © Trustees of the British Museum

Illustrated travel accounts usually contrain a portrait of the explorer, and Graham’s is no exception. Traveling in Spanish America, the frontispiece to her book on Chile, represents a carriage moving through the Chilean landscape from right to left, against the backdrop of the Andes. An old illustrated sales record for a watercolor of a Lima Carriage attributed to an “unidentified artist” can now be attributed to Maria Graham.[15] Although the original watercolor is currently unlocated, this black and white reproduction offers several valuable insights. First, it tells us that she was working in watercolor on a scale that was portable (7 ¼ x 11”), and therefore allowed her to make the preliminary sketch on site, even if she elaborated detail back home. Second, it hints that she must have created many more watercolors yet to be associated with her hand. And third, it allows comparison between her original conception and the changes Edward Finden made as he translated her watercolor into a line engraving for reproduction (a common practice in the nineteenth century).  The roadside cross that appears at left was more prominent and detailed in its rendering of Christ’s body in her watercolor than in the printed version, suggesting the publisher wanted to tone down the references to Catholicism; the three carrion birds and bones on the road are missing from Graham’s drawing, indicating Finden’s desire to heighten the sense of danger and foreboding in the book. Finden also extended the landscape at right to include a peak on the road the carriage has passed while Graham had cropped the scene more tightly, putting more emphasis on the carriage and its occupants. Visible in the carriage interior is a seated gentleman and beside him a lady, wearing a top hat: Graham’s self-portrait. She has replaced the usual turban worn in the portrait by Lawrence with a black top hat that conveys masculine authority. She shows herself framed by the carriage window, progressing across the yet unknown terrain.[16] She carefully delineated her conveyance: a “Berlina,” a mode of transport used in Germany, adopted by Spain and sent to the Americas. Pulled by two horses, it could have two or four wheels, closed at the front, and open at the sides.[17]  Maria Graham looks directly outward, ready to meet the challenges of whatever awaits her in this foreign terrain, and beckons her readers to follow. This is how she meant us to remember her, traveling across the landscape, the expert observer of the world around her, gazing out the window with her female eyes on South America.

[1] Maria Graham, Journal of a Voyage to Brazil and Residence there, during part of the years 1821, 1822, 1823 (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, and John Murray, 1824); and Maria Graham, Journal of a Residence in Chile, during the year 1822; and A voyage from Chile to Brazil, in 1823 (London: 1824).


[2] Regina Akel, Maria Graham: A Literary Biography (Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2009) provides background details.


[3] Alicia Lubowki-Jahn, “Picturing the Americas After Humboldt: The Art of Women Travelers,” Review 84: Literature and Arts of the Americas 45 (2012): 97-105 discusses Humboldt’s impact on women’s travel narratives.


[4] Graham, Journal of a Residence in Chile, excerpt for November 20, 1822.


[5] Carl Thompson, “Earthquakes and Petticoats: Maria Graham, Geology, and Early Nineteenth Century ‘Polite’ Science,” Journal of Victorian Culture 17 (2012): 329–346.


[6] Manthorne, ed., Traveler Artists, pp. 114–115


[7] Betty Hagglund, “The Botanical Writings of Maria Graham,” Journal of Literature and Science 4 (2011): 44-58, establishes that Graham was both typical in her interest in the popular subject of botany and unusual in her ability to explore that interest in ways that went beyond most of her female contemporaries.


[8] Letter from Maria Graham to William Hooker, April 11, 1824 (Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, Archives); quoted by Luciana


[9] Some were were collected in a portfolio and preserved in the Archives at Kew Gardens, others were done in a sketchbook preserved in the British Museum. See Drawings by Lady Maria Callcott, vol. 2. British Museum, Prints and drawings. Cited by Luciana Martins. This includes images from her first voyage to Brazil from 1821 to 1823 and the second, from 1824 to 1825


[10] Haggland, p. 51.


[11] Ana Maria Belluzzo, “The Traveller and the Brazilian Landscape,” Portuguese Studies 23 (2007): 46 discusses the Hortus conclusus.


[12] Graham, Journal of a Residence in Chile, pp. 183–184.


[13] Manthorne, ed., Traveler Artists, pp. 129–131.


[14] Katy Canales, “Maria Graham: Trailblazer and Peepshow Maker,” Victoria and Albert Museum Blog published January 18, 2017. http://www.vam.ac.uk/blog/national-art-library/maria-graham-trailblazer-and-peepshow-maker. Accessed May 15, 2017.


[15] “Watercolor: Lima Carriage by an unidentified artist c. 1835 – 7 ¼ x 11 on original mount. Good condition, bright color, decorative. $165.00” in The Old Print Shop Portfolio for February, 1968 (NY: Old Print Shop, 1968), p. 141.


[16] Adriana Mendez Rodenas, “Women Travelers in Humboldt’s New World,” Review 84: Literature and Arts of the Americas 45 (2012): 176 discusses this self-portrait.


[17] Thanks to my colleagues Pablo Diener and Rafael Romero for assisting in the identification of the Berlina.