Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Legacy of Colonial Art

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Legacy of Colonial Art

Article excerpt

UNTIL the last third of the eighteenth century, Spanish and Portuguese colonial art in the New World was dominated exclusively by religious themes. It was also influenced to a large extent by art trends in Europe.

Although forms of artistic expression practised in some of the great pre-Columbian cultures at the time of the Conquest were of real worth, their techniques and range differed so widely from the needs of the missionaries that any degree of syncretism was scarcely possible.

Some collaboration did, however, begin to take shape in Mexico, in painting far more than in sculpture. Those among the indigenous population who had a gift for drawing and the use of colour were trained by friars who were proficient in these subjects. As a result, a large number of murals were executed in the early monasteries, inspired by engravings and in some cases by the illuminations of printed books in the early Renaissance style.

European artists initially had to be "imported" for easel painting, and in turn they trained local artists. The first European painters to arrive in the Spanish colonies naturally included Spaniards, but there were also many Italians, Flemings and Germans, some of whom were subjects of the Spanish crown. Their work was marked by the prevailing styles of the period. At first it displayed a certain archaic quality, a hint of Italian Mannerism and its Spanish and Flemish derivatives. By the late seventeenth century the European schools of painting were taking fifty to a hundred years to reach America. This delay was gradually reduced and towards the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, the rococo and neo-classical styles appeared almost simultaneously in the mother countries and in the colonies.

In the sixteenth century three Italian painters of a certain stature appeared in South America: the Jesuit Bernardo Bitti (1548-1610) and the laymen Matias Perez de Alesio (1547-1628) and Angelino Medoro (1565-1632). They were important not only because of their own works, which were influenced by the international Mannerism of the day, but also because they trained local-born artists such as the Ecuadorian Fray Pedro Bedon and the Panamanian Brother Hernando de la Cruz, both of whom worked in Quito.

About the same time a Fleming named Simon Pereyns (1558-1589) appeared in Mexico and soon became famous. He was followed by a number of Spaniards including Baltasar de Echave Orio (1548-1619) who was to create a dynasty with his descendants Echave Ibia (1583-1660) and Echave rioja (1632-1682).

On the ceilings of two manor-houses at Tunja in New Granada (now Colombia) are a number of curious paintings which, although of no great importance from a strictly artistic point of view, suggest through their combination of mythological and Christian themes an ususual humanistic culture. Also based in Colombia was the founder of another dynasty, Baltasar de Figueroa. Born in Seville around 1600, he was the father of Gaspar and the grandfather of Baltasar de Vargas Figueroa, who is mainly remembered through his pupil Gregorio Vasquez de Arce y Ceballos (1638-1711), a highly accomplished painter and undoubtedly the most accomplished artist in New Granada during the colonial period.

In Ecuador, Father Bedon and Brother Hernando de la Cruz were successded by at least two other important artists, Miguel de Santiago (1626-1706) and nicolas Javier de goribar (1665-1740). The only outstanding figure of the eighteenth century seems to have been Manuel de Samaniego (1767-1824).

Seventeenth-century Peruvian art was marked by the rivalry between Basilio de Santa Cruz (died 1699), an academic painter and protege of Bishop Mollinado, and the far more original Diego Quispe Tito (1611-1681). The latter, of Indian stock, was the pioneer and chief representative of the so-called "Cuzco School", and seventeenth- and eighteenth-century movement whose anti-realism was reflected in the free adaptation of the Flemish engravings then, widely circulating in America. …

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