There is a certain formulaic quality to many English-language reviews of books and exhibitions dedicated to Mexican viceregal art history. The review begins with a lamentation over the undervalued and under-studied status of the field despite its beauty, historical worth, and current relevance, followed by a defense of the stalwart few scholars and institutions that have carried its mantle, which leads into a celebration of the latest valiant contribution. We follow this formula because, despite more than a century of publications and exhibitions, Mexican viceregal art history remains—outside Mexico—a marginalized area, a field needing to be “rescued,” as a recent headline about a lecture at the Museo del Prado declared. The reasons behind this are myriad and complex, related to politics, even within Mexico itself; collecting practices and patterns; institutional Eurocentrism; and simple access, as reproductions of the works and the documents needed to study them remain even today challenging to acquire. Mexican viceregal art history is, compared to the study of European Old Masters, a young field and, as one of the leading scholars in the discipline, Clara Bargellini, told me on my first research trip to Mexico City in 1995, there is a great deal of work still to do. While this statement remains true even twenty-three years later, Painted in Mexico, 1700–1790: Pinxit Mexici, like the exhibition it accompanies, makes great strides forward.
Written by leaders in the discipline who have championed Mexican colonial art since before the recent burst of popular interest in the topic, this book is an eloquent defense of Mexican eighteenth-century painting. As Ilona Katzew declares in the preface, the text presents the works as “a brilliant reinvention rather than as a by-product of European models” (11). They were made by artists who demonstrated an awareness of their participation in a global art world by the simple act of signing works with pinxit Mexici or similar phrases. Katzew and the team who developed the exhibition view this act as evidence of pride in local, Mexican artistic traditions as well as of their relationship to trends across the Atlantic.
In their coauthored introduction to the volume, Katzew, Luisa Elena Alcalá, Paula Mues Orts, and Jaime Cuadriello lay out an organizational structure for eighteenth-century Mexican painting. They identify four generations or moments between 1700 and 1790, describing the artists and workshops that influenced one another and painters outside Mexico City. The first group, shaped by the legacy of the towering figures of Juan Correa and Cristóbal de Villalpando, included Manuel de Arellano and the Rodríguez Juárez brothers, Juan and Nicolás. These artists introduced an academic approach to artistic formation that promoted drawing from prints and live models. One of the members of this group, José de Ibarra, became a leader in the second generation of painters. These artists attempted to formalize their grouping as an officially recognized academy. While they ultimately failed, they nevertheless maintained a corporate, academic identity, which they promoted in the public sphere. The third generation of painters was led by the luminary Miguel Cabrera, who kept up the quest for academic status. This period also perpetuated an increasing secularization, even within religious paintings, adding to these familiar vignettes from daily life set within contemporary spaces. Cabrera’s student José de Alzíbar participated with the fourth generation of painters, who both contributed to the new Real Academia de las Tres Nobles Artes de San Carlos from its foundation in the early 1780s and preserved local traditions, including what the authors call the “gentle and idealized style” of earlier generations (36).
The four essays that follow, written by Mues Orts, Katzew, Cuadriello, and Alcalá, do not seek an encyclopedic presentation of Mexican eighteenth-century painting. This fact alone points to the growing robustness of scholarship on this period, as the authors did not feel obliged to “rescue” the field. Instead, each essayist explores original questions that complement existing published work, including their own. In doing so, they build the corpus of knowledge rather than retrace the eighteenth century to educate the uninitiated.
In “Illustrious Painting and Modern Brushes: Tradition and Innovation in New Spain,” Mues Orts demonstrates the social aspirations of Mexican painters and the theoretical principles informing their work. Based on material and documentary analysis, she identifies a revolution in painting during the eighteenth century, marrying European art theory with local practice and drawing the great masters of Mexican painting into the pantheon of exemplary artists. These painters furthermore demonstrated a self-awareness as a school that produced modern, fashionable, and tasteful works of art within a global context.
