Strange and Beautiful: The Artistic Fruits of Spanish Colonialism in the Americas

Installation view of “Paintings from South America: The Thoma Collection (1600-1800)” at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art through Sept. 4 (The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art exhibits the Thoma Collection of Viceregal Art

We don’t know their names or identities and probably never will. Art historians must resort to the unsatisfying designation of “Unidentified artist” when studying the strange artistic fruits of Spanish colonialism in the Americas.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is currently hosting a rare exhibition, drawn from the Chicago-based Carl & Marilynn Thoma Foundation, of 15 fascinating paintings spanning the 17th and 18th centuries of Spanish colonial rule in South America. Tightly grouped into a single gallery, these evocative works by mostly unknown artists visualize the influential religious narratives that reinforced the Catholic evangelization of Indigenous people in Andean countries including Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia.

These evocative works by mostly unknown artists visualize the influential religious narratives that reinforced the Catholic evangelization of Indigenous people in Andean countries.

Through the centuries-long, bloody encounter of European and Andean civilizations, an artistic syncretism arose when European painting styles, born of the Renaissance, were adopted and adapted by native painters who infused them with local color, customs and culture.

One of only two named artists in the exhibition, Bernardo Bitti, was an Italian Jesuit missionary and painter who introduced Mannerism to the Viceroyalty of Peru in the 1570s. Bitti was in high demand to fill the expanding churches in the viceregal capital of Lima with persuasive religious iconography. Over the next 30 years Bitti traveled extensively through the region, painting and setting up workshops to train native artists in European aesthetics.

“Virgin and Child,” a small oil on panel painting in the exhibition, is stylistically attributed to Bitti. The Mannerist style is evident in the unnaturally elongated neck and fingers of the Virgin. The half-visible fingers of her left hand protrude weirdly into the right side of the picture. Thumbless, her fingers look like spears of white asparagus as she tenderly embraces her child. The red-headed, doe-eyed child engages the viewer directly with a cherubic gaze. The Virgin’s gauzy veil appears to be painted rather hastily, as though Bitti were pressed for time, eager to move to the next commission.

The presence of European painters like Bitti made an enormous impact on establishing the religious themes that were patronized by Catholic missionaries and wealthy members of the colonial elite. Over the next century the Cuzco School of Painting evolved with both European and Indigenous painters contributing to a distinguished local style that departed significantly from Renaissance traditions.

Andean Aesthetics and The Cuzco School

A curious subgenre from this colonial Andean period was paintings of religious statues — interpretive depictions of real liturgical and devotional objects used in holy processions. We can see in a work like “Our Lady of Cocharcas” how the artist, most likely Indigenous, rejected European techniques of illusionistic perspective, instead favoring a much flatter, intricately decorative painting style.
A costumed processional figure dominates the composition. Elevated on an elaborate platform with spiral columns, the Lady and Christ child’s crowns and ornate vestments are embellished with gold, a signature characteristic of the Cuzco School. Surrounding the outsized statues are miniaturized scenes of local people, vividly painted in native and European dress, engaged in both humorous and pious activities of daily life. The effect feels far closer to folk art than Baroque grandeur.

A similar work painted approximately 50 years later, “Our Lady of the Rosary of Lima,” reveals the aesthetic refinement of the religious statue genre. Here, the painted object of devotion is a statue by a Flemish artist from a Spanish monastery.

The gold embellishments on the crowns and ornate vestments of “Our Lady of Cocharcas” (1751), a work in oil and gold on canvas created by an unidentified workshop (Perú), is a signature characteristic of the Cuzco School. (public domain, courtesy of the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Foundation / photo by Jamie Stukenberg)

The faces of the Lady and child are more modeled and realistic. Their vestments are ornamented with floral patterns and gold finery, but the subtle shading provides a more three-dimensional, conical appearance to the central form. The artist achieved a compelling illusion of perspective by framing the surrounding silver sanctuary with drawn curtains on the sides of the painting. We can imagine that the painting aimed to inspire as much Marian devotion as the original European sculpture.

Another work from the mid-1700s, “Allegory of the Holy Eucharist,” demonstrates yet another variation — a rather surreal painting of a liturgical monstrance steeped in Catholic symbolism. The trinity of flaming anatomic hearts flanked by a phalanx of hovering winged angels and Latin biblical inscriptions displays a freer, more imaginative approach to pictorial space. Some 300 years later, Latin American artists like Frida Kahlo appropriated aspects of this Catholic iconography — hearts, thorns, nails, flowers and blood — into her tortured personal aesthetic.

Some of the visual narratives commonly depicted by unidentified Andean artists were imported to South America via portable engravings printed on paper and based on original paintings. The printed images provided templates that were translated back into commissioned paintings by local artists. Works like “The Return from the Flight into Egypt,” “The Visitation” and “The Mystical Winepress” are novel interpretations of European sources featuring local landscapes, fauna, flora and luxuriant gold embellishments.

Two biblical portraits by Melchor Pérez Holguín, “Saint Luke Painting the Virgin” and “Saint Mark,” exemplify the syncretic Andean aesthetic of this period. Holguín was the first eminent painter of Bolivia whose work rivalled that of his Spanish Baroque contemporaries. Based in the silver mining capital of Potosí, he had a prolific career producing both religious and historical paintings.

His two paintings of the Four Evangelists, produced in 1714, take intentional liberties with figural proportion. Saint Luke is portrayed, somewhat autobiographically, as a religious painter with palette, brushes and a small canvas of Mary. Holguín emphasized his furrowed, earnest expression by rendering his head much larger than his diminutive hands and body. Saint Luke is accompanied by his requisite symbol, a dainty long-lashed ox at the right corner of the painting. The artist repeated the overall composition in “Saint Mark,” portraying him with a large balding head, seated at his writing table with a tame lion at his side, its feline eye directed at the viewer.

The works in the Thoma Collection are unquestionably beautiful and historically important as a visual record of Catholic conquest in the Americas. Furthermore, we can appreciate the transformation of European painting by Andean artists into distinctive regional styles that resonated with local populations.

From our 21st-century perspective these paintings, with their deeply carved gilt frames, project an aura of religious devotion, opulent luxury and privileged whiteness. The exhibit’s presentation of these works without a critical lens is a missed opportunity to address the uglier histories of colonialism in the Andes. Nevertheless, we can contemplate the forgotten artists who forged a new vision of South American painting.

“Paintings from South America: The Thoma Collection (1600-1800)” continues at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St., through Sept. 4. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday. For more information, 815.751.1278 or www.nelson-atkins.org.

Brian Hearn

Brian Hearn is an art advisor, appraiser, curator and writer interested in all things art, cave painting to contemporary.

Leave a Reply