The Antique Spanish Colonial Art

Mexican Colonial Painting

The role of the Spanish monarchy in Mexico--then called New Spain--lasted 300 years, from 1520-1820. The Viceroyalty of New Spain consisted of the present countries of Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.


During that time, indigenous artists in these areas were trained--and sometimes re-trained--by missionary priests and artists from Europe to perfect a European style of painting, based on prints and paintings that were imported to Mexico from Spain, Italy, and Northern Europe.


What developed was a style distinctly "Mexican"--earthy, quite accomplished, and distinct from European art--that bore the strong imprint of European compositions and styles. Great altarpieces, portraits, and sculptures were produced in programs to decorate churches, monasteries, civic buildings, and for ephemeral public festivals. For the duration of Spanish rule, much of this production was accomplished with the supervision and tutelage of church officials and Spanish-born artists. Mexican painters, however, made great careers for themselves, whether native born, mestizo (mixed-race), or criollo (Mexican-born of Spanish parents).


The styles that we characterize in European art as "Renaissance," "Mannerist," "Baroque," and "Rococo" took on a life, and a life span, of their own in New Spain. In the power centers of artistic production, like Mexico City, Puebla, Querétaro, and Zacatecas, the art was very cosmopolitan.


Colonial artists, many of them indigenous people, devoted themselves principally to the depiction of religious subjects from the New Testament. Native sculptors, notably in Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru, but also in the Jesuit missions of Paraguay, developed a powerful folk art; polychromed wood, terra-cotta, and bas-relief work in the walls and columns of churches were widely used media.

A favorite subject of sculptures was the agony of Jesus; these figures, often given native features, are characterized by extraordinary pathos. In painting, the conceptions were frequently original and charged with remarkable intensity and piety.


By 1600 numerous European artists had emigrated to the New World and contributed their talents, but the indigenous people, who had excelled at wall painting, books, and mosaics before the conquest, were chiefly responsible for giving colonial art its unique flavor.



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