Characterizing the Continents

In my ongoing quest for anthropomorphic representations of just about everything, I have been assembling emblematic representations of the continents, or at least some of the continents: personifications of Antarctica and Australia remain elusive as the allegorical “Four Continents” became established in Europe in the early modern era. From the commencement of their global expansion in the sixteenth century to the dawn of the nineteenth, Europeans consistently crafted a vision of a primarily feminine, and therefore subordinate, world in their service. The sole exception to this perspective is offered by William Blake’s 1796 engraving Europe Supported by Africa and America, in which Europe is literally being propped up by the other continents, all still represented by women. This is a very modern view presented by the abolitionist Blake, and a rare contemporary acknowledgement that Europe’s prosperity was built on the backs of the “Dark Continent” and the “New World”. Much more representative of this era is the 1755 drawing of the four continents paying tribute to Britannia, a perfect piece of propaganda for the expanding British Empire. Yet this image departs from the traditional feminine portrayal of the continents by depicting the princely Europe and the turbaned Asia as male, and I think the kneeling Africa as well. The bare-breasted American Indian is stereotypically standard. More than a century earlier, these same four continents are bringing their gifts to the Louis XIII, the King of France, and this time is it Asia on bended knee.

Blake 1796

Britannia and Four Continents Anthony Walker 1755 BM

Louis XIII and the Four Continents

William Blake, Europe Supported by Africa and America, 1796, Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Anthony Walker, Britannia Receiving the Tribute of the Four Continents, 1755, British Museum, London; Title page to Les Estats Empires Royaumes et Principaites du Monde by Crispijn de Passe the Younger, 1635, British Museum, London.

Whenever or wherever Europa appears, she is always dressed (with the exception of the Blake print), in contrast to her continental counterparts, whose nakedness can convey their lack of civilization and/or morality. While the “Four Continents” allegorical tradition commences in the sixteenth century, I think the seventeenth-century images are the most vivid, and definitely the most Eurocentric in their attitude. The title page to Samuel Clarke’s Geographical Description of all the Countries in the Known World (1657) illustrates an inkling of this attitude, but I think the most flagrant examples are the prints published by John Stafford between 1625 and 1635, with accompanying verse by George Withers depicting the cannibalistic America, the chained Africa, and the faithless Asia. As you can imagine, these are particularly powerful images for teaching:  students are shocked into engagement.

Four Continent Gaywood

Four Continents America Stafford 1630


Four Continents Asia Stafford

Title page to Samuel Clarke’s A Geographical Description.., London: T. Newberry, 1657; John Stafford engravings, 1625-35, British Museum, London.

While I was searching through the sold lots archives of Northeast Auctions for some Salem items (a rather indulgent and time-consuming habit of mine) I came across some emblem mezzotints of Europe and Africa produced in London in 1800 but owned by a Salem family, so apparently admiration of the triumphant and bountiful Europa (as indicated by her ever-present cornucopia) extended over to the New World as well–even in the early years after the Revolution.

Emblem of Europe

“An Emblem of Europe” mezzotint, A. Testi, London, 1800, one of a pair sold at Northeast Auctions, 2009.

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