As a key participant in the 1686 revitalization of the Guild of Painters and Gilders of Mexico City, Cristóbal de Villalpando (c. 1649–1714) played a critical role in establishing a high standard of practice for painters in seventeenth-century Mexico and beyond.1 Signed and dated at the lower right “Villalpando pinto i invento año de 83,” his large oil on canvas Adoration of the Magi, in the collection of Fordham University, was likely painted in Puebla, as it corresponds to the same year in which the artist produced his first major commission, the magnificent Moses and the Brazen Serpent and the Transfiguration of Christ for the Cathedral of Puebla.2 That he signed Adorationof the Magi with the double assertion—painted it and invented it—is indicative of his ambition to establish himself as an artist fully engaged in the intellectually creative process of painting as well as a practitioner of the craft of painting.3 And indeed, the opportunity to look closely at this seminal work provides insight into the workings of his creative mind as well as an increased appreciation of the talent and skill of a painter who was well equipped to achieve his aims. This investigation provides specific insight into many aspects of Villalpando’s painting technique, including his use of an amazing array of coloristic effects, which depended on access to a wide range of pigments and, most critically, his mastery of their preparation for application. Given that the expectations for the “master” written down in guild ordenanzas from New Spain were rather schematic, it is hoped that this close and detailed study of a specific work of art will lead to further understanding of what it truly meant to be a master painter in New Spain.
Adoration of the Magi has been in the collection of Fordham University, a Jesuit school, since the late nineteenth century, and it may have been acquired during a Jesuit mission to Mexico City. Although it occupies pride of place at the university, where it has been displayed at least since the 1940s in the office of the president, its appearance was marred by discolored varnish and structural insecurities. Recent conservation treatment in 2017, undertaken in advance of the 2018 exhibition Cristóbal de Villalpando: Mexican Painter of the Baroque at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, presented the opportunity not only to recapture the brilliance of Villalpando’s depiction, but also to discover specific aspects of his painting practice (Figure 1).
While the nineteenth-century replacement stretcher was sound, buckling and distortions in the canvas support indicated that the lining attached to the reverse of the original was no longer serviceable. Probably in Mexico, before it was transported to New York, the painting had been cleaned and restored by attaching a new linen fabric to the reverse of the original with aqueous adhesives composed of animal glue and vegetable paste, a process referred to as lining. Reinforcing a painted canvas by adhering a new fabric to the reverse to strengthen and support it is a traditional conservation technique that developed centuries ago. In the nineteenth century, liners frequently used newspaper—a cheap, widely available scrap material—during the process to absorb moisture and isolate the surface of the painting from the heated irons used to provide pressure during attachment. Among the many fragments of the French newsprint paper from this process attached to the perimeter is one that displays the partially legible date 185[?], which documents the approximate age of the relining.
During the nineteenth century, the cosmopolitan population of Mexico surely required a wide range of newspapers in international languages, and in this particular case the newsprint fragments suggest that French Jesuits living in Mexico saw to the restoration. When the painting arrived for conservation treatment in 2017, it was clear that the aged and degraded lining, after having carried out its purpose for more than a century, was no longer serviceable, as numerous distortions and bulges disturbed the aesthetics of surface. In many locations the fabric attaching the perimeter of the lining support to the wooden stretcher was torn. The process of removing the old lining fabric corrected the numerous distortions in the support, and reinforcement of the reverse and perimeter with a new fabric attached with a stable synthetic adhesive provided stability to the fragile original canvas and paint layers.
Removal of the old lining also provided an opportunity to obtain a close look at the original painting support. Villalpando chose a sturdy, high-quality canvas for the Adoration of the Magi, a plain or balanced weave composed of bast fibers, linen, or hemp.4 It is very likely an imported fabric, because at this time by order of Philip II it was illegal to cultivate linen and hemp in New Spain.5 Nearly all large paintings were made on fabric supports composed of two or more pieces of canvas stitched together, surely because artists were careful to make the most of this expensive commodity and were also limited by the width of available high-quality fabrics. In this case the support was made of two vertical strips of fabric, securely sewn selvage to selvage with an overcast stitch to prevent unraveling of the fabric edge, with the seam placed strategically just left of center.6 Following this, the canvas was secured to a temporary strainer and sized with animal glue to provide a foundation, which sealed the fabric and prevented the subsequent layers of ground preparation from bleeding through to the reverse during application. As a final step in the preparation of the canvas support, the sized fabric was nailed to the permanent wooden strainer before the application of three layers of a deep red, glue-bound ground.
