Each of the four articles in this Dialogues draws on recent conservation and/or material analysis of a single work created in colonial Latin America, specifically New Spain, to explore the self-image of the artist as manifest through practice—that is, the techniques of manipulating a range of materials to achieve a desired aesthetic effect. The four foci are a featherwork miter and infulae, the Codex Mendoza, the Adoration of the Magi by Cristóbal de Villalpando, and a casta painting by Miguel Cabrera. The introductory essay argues that examining artistic practice is one avenue to ascertaining artists’ own choices about self-presentation.

RESUMEN Cada uno de los cuatro ensayos se basa en la conservación reciente o el análisis material de una única obra creada en la América Latina colonial, específicamente en la Nueva España, para explorar la autoimagen del artista tal como esta se manifiesta a través de la práctica, es decir, el conjunto de técnicas desarrolladas por artistas para poder manipular diversos materiales a fin de lograr el efecto deseado. Los cuatro focos son una mitra e ínfulas de plumas, el Códice Mendoza, la Adoración de los Reyes Magos de Cristóbal de Villalpando y una pintura de casta de Miguel Cabrera. El ensayo introductorio sostiene que asignar un papel principal a la práctica de los artistas permite entender las propias decisiones de los artistas sobre la auto-presentación.

RESUMO Cada um destes ensaios baseia-se em análises de conservação ou material recentes de um único trabalho criado na América Latina colonial, especificamente na Nova Espanha, para explorar a auto-imagem do artista como manifesta através da prática, isto é, o conjunto de técnicas que artistas desenvolveram para manipular os efeitos desejados de uma variedade de materiais. Os quatro focos são uma mítra e ínfulas em arte plumária, o Codex Mendoza, a Adoração dos Magos por Cristóbal de Villalpando e uma pintura de casta por Miguel Cabrera. O ensaio introdutório argumenta que atribuir um papel primário à prática dos artistas é chegar às próprias escolhas dos artistas sobre a auto-apresentação.

Introduction: Contours of Practice in Colonial Artworks

The imposition of European control upon the American continents coincided with art history’s beginnings, a signal moment being the publication of Giorgio Vasari’s Le Vite de΄ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori in 1550 (a second, expanded edition appeared in 1568). Presenting a series of biographical sketches of Italian artists, it established biography—the contours of an individual creator’s life—as a fundamental organizing principle in ordering the vast storehouse of creations that survive from the past. Vasari’s approach still undergirds the larger discipline of art history, as well as the particular field of Latin American art of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, whose art history began to be defined in the early twentieth century following European models. But even within its original context, a Vasarian approach is a limited one. At its best, biography offers insight into a creator’s mind in the making of a work; at its worst, it deflects attention onto irrelevant anecdote. The Latin American context has greater barriers to using a Vasarian model by art historians: the poor state of the archive makes the pursuit of understanding via biography frustrating and often fruitless, as does the limited number of written reflections by artists about their own work, a situation particularly acute for Indigenous creators.1 

For the art history of colonial Latin America to continue to thrive, it needs continued renewal of its historiographical models. And a potential one—also centered on artistic identity—is to be found, albeit in a minor key, in Vasari. For Vasari signaled an alternate understanding of the artist in the attention that he paid, though tentatively, to the technical skills of the masters he chronicled. If one facet of artistic identity can be defined by biography, another can be discovered in practice, by which I mean the body of techniques developed to manipulate for desired effect a range of materials. Materials, in turn, are always used in combination, like pigment and substrate, or pigment and binder, with the artist acting as designer and engineer of their specific interactions.

