John White

(fl. 1585—1593)

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(probably before 1550–1593 or later).

Painter and draftsman. Among the earliest Europeans to produce visual records of the New World, he worked primarily in watercolor. When they were published in England, his careful depictions of the Atlantic shore, its plants and animals, and its native inhabitants promoted new understandings of the previously unknown region. Although he had been preceded by Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues (c. 1533–85), who recorded similar subjects in Florida in the 1560s, White's work forms the earliest surviving pictorial record of North America. Except for one watercolor, the Frenchman's work is known only in engraved reproductions. White served as the official artist on a 1585–86 expedition sponsored by Sir Walter Raleigh to attempt settlement at Roanoke, Virginia. (Roanoke Island, sheltered inside the Outer Banks, now lies in North Carolina. Today's Roanoke, Virginia, is situated in the western part of the state.) During this sojourn, White also traveled in the region and may have reached Chesapeake Bay. Twenty-three of his watercolors, somewhat inaccurately engraved by Flemish artist and publisher Theodore de Bry in London, appeared in 1590 along with text by the expedition's scientist, Thomas Harriot. (Titled A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, the Harriot text had first appeared without illustrations in 1588.) In 1591 de Bry also engraved and published Le Moyne's work.

White's origins, early life, and later years are obscure. He probably accompanied a 1577 exploratory expedition to the northwest Atlantic. In 1587 White sailed again for Roanoke with another group of settlers, this time as governor of the colony. He stayed only a short time before returning to England for supplies. Conflict between England and Spain prevented White from leaving once more for Roanoke until 1590. During a brief visit, he found that the settlement had disappeared, and no trace was ever found of the “Lost Colony.” A 1593 letter written from his home in Ireland provides the latest sure evidence of White's existence, but he may have been the seagoing John White who died in 1606. Presumably a trained artist, White produced fresh and direct colored drawings. Although interested in scientific documentation, he conveyed in many of his observations of Indian life an idyllic tone of peace, order, and harmony with nature. One such watercolor (British Museum, London), inscribed “The manner of their fishing,” depicts Indian techniques of catching fish, including spearing and trapping. Near the shore, four men in a “cannow” pass with a catch of large fish nearly filling their boat. In unnaturalistic perspective, fish swimming in the water suggest a range of species. A luminous sky and passing birds contribute to the tranquility of the scene.

Subjects: Art.

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