Pictorial Images of Spanish North America

Article excerpt

On October 31, 1988, the Museum of New Mexico acquired legal title to two surviving polychrome paintings on hide sent from Sonora by the Jesuit missionary Philipp Segesser von Brunegg to his family in Switzerland in 1761 (T. Chavez 1989, 1990). First described for the scholarly world in German and, subsequently, in English translation (Hotz 1960, 1970, 1991), one of these paintings depicts a battle fought in 1720 between Spaniards and their Pueblo Indian allies against Pawnee and Oto Indians and their French allies at the confluence of the Loup and Platte rivers in today's Nebraska. The Spanish expedition onto the Great Plains was led by Pedro de Villasur. The second painting shows a battle between Indians presumed to be Apaches defending their palisaded village against mounted warriors who may be Mexican Indian militia. Precisely what the attack was and when or where it occurred are unknown, although it was apparently known to the anonymous, probably New Mexican, artist who painted the scene. Both paintings are well illustrated in the books by Hotz, with color reproductions of them in the 1991 version of his study.

The Segesser hide paintings, as they have come to be known, remained in the hands of the Segesser family in Switzerland until they were acquired by the State of New Mexico in 1988. They are extremely important in terms of the history and heritage of New Mexico and the Southwest, to say nothing of the Great Plains. Indeed, these paintings are a significant aspect of the patrimony of the United States. They are among the extremely rare contemporary pictorial images of Spanish North America, images scarce when rendered by artists of any nationality, but even more so when created by people who were themselves Spaniards or of full or partial Spanish descent. It is a peculiar fact, for example, that had any of the Spanish missions of California, Arizona, Sonora, New Mexico, Chihuahua, and Texas fallen into ruin before they were drawn or painted by persons other than Spaniards, we would have little idea of their appearance.

While the Segesser paintings, whose artist or artists are not known with certainty, may not have been executed by eye witnesses, they are surely close to the source. They were delineated by a person or persons who knew a lot about the people involved and about the terrain. This, too, makes them extraordinary.

Spanish artists of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries can be counted among the greatest in the world, but with rare exceptions, Spanish art in and concerning Spanish North America seems to have been confined to religious imagery, to decoration, and to formal portraiture. There were few illustrators who drew or painted from life actual persons, places, flora, fauna, inanimate objects (including manmade structures), or events in this vast domain. The New World Spaniard, like his eventual north Mexican successor, lacked a camera mentality.

It is clear the anonymous painter or painters of the Segesser hide paintings were skilled in the traditions of Western visual art. Whether Spaniards, mestizos, or acculturated Indians is largely irrelevant. These tapestry-like paintings exhibit an influence that is obviously Spanish. Fray Angelico Chavez, a New Mexican Franciscan and historian, suggested they may have been executed by Tomas Jiron de Tejeda and Nicolas Jiron de Tejeda, father and son who are known to have been painters and who arrived in New Mexico from Mexico City in 1693. Nicolas, the son, died in 1722, and his father, Tomas, died in 1736, meaning both were alive in 1720 at the time of the great battle depicted on one of the hides (A. Chavez 1975: 200-1).

What this comes to is that these paintings, the largest of which depicts a well-documented 1720 event and which includes people whose names are known, are rarae aves of the first order. It is one of the purposes of this essay to place the Segesser hide paintings, a part of our Southwest heritage, within the broader context of pictorial representations of Spanish and, after 1821, Mexican North America. …