Mexican Art

Mexican art and architecture

Mexican art and architecture, works of art and structures produced in the area that is now the country of Mexico. Such arts were already highly developed in the ancient civilizations flourishing before the conquest of Cortés. For the artistic achievements of the Aztec, the Maya, and other native cultures, see pre-Columbian art and architecture.

The Colonial Period

Folk arts, including the weaving of magnificent textiles, pottery making, and silver work have flourished in Mexico throughout its history, but with the coming of the Spanish to Mexico the native peoples were introduced to European art, especially painting, and building techniques. A good many Spanish paintings were brought there, and during the 17th cent. gifted native artists became adept at religious oil painting, modeling religious figures in wax, and the art of polychrome wood sculpture (see Spanish colonial art and architecture).

The serenity and sensitivity of the early native art combined with the Spanish influence to give to Mexican painting a mellowness and richness of color not yet achieved in Spain at that time. Fifty years or so before Murillo made his mark as a colorist, Mexican artists were already giving their works rich red and blue tones. This type of work is sometimes referred to as Mexican baroque to distinguish it from the more rigid European baroque.

Baltásar de Echave the elder (c.1548–1620) is considered to be the first great Mexican artist; he founded the first native school in 1609. His Agony in the Garden (begun 1582) is an example of a Renaissance work with a Spanish character. More important, however, was the work of Alonso Vázquez (c.1565–1608). Painting declined toward the middle of the 17th cent., and sculpture and architecture gained ascendancy; the dominant style in both was the Churrigueresque (named after José Churriguera), a fanciful form of the baroque, but Mexican plateresque art and architecture also appeared. The 18th cent. produced a large number of artists; outstanding among them were José Ibarra and Miguel Cabrera. A period of academic art followed, producing no very distinctive works; this period of imitation was broken at the close of the 19th cent. by the painter José María Velasco, whose landscapes again reaffirmed a national style.

Independence, Empire, and Revolution

Toward the end of the 19th cent. the political broadside became a popular and pungent native art. José Guadalupe Posada was famous for his satirical prints. With the coming of independence, architecture went into a general decline, but wealthy creoles were responsible for the erection of a profusion of luxurious mansions, some of them of great beauty.

In the latter half of the 19th cent., during the ill-starred regime (1864–67) of Emperor Maximilian, the heavy splendor of French Second Empire architecture was imported into Mexico. The famous gardens and castle at Chapultepec were beautified by the emperor and made even more lavish by the dictator Porfirio Díaz, under whose administration (1876–1911) the French accent became stronger, especially in the mansions along the famous Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City. The influence of art nouveau is evident in the portentous and elaborately decorated Palacio de Bellas Artes, also commissioned by Díaz but not completed until 1930.

After the revolution of 1910 Mexican artists enjoyed unusually strong government patronage and were, as a result, committed principally to the expression of revolutionary ideals. The foremost were muralists employing broad techniques in the service of their political and social themes. The three internationally acclaimed painters Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros produced masterpieces of mural art and initiated a revival of fresco painting. Miguel Covarrubias attained international fame as a caricaturist and illustrator, and Dr. Atl (pseud. of Gerardo Murillo) was influential as a teacher and art critic as well as a painter. Francisco Goita was noted for his paintings stressing the hardships of Native American peasant existence.

Later Mexican Art and Architecture

Modern Mexican painters and sculptors continued to produce an extraordinary variety of works in many styles and techniques. Major figures have included José Luis Cuevas, Jorge G. Camarena, Martínez de Hoyos, Frida Kahlo (Diego Rivera's wife), Enrique Echeverría, Leonora Carrington, Francisco Toledo, and Rodolfo Morales. Rufino Tamayo and Gunther Gerzo were outstanding figures in 20th-century abstract and semiabstract easel painting.

Modern architecture has also flourished. Functionalism, expressionism, and other schools have left their imprint on a large number of works in which Mexican stylistic elements have been combined with European and North American techniques. In the great manufacturing center of Monterrey there are fine examples of industrial architecture. Perhaps the most outstanding achievement of contemporary Mexican architecture is the Ciudad Universitaria outside Mexico City, a complex of buildings and grounds housing the National Autonomous Univ. of Mexico. A cooperative venture, the project was directed by Carlos Lazo. A major structure is the central library, with a brilliant mosaic facade by the architect and painter Juan O'Gorman. Another architect of note is Felix Candela, who designed the expressionistic church Nuestra Señora de los Milagros.

See also National Museum of Anthropology.


See B. Myers, Mexican Painting in Our Time (1956); M. Cetto, Modern Architecture in Mexico (tr. 1961); G. Dörner, Folk Art of Mexico (tr. 1963); J. Fernandez, A Guide to Mexican Art (tr. 1969); I. Katzew, Painted in Mexico, 1700–1790 (2017).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Mexican Art: Selected full-text books and articles

Modern Mexican Art By Laurence E. Schmeckebier University of Minnesota Press, 1939
The Art of Ancient Mexico By Franz Feuchtwanger; Irmgard Groth-Kimball Thames and Hudson, 1954
Mexico before Cortez: Art, History, Legend By Ignacio Bernal; Willis Barnstone Doubleday, 1963
Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art: Veinte Siglos de Arte Mexicano By Museum of Modern Art Instituto de Antropologaia e Historia, 1940
Mesoamerican Architecture as a Cultural Symbol By Jeff Karl Kowalski Oxford University Press, 1999
Mexican Art and the Academy of San Carlos, 1785-1915 By Jean Charlot University of Texas Press, 1962
The Enormous Vogue of Things Mexican: Cultural Relations between the United States and Mexico, 1920-1935 By Helen Delpar University of Alabama Press, 1992
Librarian's tip: Chap. 4 "The Mexican Art Invasion"
Latin America, Its Problems and Its Promise: A Multidisciplinary Introduction By Jan Knippers Black Westview Press, 1998 (3rd edition)
Librarian's tip: Discussion of Mexican art begins on p. 125
Primitive Art By Erwin O. Christensen Thomas Y. Crowell, 1955
Librarian's tip: Chap. IV "Mexico and the Andean Region"
Notes on Mexican Art, Social Movements, and Anzaldua's "Conocimiento" By McCaughan, Edward J Social Justice, Vol. 33, No. 2, Summer 2006
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