In allowing for artistic practice to overlap with artistic identity, Vasari was hewing more closely to the ways that European artists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries represented themselves in writing. Certainly artists had been penning treatises about their own practices for some time, for instance Leon Battista Alberti’s painting primer Della pittura (1435–36) and Cennino Cennini’s Il Libro dell΄Arte, likely of the early fifteenth century.2 But as with Vasari’s book, the importance of the artistic treatise as a statement of artistic identity was amplified by print editions, beginning around 1540, when Alberti’s work was published in Basel some sixty-eight years after his death.3 Benvenuto Cellini’s Due trattati (one on goldworking, the other on sculpture), published in 1568, is an early and salient example of living artists establishing their own self-image through mastery of their craft, and recent studies that reposition Cellini’s metallurgic technique as central to both the meaning of his work and his artistic identity show how productive this line of inquiry can be.4 

The self-image of artists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was clearly embedded, by their own choice, in technical mastery of their craft. Returning to technique, then, promises to bring us closer to period self-understanding. Recall that it was not until the nineteenth century that artistic biography definitively eclipsed artisanography (to coin a necessary term) as the favored means of representing the artist. While Due trattati was published during Cellini’s lifetime, his more sensational autobiography remained unpublished until 1728, and only really caught fire in the nineteenth century; it is now a standard text in Renaissance art history.5 

A focus on practice also allows us to move beyond iconography—one of the earliest areas of inquiry by art historians of the colonial period. Iconographic sourcing has played an outsize role in the field given that European models, often imported in the form of prints, usually directed or determined the iconographies used by artists working in the Americas. But tracing the iconography of any given Latin American work to a European “original” results in the framing of New World artists’ production as derivative, and thereby reinforces a trope of colonial mimicry. Thus many art historians working on the period have sought new ways to interpret iconographic repetition, or to develop a decolonizing hermeneutic that avoids a singular focus on iconography.

If early modern artists held their practices to be key to their self-images, where are practices to be found? Artistic treatises of the period are a key resource to bring contemporary readers closer to the self-image of the artist as he (almost always he) imagined himself and as he chose to represent himself.6 Extant European treatises of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries often include some theoretical argument about the value of the art form, but in most, practice dominates. In short, when artists chose to represent themselves in texts, they did so with long discussions of their techniques. Unfortunately, when modern scholars want to understand Latin American practice, they must rely on European models, particularly seventeenth-century Spanish treatises such as Francisco Pacheco’s Arte de la pintura, su antiguedad y grandezas, published in Seville in 1649, notwithstanding the inevitable lacunae between what the Spanish treatise records and what the Latin American artist actually did. As with most coeval artists in early modern Europe, Latin American artists never drew up treatises destined for wide circulation, as far as we know.7 One reason for their presumed silence might be the small size of a public interested in the artistic treatise, but even more salient is that printing presses in the Americas were few and control over them was tight.

But for those of us concerned about a historiography that renders Indigenous artists invisible, does the reliance on a European historiographic model, albeit one based on practice rather than biography, address our disquiet? I would argue that it does, given that Latin American treatises, produced by Indigenous actors, do exist. In my own field, scholars mining the Florentine Codex’s sections on pigments, featherwork, and to a lesser extent goldwork have used them profitably to reveal practices, and therein find a fresh avenue into the self-image of colonial artists.8 

But beyond the text, an artist’s work—be it an oil painting or a featherwork—is without doubt the most important and most deeply intentioned statement of artistic identity that any artist leaves behind. And practice necessarily involves material—or materials, to be precise, because they are inevitably used in tandem for desired effects, so artists must be keenly aware of their properties and interactions. This said, despite their potential value for understanding the artist’s self-image in colonial Latin American art history, reports of conservators and materials scientists are rarely considered in this light, as they are primarily valued as part of programs for long-term conservation and display. However, as I am arguing here, they are at present one of the few available sources of information on how artists thought about themselves and their practices. They are therefore essential for art history, particularly in regard to Indigenous Latin American artists, who rarely appear in the archive and therefore fall out of sight in a biographically driven art history.9 

