The Hispanic Society’s collection of paintings includes masterworks by some of the most exceptional artists active in Latin America from the 17th to 19th centuries. The earliest datable work is Saint Sebastian (ca. 1605) by the Andalusian Mannerist painter Alonso Vázquez, who arrived in Mexico in 1603 as the official painter to the newly appointed viceroy, Juan de Mendoza y Luna, 3rd Marquis of Montesclaros. It is almost certain that Vázquez painted his Saint Sebastian in Mexico City based on the similarities in its composition with the lost Saint Sebastian by Batltasar de Echave Orio, destroyed in 1967 in a fire in the Mexico City Cathedral. In spite of his limited time in New Spain, Vázquez exerted a significant influence on Mexican artists through the mid-17th century. Another important early 17th-century work in the collection is an anonymous Peruvian double-sided painting on copper for display in religious processions. A rare survivor of this form, it displays The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception on one side, and The Nativity on the other, all framed in a gilded metal sunburst on an iron shaft for mounting on a long wooden staff.
Mid-17th century Mexican painting is well represented by two artists who also emigrated from Spain: the Dominican friar, Alonso López de Herrera, who probably arrived in Mexico in 1608 with the newly appointed Dominican archbishop of Mexico, Fray García Guerra; and Sebastián López de Arteaga, who arrived in 1640 with the retinue of the new viceroy of New Spain, Diego López de Pacheco, Marquis of Villena. The luminous oil-on- copper, The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception (1640), signed and dated by Friar López de Herrera, displays all of the hallmarks of his style with its meticulous brushwork and fine details. López de Arteaga, considered by Manuel Toussaint to be one of Mexico’s two greatest colonial painters, is represented in the collection by the recently discovered signed masterpiece, St. Michael Striking Down the Rebellious Angels (ca. 1650). This monumental oil-on- copper is based upon a 1621 engraving by Lucas Emil Vorsterman after the painting of the same name by Sir Peter Paul Rubens, St. Michael Striking Down the Rebellious Angels, which is now lost.
During the last half of the 17th century artists in New Spain developed a unique technique of painting known as enconchado, in which paintings were encrusted with mother-of-pearl, their inspiration taken largely from Japanese Nanban lacquerwares. The Hispanic Society holds one of the finest extant enconchado paintings, Wedding at Cana (1693) by Nicolás Correa, in which the artist exploited mother-of-pearl to its fullest potential. Unlike other enconchado artists, who indiscriminately employed relatively large pieces of nacre, Correa matched pieces of varying size and color to the composition to brilliant effect. From South America at the close of the 17th century there also is a fine example of the work of the highly idiosyncratic Bolivian painter Melchor Pérez Holguín, Saint Peter of Alcántara and Saint Teresa of Avila (ca. 1700), that is typical of the earlier part of his career.
Expressive of the blending of cultures in colonial Latin America is the Hispanic Society’s painting of castas, or racial mixtures, from around 1720 by the Mexican artist Juan Rodríguez Juarez. Typical of the genre of casta paintings, this work depicts a racially mixed couple and their child. They are identified with an inscription that reads De Mestizo y de India Produce Coyote (“Mestizo and Indian produce Coyote”). While it may be tempting to view these paintings as a realistic portrayal of an extremely ordered Mexican colonial society, actual ethnic and racial mixing had far more complex social implications.
Representative of the Cuzco School of South America from the mid-18th century are a pair of paintings showing scenes from the life of Christ, The Flight into Egypt and The Presentation, in elaborate gilded frames each inset with over one thousand lustrous shell fragments. The Hispanic Society possesses a group of small oil-on-copper paintings from the second half of the 18th century known asescudos de monjas, or nun’s badges. Customarily framed in tortoiseshell and worn over the habit, nun’s badges were unique to the nuns of the Hieronymite and Conceptionist orders in New Spain. Often commissioned by the nuns from some of the most prominent artists of their day, the Escudo de Monja (ca. 1760-1780) by José de Páez is a prime example of the genre.
Paintings from the close of the 18th century include an exceptional map of Mexico City and a newly discovered masterwork by Puerto Rico’s foremost artist of the colonial era. The map of Mexico City produced in 1778 by the architect and surveyor Ignacio Castera, Plano Ignográfico de la Nobilissima Ciudad de México, was the most accurate map of the viceregal capital produced to that date. Over the course of two decades Castera created more than a dozen distinct manuscript maps of Mexico City, but his map of 1778 painted by Anselmo López is the richest in details and the most visually appealing. Castera’s map includes views at the borders of the viceregal palace, the renovated Alameda and its new fountains, the Paseo Nuevo (today Bucareli Avenue), and the Cathedral and Sagrario Metropolitano with Castera in the foreground preparing a sketch. The exceptional portrait by José Campeche y Jordán of Doña María Catalina de Urrutia, painted in 1788 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, is one of the finest by this acclaimed Caribbean artist. María Catalina de Urrutia, the daughter of the mayor of Havana and the wife of the governor of Puerto Rico, is depicted wearing the latest Paris fashion in the Rococo interior of the governor’s palace. Campeche received his formal training in Puerto Rico from one of Spain’s most important artists, José Paret y Alcázar, a master painter in the French Rococo style.
Among the Hispanic Society’s 19th-century Latin American paintings, the most iconic is without doubt El Costeño/Young Man from the Coast (ca. 1843), by José Agustín Arrieta, one of Mexico’s most popular artists of the era. A young man of African descent from the Gulf Coast of Mexico, is shown life-size at three-quarters length, holding a basket of typical Mexican tropical fruits, as though bringing it to an employer’s table. The luscious depiction of the fruits, including a mamey bursting open in an explosion of orange-red, is contrasted with the young man’s simple and dignified attire, posed against a neutral background. The foremost painter in 19th-century Mexico of genre paintings, Arrieta is celebrated for his scenes of daily life in his adopted city of Puebla, and for his rich still-life compositions. His work offers significant parallels to contemporary genre painters in the United States, such as William Sidney Mount and George Caleb Bingham.