A technique unique to New Spain was the practice of reinforcing the canvas seam with a long, narrow piece of paper.7 In this case, it is a high-quality rag paper made with bast fiber, probably linen.8 Although the Spanish Crown discouraged papermaking in the Americas, there is record of at least three paper mills active in Mexico during the seventeenth century, so while the paper may have been imported from Europe, it could also have been locally made.9 The paper strip is somewhat visible when the surface of the painting is observed in raking light, and it is clearly visible when the painting is recorded using infrared reflectography. The paper reinforcement was effective; it is quite common to see failure of the paint layers and grounds along canvas joins without such reinforcement, resulting in significant cracking and paint loss. In works by Villalpando and other painters in New Spain who used this sound technique, the ground and paint layers along the canvas join are remarkably intact and free of cracks.
Examination of a cross section reveals that the paper tape was attached along the join on top of the first application of ground, with subsequent ground layers placed on top. All of the ground layers are a deep red color, a mixture of red iron earth, calcite, and a little carbon-based black. The layer beneath the paper tape and the one placed on top of the paper tape are relatively thick and contain a greater quantity of calcite. The final layer is thinner and contains a higher proportion of red iron earth, which served to even out the overall color.10
The type of calcite used in the ground layer in this case is of particular interest, as it is not from a geological or marine source, as has commonly been identified in many European paintings of the era, but a by-product of washed wood ash that has been identified only recently in the ground structure of paintings. Maite Jover de Celis and María Dolores Gayo of the Department of Scientific Research at the Museo Nacional de Prado in Madrid were the first to find calcite obtained from the residue of washed ashes in ground layers of many paintings produced in Madrid in the seventeenth century.11 The extraction of lye from wood ash for washing and bleaching fabrics and making soap has been practiced for centuries. It stands to reason that calcite, the abundant inorganic by-product resulting from this process, was reclaimed and recycled for any number of uses. The practice of using the inorganic residue of washed wood ash in ground preparations is mentioned in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century artist treatises written by Francisco Pacheco and Antonio Palomino.12 Recent identification of the characteristic morphology of calcite obtained from washed wood ash provides a marker that can be used to indicate with certainty that the calcite present in a ground structure originates from ash.13 As more investigations take place, it may be possible to determine not only how pervasively this material was used, but also the origin and dissemination of its employment as a painting material.
Technical evidence can frequently establish with certainty that a composition is preserved exactly as it was intended by the artist and has not been cropped or extended at a later date. Removal of the deteriorated lining fabric and thick layer of glue paste adhesive from the reverse of Adoration of the Magi uncovered the beautifully preserved original canvas. Markings on the reverse, in locations where the red priming bled through a bit due to contact pressure during application, provide indication of the configuration and width of the original wooden strainer.14 The perimeter bars were 5 centimeters thick, as were the two horizontal crossbars placed at even intervals. In addition to the markings of the original stretcher, portions of the original unpainted tacking margins preserved along the perimeter confirm that the composition retains the original format. Tight compositions such as this one, which frequently depict figures that are partially cropped by the perimeter of the picture plane, are characteristic of the baroque era.
The great care with which Villalpando crafted this canvas support provides insight into the standards he must have maintained. He probably learned these practices in the studio of Baltasar de Echave Rioja, where he likely received his training.15 Noteworthy was the excellent condition of the vast majority of paintings on canvas in the exhibition Painted in Mexico: 1700–1790: Pinxit Mexici at the Metropolitan Museum in 2018. Many were large-scale paintings, constructed of multiple pieces of canvas that remain remarkably well preserved and free of significant cracking, particularly in consideration of the fact that nearly all have never been lined.16 The preservation of these paintings testifies to the standards set by the new guild, which extended well into the eighteenth century and beyond.
Although Villalpando’s Adoration of the Magi was loosely based on a well-known composition by the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, he made it entirely his own. The tight composition adds animation and intensity to this popular and deeply devotional subject. The emotional atmosphere is reinforced by the tender expression of Saint Joseph, who reaches out to his family with a gesture of protective affection. At this very moment, the face of Melchor, the kneeling king, is moving closely toward the Christ child, as the young Virgin observes his act of deprecation with confidence and dignity (Figure 2). The three pages peer from behind voluminous robes with expressions of delight and awe, while two lively children in the top right corner improve their view by precariously clinging to the column (they replace the putti who quite commonly grace this scene).
The primary figures, including the Virgin, Christ Child, Saint Joseph, the three Kings and their pages, as well as the secondary figures, were established before Villalpando began to paint. Examination of the X-radiograph reveals thin, low-density passages of paint along the perimeter of many of these figures, which supports the suggestion that the artist was following a plan drawn on the canvas. He then may have proceeded with a black sketch in oil paint using a brush. A glimpse of the preliminary black sketch the artist used to establish the form and structure of the Virgin’s mantle is visible in the IRR as well as in areas where the paint surface is abraded. After the composition was established, the artist proceeded in a painterly way, working up the figures and the draperies with apparently rapid brushstrokes, making numerous final adjustments to the contours and refinements of the details throughout with few significant changes. Indeed, his superb skill and creativity as a draughtsman are demonstrated in the freely executed passages.