To approach the self-image of the artist via practice, I turned to a group of scholars who are at the forefront of conservation and material science. I asked them to choose a work of Latin American art that has been the recent subject of their research and write about their discoveries about the artist, with the assumption that the work of the hand reveals the preoccupations of the mind. The four essays that follow are the result. Ellen J. Pearlstein, a faculty member of the UCLA/Getty Program in the Conservation of Archaeological and Ethnographic Materials, offers insights into a rare surviving sixteenth-century featherwork made by Indigenous artists for liturgical use, the bishop’s miter and infulae now in the collection of the Museo degli Argenti, Florence, which she had the opportunity to examine while the work was in Los Angeles. Davide Domenici of the University of Bologna has been part of the team of MOLAB, a mobile laboratory of the University of Perugia in Italy. This laboratory’s components fit into a van, allowing MOLAB to travel throughout Europe to perform noninvasive testing of the pigments of many pre-Hispanic and early colonial codices. He discusses the group’s discoveries regarding the Codex Mendoza, a famed postconquest book produced in Mexico City circa 1547–52, now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Although its text and imagery have been studied and reproduced since the late sixteenth century, very little has been known about its artists or their techniques. Also produced in Mexico is the 1683 painting Adoration of the Magi by Cristóbal de Villalpando that was recently cleaned and conserved by Dorothy Mahon, Silvia A. Centeno, and Louisa Smieska, conservators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Villalpando emerged as one of the leading painters of the viceroyalty of New Spain in the late seventeenth century, and his Adoration of the Magi was created when he was at the peak of his career. In their stunning digital reconstruction, Mahon, Centeno, and Smieska have been able to turn back the clock on the painting’s appearance to bring us closer to Villalpando’s original conception of the work. Joseph Fronek, a conservator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, writes about his findings on a recently discovered casta painting by Miguel Cabrera, arguably the most important painter in New Spain in the eighteenth century.

The authors’ respective findings on pigments and color effects are particularly important. They certainly have the potential to tell us more about the sources of artists’ materials and the markets that sustained artistic production over time. But this is not all. Imported prints, as mentioned above, supplied the iconography for most works produced in Spanish America, and were certainly the sources for the unnamed artists of the featherwork and for Villalpando. But woodblocks and engravings are graphic media and lack color. Thus, in their uses of color, artists could exercise a range of choices not predetermined by a received print source. Understanding color use, as the result of both individual artistic choice and more collective meanings assigned to specific chromatic ranges, signals one way to move beyond an interpretive frame focused on copied iconography.

Pearlstein’s essay offers clear evidence that while a print source guided the iconography of the miter, the artist or artists were making their own decisions about the final appearance of the work as they built up the coloristic effects on the plumed surface. Domenici and other scholars of Indigenous manuscripts from New Spain have recently argued that artists employed pigments not only for their coloristic effects, but also for the metaphoric values assigned to the materials of the pigments themselves, a quality that Domenici terms “color materiality.” As he suggests in his essay, pre-Hispanic use of flowers as pigment sources was meant to convey the elevated “flowery speech” of elites. In light of these established traditions of color materiality among Indigenous painters, Domenici’s findings about their selective choices of imported pigments reveal the contours of artistic self-image as expressed through material experimentation in the mid-sixteenth century. The continuing work of MOLAB promises yet more data to help understand artistic agency over time. Mahon, Centeno, and Smieska use their findings about Villalpando’s choice and application of pigments to reposition the painter as a coloristic innovator, working within the parameters of readily understood Christian iconography. Their discoveries allow them to present the full gamut of Villalpando’s palette, including color ranges that proved not to endure. Fronek is able to reconstruct, through X-ray photography and other visualizing techniques, the decisions that Cabrera was making in the process of creating his work, echoing Pearlstein’s findings about artistic decision making on the spot. He also suggests that Cabrera may have been thinking of color’s symbolic associations in his pigment choices, offering a later analogue to the “color materiality” of the sixteenth-century artist.

The subject matter of the essays returns us to practice, the very stuff out of which European artists of the period built their self-images. These essays, then, can be imagined as telling us what the artists would have wanted us to know about themselves. They also point to a misfit of a Vasarian-driven biographical approach that focuses on a single, named creator. In the case of the featherworks and the Codex Mendoza, more than one artist seems to have been behind the work. And even the paintings, although assigned to a single creator, were likely the result of collective efforts, whether by workshop assistants or other master artisans. The artist’s mind and hand, then, were always bound into some kind of collective, albeit some with hierarchies of a steeper grade. (The same is true of today’s scholars featured here, whose reflections were forged in dialogue with fellow specialists, as the acknowledgments make clear.) This was not just the case for Latin America—collective work characterized workshop practices in Europe as well—but it certainly and necessarily complicates the notion of “self” in the “self-image” of the artist.

