Mexican retablos of the 19th century are small oil paintings,
usually done on tin, by folk artists with minimal artistic training.
The Spanish word retablo is derived from the Latin retro-tabulum,
meaning "behind the table," that is, behind the altar.
In the European middle ages, the term was used to refer to the
large screens that were placed behind altars in churches.
wooden altar screens were decorated with paintings, wood carving,
and sculptures, becoming increasingly ornate over time. Many churches
in colonial Mexico had such altar screens. Eventually, the term
retablo came to be used in reference to individual paintings on
wood, canvas, or other materials. Among some of the common folk
in those areas of Mexico where the retablo paintings on tin were
produced, they are called láminas, the term retablo being
reserved for votive paintings. The related term "santo"
refers to an image of a saint, whether painted or sculpted.
In early colonial
Mexico, wealthy Spanish or criollo (a person born to Spanish parents
in the New World) patrons commissioned religious paintings on
canvas. In the 18th century, copper was also used as a surface
medium. At that time, the middle classes made do with cruder paintings
on wood. Late in the 18th century, British metallurgists developed
a technique to bond tin to iron sheets.
a new surface medium for Mexican folk painters, who began to use
tin-plated sheets for their religious paintings of saints, or
retablos, in the 1820s. By around 1830 tin had replaced copper
and canvas as the preferred surface for retablo paintings, and
these paintings were now purchased by middle and lower-class mestizo
families rather than the wealthy classes.
sheets imported from Britain and the United States came in standard
sizes, the dimensions of retablos were also somewhat standardized.
The largest size was 14 x 20 inches. Retablo artists cut this
size of sheet into successively smaller halves, producing tinplate
surfaces of 10 x 14 inches (a very common size), 10 x 7 inches
(also very common), 7 x 5 inches, and so forth.
were commissioned by individuals or purchased from traveling artists
and used as part of home altars. These paintings on tin were especially
popular in the states of west central Mexico, including San Luis
Potosí, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Querétaro, Jalisco,
and Michoacan. Three main centers of production were the cities
of Guadalajara, Zacatecas, and Guanajuato. Retablos on tin were
produced between the 1820s and 1920s, with the most prolific period
being from 1850-1900. Near the end of the 19th century, the influx
of color lithographs and other cheap reproductions signaled the
end of this tradition. Quality declined as the tin retablo painting
tradition faded through the first few decades of the 20th century.
The folk artists
who produced retablos in the 19th century painted in a baroque
manner, long since superseded by neoclassical and romantic styles
in the world of academic painting. They sought to use dramatic
poses, chiaroscuro, and realistic portrayals to convey their religious
feelings. However, these attempts were naïve, conventionalized,
and very often unsuccessful. But of course, the artists and their
patrons were not interested in the fashions of academic art. They
sought to produce an image to stimulate devotion that was readily
identifiable and lovingly decorated. Despite their lack of training,
these artists could produce ingenious and spontaneous pictures
that conveyed a strong feeling of devotion.
were painted in a limited range of colors, using reds, blues,
and dark yellows, plus flesh tones and an occasional dark green.
Sometimes there is an underpainting, typically a burnt sienna
color, that is added to the entire surface of the tin, or at least
to those parts over which a figure was to be painted. (The underpainting
is sometimes called "red bole" for the red clay that
was applied over gessoed frames prior to the application of gold
technique caused shadows to appear darker and flesh to appear
more warm and alive. These effects are not so apparent today,
as the overpainted thin layers of pigment have worn away, making
the picture appear darker and less subtle. Also, the combination
of layers of varnish, accumulation of soot, and general aging,
makes retablos look more somber today than they probably did when
to iconography, the artists depicted their Christs, Virgins, and
saints in traditional poses with standard iconography for the
saints depicted. Thus, there was not a great deal of difference
among the various artists in their compositions. Similarity was
further fostered by the fact that retablo images were typically
copied from other sources. These sources included popular images
derived from woodcuts, etchings, and engravings. Such images were
widely distributed in Mexico during the 19th century. The sources
also included paintings from previous centuries and statues in
depicted in retablos are various incidents from Jesus's life,
various advocations of the Virgin Mary, and saints. Among the
most frequently painted images are Our Lady of Refuge, Mater Dolorosa
(the sorrowful mother), el divino rostro (the face of Jesus on
Veronica's veil), Saint Joseph, the Holy Family, the Holy Child
of Atocha, and Our Lady of Guadalupe.