Art was nearly dead in Mexico during the first half of the nineteenth century. The war for independence had exhausted the country; poverty and disorder prevailed under the reactionary empire of Iturbide and the grotesque dictatorship of Santa Anna. Nevertheless, an attempt was made to revive the moribund San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts, and the painter Pelegrén Clavé was brought from Spain in 1847. He introduced the use of living models, organized the first art exhibits and started a group of young students in the groove of academic painting.
In the provinces, obscure painters, unschooled amateurs or simple artisans, supplied a popular demand for family portraits, children's death-bed scenes or pictures of appetizing dishes to hang in the parlors and dining rooms of the local middleclasses. They also painted ex-votos, signposts, furniture and walls. Their art possessed a certain innocent charm combined with a passionate, primitive realism. These painters seldom signed their pictures and only a few names have been preserved: José Maria Estrada, famous for the uncanny likenesses of his portraits (Pl. 109); Uriarte, his teacher; Abundio Rincén, Hermenegildo Bustos, Apolinar Fonseca, painter of luscious still-lifes (Pl. 110); and Francisco de P. Mendoza, who specialized in painting battles (Pl. 111), Theirs was essentially a folk art revealing the spirit of the rising new Mexican middle class.
Juárez and Maximilian. In the meantime, the destinies of the country had passed into the hands of a group of liberals. The leaders of the Reform, influenced by new democratic ideas and by Positivism, fought against the Church and the aristocracy. Judrez consolidated the triumph of liberalism, nationalizing the property of the clergy and separating Church and State. But the reactionaries would not admit defeat, and in 1861 they invited Napoleon III of France to intervene in their behalf, offering the throne of Mexico to the Archduke Maximilian of Austria. During his ephemeral reign, the sentimental Max sought to bring to his empire the elegance and refinement of the courts of the old world, consolidating European art and taste in Mexico. He selected the best student of the Academy, Santiago Rebull, to paint his portraits and to decorate Chapultepec Castle.
The Liberals under Juárez put an end to the Empire, and Maximilian was executed in Querétaro in 1867. A dramatic little contemporary painting portraying this episode is shown in our exhibit (Pl. 112). The only real assets of the Academy at this time were Félix Parra (Pl. 114), and José María Velasco (Pl. 113), two conscientious and honest artists, free from the desire to please fashionable taste.
Díaz Dictatorship. The young Republic turned into a dictatorship under Porfirio Diaz, a renegade liberal who ruled the country for over thirty years, favoring feudal aristocracy and foreign capitalism. The great landowners, yearning for European culture, began collecting European art. To possess a Murillo or any third prize painting from the Paris Salon gave them social prestige. Academism regained official support, and the most promising young artists were sent to Europe to study: Diego Rivera, Roberto Montenegro, "Dr." Atl, Alfredo Ramos Martínez, Goitia and Julio Ruelas among others. But on the whole, bad taste prevailed and in 1903 the Government imported the mediocre Spanish painter, Fabrés, to teach in the San Carlos Academy. They paid fourteen thousand pesos for his portrait of the priest Hidalgo, hero of the Independence, and the Academy purchased his "Drunkards" for eighteen thousand pesos (nine thousand dollars), paying at the same time eight hundred pesos for an Ingres.
Under the dictatorship of Diaz, the mines and haciendas continued to yield fortunes; his friends distributed among themselves the oil and railway concessions, and the luxury and prosperity of the ruling aristocracy had no precedent in Mexico. A telling monument to the spirit of the epoch was the great Opera House, built of Italian marble at a cost of over 7,000,000 pesos, with a limited seating