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An early diorama by Gerrit Carl François Schouten (1779-1839)

Surinam, dated 1818, signed and dated on a paper label in the lower left corner

H. 48.9 x W. 78.3 x D. 23.5 cm (excl. frame)

H. 70 x W. 99 x D. 26.5 cm (incl. frame)

A so far unknown Schouten-diorama showing the daily activities in a Carib indigenous camp beside the river. The indigenous had camps, not villages, because they were nomadic hunter-gatherers, quickly building simple huts and soon moving on. The background of the diorama is a watercolour painted with trees, to the left there is a small hut with a rooster on top and a hen in front, and a man weaving a basket. Weaving of baskets and pagalen, a type of box with geometric patterns in which usually clothing is kept, is a man’s work, while pottery is a women’s work. In front of the man, a woman is preparing an armadillo, kapasi, considered to be a real treat, with two dogs looking on with interest. In the large hut on the left a woman is making a cassava meal, another woman steering in a pot on the fire, and a third woman reaching for the pagalen or perhaps chasing off a spider monkey up in the top of the hut where also a red macaw is perched. The indigenous shoot these birds with a ‘bird-arrow’, without killing them. The bird is only stupefied and kept in the camp as a pet and for its feathers. On the ground a ‘trumpet-bird’ a kami-kami, whose call sounds like a trumpet, which is also kept as a pet or sold. In the back of the hut sitting in a hammock is a woman with a small child on her lap apparently begging for a cassava bread from a man standing next to a two-tier table with cassava bread and what looks like two juicy deer legs. Against the post of the hut a rifle and bow-and- arrows are standing and hanging on the posts are circular baskets, kurkuri’s, in which all sorts of things are kept. In the middle sits a man fishing, with a fish he caught next to him. Behind him two men are building a hut, applying palm leaves to a domed structure. In the centre-right a beautiful woman arrives with a young girl holding her hand. Caraïb-indigenous women wear cotton shorts, but this woman and her child wear bead-skirts, kweyou, as the Arowak do. However, her hair is not pined-up in the way of Arowak women, so perhaps this Arowak woman was married into the Caraïb camp. These two figures are the same as the woman and child in the diorama of a Caraïb camp in the collection of the Tropenmuseum (inv. 6371-d), dated 1819, one year later than the present diorama. In the 1819 diorama they no longer wear Arowak bead-skirts, but Caraïb shorts. Presumably they were admitted into to the Caraïb community by then. In the hut to the right somebody is sleeping in a hammock, three green macaw are perched on a slat, and two kurkuri are hanging on the posts of the hut. Moored in the river are two corials/dug-outs, in one of them a woman carrying a water jar in the traditional way with a band over her head.

Gerrit Schouten was born in 1779 in Paramaribo, the administrative centre of the Dutch colony of Surinam, the son of a Dutch father, Hendrick Schouten, who came to Surinam in 1767 in government service but is best known as a poet and satirist, and Suzanna Johanna Hanssen, a free coloured whose great-grandmother was a freed enslaved. Hendrik was the son of the sea captain Gerrit Schouten from Amsterdam who regularly sailed to Surinam. Suzanna was the daughter of Samuel Loseke, a Dutch inspector who became a rich Surinam plantation owner, and the free born black Bettie van Hannibal.

Gerrit became a self-taught botanical and animal painter but is best known for his diorama’s depicting life in the Dutch colony of Surinam in the early 19th century. However, it was his younger brother, Hendrik Schouten (1785-1840) who made the very first diorama of a camp of Caraïben Indians, signed and dated “Geboetzeerd
in Jagtlust door Hendrik Schouten in Surinaame 1809” (Uit Verre Streken, October 2016, no. 13). Hendrik became a planter after inheriting the Jagtlust plantation from his grandfather Samuel Loseke, and Gerrit would become the famous artist. The first dated diorama of a Caraïb camp Gerrit made was in 1810, a year after his brother Hendrik had made his first and only diorama.