There was no preliminary plan for the heads and other details in the distant background, including the helmeted soldiers, citizens, lances, flags, and camel head. These features exhibit numerous overlappings and adjustments: for example, the camel’s head partially overlaps the fully painted head of a man, and a large red flag is painted on top of the enormously long neck of the camel.
While there are numerous painterly adjustments to the positions of the hands and refinements along the contours of the figures and draperies, there are only a few noteworthy changes. Both IRR and X-radiography confirm that the headdress of Gaspar, who stands at left wearing a sumptuous green cloak, was painted in two stages, with the elaborate turban added on top of a fully finished crown (Figure 3). Perhaps more significant is the shift in the architecture at the upper right, which wisely conceals half of the man who peers from behind the stone pillar, thus providing a greater separation and bringing increased emphasis to Saint Joseph. The character of this man in profile who wears a softly shaped cap and the way he is tucked into the composition suggests that this may be a portrait of an individual, perhaps the artist himself. It seems that at this stage, with sweeping strokes of X-ray-opaque lead white, the artist canceled out unidentifiable features at the top right and made changes in the architecture by extending the column up to the top right corner of the composition. He then inserted the two charming children who cling to the architecture.
Not enough can be said of Villalpando’s quick and assured paint application, which is so palpably present throughout this composition. Every expressive brushstroke exhibits the skill and sureness of execution entirely characteristic of the master. His ability to paint rapidly was surely an advantage, considering the huge size of the many commissions required of him. The baroque also esteemed the appearance of facility, and Villalpando had the ambition and talent to make the hard work of painting seem effortless. Removal of discolored and degraded varnish and old restorations revealed not only the brilliant palette but also the nuances of the artist’s masterful paint application. His choice of a red ground was strategic, as this dark preparation provided him an excellent mid-tone color. He exploited the red ground wisely when achieving variations in form and color, for example in the modeling of the heads. Close inspection of the surface reveals that the eye sockets, shadows, and half-tones of the craggy, aged facial features of the kneeling king Melchor are painted very thinly with translucent brown colors, followed by modeling with expressive strokes of more opaque flesh paint. Conversely, the delicate complexion of the Virgin is created by glazing with transparent colors on top of an opaque underpainting containing a substantial amount of lead white. The artist exploited the optical properties of the oil medium by juxtaposing translucent and opaque passages when painting the richly described draperies. He selected mixtures of translucent lake pigments applied thinly on top of the colored ground to paint the deep purplish red sleeve of Melchor’s billowing undergarment that extends from beneath the shimmering gold silk lining of his cloak.17 By contrast, this was painted with opaque mixtures of lead white and lead tin yellow, enriched and modeled with glazes of transparent yellow lakes and semitransparent yellow earths. Where necessary Villalpando skillfully and strategically toned down the red ground with a wash of white gypsum, as he did before painting the blue sky and the delicate lavender cloak of the bald man who stands in the background above the Christ Child. While the technique of locally adjusting the color of the ground is not surprising, its presence in this composition was only confirmed by chance when examining the layer structure of two samples taken for quite different purposes. Adoration of the Magi is a demonstration of Villalpando’s intimate understanding of the optical properties of the oil technique—a tour de force of form, expression, color, and composition.
During this period, well before oil paint was commercially available to artists, the laborious practice of oil painting required that dry pigment be ground into the drying oil medium just prior to use. All pigments absorb oil to varying degrees, and critical attention must be given to adding just the right amount of oil to each color in order to produce a paint with good working properties. For generations, artists had recognized that they could efficiently achieve certain effects by applying rather thin layers of well-prepared paint to a colored ground, which was an advantage when carrying out large-scale commissions. This required the artist to choose not only a specific color but to understand the optical properties of both transparent and opaque pigments when aiming to achieve specific effects. As a result of his firm understanding of the oil technique and his skillful execution, Villalpando’s beautifully consistent paint layers, applied to a sturdy and flexible ground preparation, resulted in brilliant depictions and have aged beautifully, rarely exhibiting the cracking and flaking so commonly seen in other large-scale oil paintings. This too is the case with his many large-scale paintings that have remained in churches and other institutional settings where they have been subject to centuries of unfavorable seasonal fluctuations in temperature and humidity—conditions that normally exacerbate deterioration.