Three of the four essays were made possible by recent exhibitions devoted to colonial Latin America. The Florentine featherwork was brought to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2007 for The Arts in Latin America, 1492–1820, an exhibition co-organized by LACMA and the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Villalpando painting was featured in Cristóbal de Villalpando: Mexican Painter of the Baroque, a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2018; and the Cabrera painting was featured in Painted in Mexico, 1700–1790: Pinxit Mexici at LACMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2017. The number of exhibitions reveals growing public interest in the field as well as the need for new scholarship that takes into account both emerging art historical interpretive models and the wealth of new data that conservators and object scientists are producing.

Such data, it is useful to keep in mind, is being generated by intense engagement on the part of the contemporary mind, often embodied by teams of conservators, with the minds of artists of the past, understood via the traces left in their works. In editing these essays, I came to see that they revealed an unanticipated aspect of dialogue—this one happening across time, between the now-dead creators and the living custodians, often as conservators prepared the works to be displayed in a manner concordant with the original artists’ ambitions. While not all conservation scientists have been trained as artists or are practicing artists, few would deny the closeness they feel to a work’s creator in the painstaking, laborious, time-consuming work they do on a piece. For artworks in public and institutional collections, few living humans have such sustained access—to scrutinize closely, with microscope and over time, to smell, and even to touch colonial artworks. But the conservator does. Their engagement is also a practice, one that necessarily precedes the more detached analysis of scientific data that constitutes the technical report. So the essays also shed light on the silent and often unrecorded dialogue that occurs between the object specialist of the present and the artist of the past.

In featuring new research about the practices of canonical colonial artists and the colonial artists who made canonical artworks, the essays reveal a more nuanced, and period-appropriate, understanding of their self-images. That the writings center on New Spain, particularly Mexico, has much to do with the focus of current conservation work done in US museums, itself the by-product of the popularity of exhibitions focusing on the country’s closest southern neighbor. Essays with another gravitational center, such as Alto Perú, or Santa Fe de Bogotá, would add considerably to our understanding. This is a just a beginning, and in calling upon art historians to look more carefully at the material nature of the works we study, I hope to help open fresh interpretive avenues for understanding artists of the colonial period.

Barbara E. Mundy and Aaron M. Hyman, “Out of the Shadow of Vasari: Towards a New Model of the ‘Artist’ in Colonial Latin America,” Colonial Latin American Review 24, no. 3 (2015): 283–317.
On Della pittura as a primer see D. R. Edward Wright, “Alberti’s De Pictura: Its Literary Structure and Purpose,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 47 (1984): 52–71.
The history of Alberti’s manuscripts is surveyed in Leon Battista Alberti, “Introduction,” in On Painting: A New Translation and Critical Edition, trans. and ed. Rocco Sinisgalli (Cambridge, England, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 3–14.
For instance Michael Cole, “Cellini’s Blood,” Art Bulletin 81, no. 2 (1999): 215–35.
Benvenuto Cellini, “Introduction,” in The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, rev. ed., trans. and ed. George Bull (London and New York: Penguin, 1998), vii.
Zahira Veliz, Artists’ Techniques in Golden Age Spain: Six Treatises in Translation (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
On eighteenth-century artistic treatises see the writings of Paula Mues Orts, particularly El arte maestra: traducción novohispana de un tratado pictórico italiano (Mexico City: Museo de la Basílica de Guadalupe, 2006).
For some of these studies, see the notes in the essays by Ellen J. Pearlstein and Davide Domenici that follow.
For a recent exception see Susan Verdi Webster, Lettered Artists and the Languages of Empire: Painters and the Profession in Early Colonial Quito (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017).