Dioramas were a speciality of Gerrit Schouten. He was commissioned to produce two dioramas of the indigenous peoples of Surinam, Caraïbs and Arowaks, for the Koninklijke Kabinet van Zeldzaamheden (Royal Cabinet of Curiosities) established by King William I in 1806. The King awarded Schouten a gold medal for his oeuvre. One of these royal commissions is now in the collection of the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde in Leiden (inv. no. 360-1311).

Only about forty dioramas’ by Gerrit Schouten, made between 1810 and 1839, depicting enslaved people’s dance performances or ‘du’s’, scenes of indigenous villages, river scenes with tent-boats, plantation houses and views of Paramaribo, are known. The dioramas were bought as (expensive) souvenirs by travellers and European settlers returning home. Most ended up in Holland, a few in England and other European countries, but none remained in Suriname. Only in 2005 three returned to Surinam on the occasion of the celebrations of the thirty years of independence of Surinam.

Most dioramas are in Dutch institutional collections. For a few other dioramas from our collection see Uit Verre Streken, June 2004 (no. 5), June 2007 (no.17), June 2008 (no. 7), and November 2015 (no, 8 and 9).

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A unique diorama depicting Carib Indigenous at the river side

​Wood, paint on paper, twigs and dried moss
H. 51 x W. 69.5 x D. 20 cm



This is the only known diorama by Hendrik Schouten. He became a planter and inherited the Jagtlust plantation from his grandfather Samuel Loske. His older brother Gerrit Schouten (1779-1839) became the well-known artist who made over forty diorama’s, many now in museum collections in the Netherlands and Surinam, and numerous botanical and zoological watercolours of Surinam, most of them now in the Royal Horticultural Society in London. The earliest known diorama by Gerrit Schouten is dated 1810, so one year after this diorama by Hendrik. It is tempting to assume that this first and only diorama by his younger brother was the occasion that started Gerrit to make diorama’s. Gerrit Schouten’s diorama’s of Indigenous camps differ from this one in that Hendrik also used natural materials such as moss and small twigs while Gerrit made everything of papier-mâché, Hendrik’s figures are flatter than Gerrit’s.

Gerrit’s diorama’s of Indigenous camps are always viewed from the river towards the camp and his figures are almost always facing the observer while in this diorama most figures, together with the observer, look towards the river. The present diorama is described and illustrated in the exhibition catalogue Gerrit Schouten (1779-1839), botanische tekeningen en diorama’s uit Suriname, Clazien Medendorp 1999, p. 134-135 and was included in the exhibitions in Het Tropenmuseum Amsterdam and Het Surinaams museum Paramaribo in 1999.


An extremely rare Surinam diorama depicting a ‘Du’ or ‘slave dance’ by Gerrit Carl Francois Schouten (1779-1839)

Surinam, annotated signed and dated ‘geboetseerd van papier door G. Schouten te Suriname Ao 1816

H. 37.5 x W. 50.5 x D. 16.5 cm

By the mid-nineteenth century, competitions for the most outstanding performances had developed around enslaved dance performances. People dressed as domestic enslaved, musicians and dancers in characteristic plantation ‘fashion’; loin cloth for dancing men and wide cotton dresses and angisa (headdress) for the women. One of the dancers can be seen in fashionable European costume, playing the ‘master’. In this role he was allowed to wear shoes - a privilege granted only to the free population. Despite the stereotypical nature of these performances, the songs carried strong socio-political messages (Medendorp, 1999, pp. 63-64).

Schouten created a number of dioramas showing dance performances of enslaved Africans, of which the majority is in the Rijksmuseum and the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam. These performances were staged by the enslaved on the plantations as entertainment for their ‘owners’, but also as a way to express themselves and have some sort of freedom. However, threatening of not being allowed a ‘Du’ by the plantation owner was also a way of pressuring the enslaved to work harder of as punishment.

The majority of Schouten’s dioramas were made as souvenirs between 1810 and 1839 and are mainly found in European collections. In 1826 he received a commission for two dioramas from William I for his cabinet of rarities (Koninklijk Kabinet van Zeldzaamheden). Schouten’s work regained prominence in 2000 when the Teyler’s Museum in Haarlem, in association with the Surinaams Museum in Paramaribo, organised an extensive exhibition of his work. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has added a number of dioramas to its collection in recent years.

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