The technical investigation that included XRF mapping of portions of the painting and examination of paint samples mounted in cross section revealed the range of specific pigments used and insight regarding the artist’s characteristic paint mixtures and applications (Figure 4). It also allowed us to answer questions regarding possible color changes and degradation of certain passages. When painting Adoration of the Magi, Villalpando used a wide range of pigments, including vermilion, red lake, purple lake, yellow lake, lead-tin yellow, blue smalt, opaque and transparent copper-based greens, and red and yellow iron earth pigments in addition to lead white and carbon-based black. Villalpando is noted in particular for the rich variety of his greens. Until the nineteenth century, when as a by-product of Industrial Revolution bright-green pigments became available, artists had to cleverly devise ways to produce the range of greens necessary to depict richly colored fabrics and lush vegetation. The greens on display in Adoration of the Magi prove Villalpando a master colorist, in full command of the materials at hand. He achieved his brilliant result by underpainting passages with bright and light opaque green mixtures enriched with transparent copper green glazes. The underpaintings vary from mixtures of lead white and verdigris alone, to sometimes adjusted with blue smalt or bright yellow ocher. By skillfully varying the structure of his paint applications in this manner, he achieved the bright emerald green cape of Gaspar, the yellowish green robe of Saint Joseph, and the bluish green mantle of the figure in the middle distance. Passages where he used transparent copper green glazes directly without underpainting exhibit a natural color change quite commonly seen in paintings of all periods. For example, the original green leaves of the plants growing on the architecture have turned somewhat brownish, as have the originally green feathers on Balthasar’s crown. Investigation of the dark brown paint strokes that stand out on the delicate light lavender gray mantle of the bald man standing behind the Virgin proved that this too is a discolored copper green glaze that originally would have been bright green. His lavender gray robe has also changed with age due to the slight fading of a distinctly purple lake pigment manufactured from cochineal, mixed here with lead white, so it seems Villalpando’s original intention was to depict a green and lavender shot silk. However, despite these changes, the richness and variation of the colors in this composition are overall very well preserved.
The detection of a bright purple pigment is remarkable because historically, in order to achieve a richly purple paint, artists had to mix blue and red pigments together. Although in Europe, dating to medieval times, mineral pigments with a purplish tinge have been detected, it was not until the late nineteenth century that a manufactured bright purple pigment became available. The historic manipulation of cochineal to create dyes in a variety of hues ranging from orangey red to purple is well known. It is not surprising to discover that this technology was used to create purple lake pigments. Further technical studies of paintings will likely broaden our understanding of the expansion of manufactured pigments in New Spain.
In this composition, Villalpando made extensive use of a blue pigment smalt imported from Europe during this period.18 Smalt is essentially a glass colored with cobalt, which depending on the manufacturing process can vary from nearly colorless to bright blue.19 When mixed with oil paint in small quantities, smalt increases the rate of drying, and when added in larger quantities it increases bulk and translucency. When painting the Virgin’s mantle, it seems it was Villalpando’s intention to exploit the translucent quality of smalt by painting this directly over the red colored ground in order to achieve a slightly purplish blue effect. Unfortunately, smalt frequently deteriorates, resulting in the darkening and discoloration of paint layers containing an abundance of this pigment.20 A lack of understanding of this natural discoloration frequently results in severe damage caused by misguided and aggressive cleaning aimed at recovering irretrievably damaged blue color, which probably occurred in this particular work by the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century.21 This is why the mantle of the Virgin is severely damaged to the degree that in many places the paint layer has been entirely removed and the red ground is exposed. When mixed with lead white, the blue color of the smalt tends to remain better preserved, so fortunately in the highlights of her mantle the blue color is preserved. A similar deterioration due to discoloration of smalt and subsequent misguided cleaning has also occurred in the tightly belted robe fitted with black clasps worn by Balthasar. It is fortunate that the blue sky is well preserved, because here the smalt is mixed with lead white. When cleaning discolored varnish and old repaintings, it is crucial to take all changes in appearance into consideration—both natural changes and damage that may have occurred from past cleanings. As all paint layers containing oil medium darken to a degree with age, sensitive judgment and care with regard to the degree of cleaning in the better-preserved light passages must be balanced with the naturally darkened areas so that the range of tonal values intended by the artist is maintained.
That the impact and brilliance of the Adoration of the Magi remain apparent today despite some inevitable changes that have taken place over the 335 years of its existence testifies to the artist’s intelligence and skill. It is hoped that the recent conservation treatment and technical study will play a small role in providing a deeper appreciation for the richly rewarding painting practice of Cristóbal de Villalpando, preeminent baroque painter. Surely even more is yet to be discovered and understood.