Katzew expands upon the notion of tastefulness in her essay, “The Radiating Image: The Mobility of Painting in Eighteenth-Century Mexico,” which examines the movement and reception of the physical works and the ideas they represent through three case studies. The first locates two paintings within the tangled web of the viceregal social and political context. Particularly fascinating is a painting of the interior of the church of the new, controversial Convento de Corpus Christi. Portraits of two viceroys in the scene were overpainted, either before or after the work arrived in Spain as a diplomatic gift. For Katzew, the alteration demonstrates “how easily pictures could move beyond their initial place of manufacture and beyond their intended reception” (89). The second case considers two series of views by Juan Patricio Morlete Ruiz, in which the painter reproduced European printed models. Katzew examines the paintings within the discourse of copying in colonial art but expands this conversation to consider two Mexican views Morlete Ruiz included in one of the series destined for Europe. These, she argues, allowed the artist and his patrons to insert Mexico into the world pictured in the prints and themselves into the artistic trends and tastes of the prints’ viewers. The third case returns to copying, using paintings by Antonio de Torres to illustrate how Mexican painters made what she calls “multiple originals” to experiment with form and content, and to spread their fame (98).
In “The Politicization and Sociability of the Public Image: The King and His Representatives, 1700–1790,” Cuadriello examines how patrons used large paintings to “promote public causes or stake out political positions” (114). The essay traces the political machinations underlying some of the best-known examples of Mexican eighteenth-century painting. The author identifies Juan Rodríguez Juárez’s Adoration of the Kings (1719–20) as a pawn in the secular clergy’s power struggle against the religious orders. In the face of Jesuit self-promotion via paintings, Cuadriello argues, Francisco Antonio Vallejo’s monumental Patronage of the Immaculate Conception over the University of Mexico (1774) was an intentional affront directed at the order, picturing the Spanish king and the pope co-opting this favored Jesuit devotion in the years surrounding the 1767 expulsion. These and other examples open up the study of ostensibly religious paintings, allowing them to be more than mere examples of Mexican piety and requiring thoughtful decoding of their messages to understand how they participated fully within their contexts.
In the final essay, “Mexican Painting in the Age of Ornamentation,” Alcalá addresses the woefully under-researched areas of eighteenth-century mural paintings and ephemeral perspectivas (painted perspectival views). The latter, she states, allowed painters to demonstrate their skill, “which, in turn, helped to elevate the prestige of their profession” (146). Alcalá argues that while historiographic attention has been almost exclusively devoted to paintings on altar screens, these other types of works formed part of the commissions for unified church interiors and demonstrated the centrality of painters in massive projects that drew upon the skills of many artists in a sociable environment. The second part of the essay brings ornament to a more intimate scale and considers how Mexican artists used gold pigment and rocaille cartouches. The author concludes that this work should broaden our focus and help us appreciate Mexican painters as “multifaceted and capable of meeting viceregal society’s voracious appetite for images, art, and ornamentation” (156).
If the essays make great strides into new areas of research, the catalogue entries, written by the four essayists plus Ronda Kasl, open a new world to scholarly attention. Rather than relying on more easily accessible works, many with substantial exhibition histories, Katzew and her team selected objects that capture the breadth of Mexican painting between 1700 and 1790. This meant including many works that had very limited exhibition histories and virtually no scholarship. As a result, the catalogue’s entries are not only lucid and intelligent, but also present significant new research on many objects drawn from church and private collections. The value of this is immense, as it will broaden the study of Mexican colonial art beyond the canon that has emerged from previous exhibitions and publications.
Painted in Mexico, 1700–1790: Pinxit Mexici is a valiant contribution to the field of Mexican colonial art. Immaculately written and lavishly illustrated, it is a fitting representation of decades of curatorial and scholarly efforts on the part of its authors, and the beauty, historical worth, and current relevance of this area of study.