In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Prints and the Circulation of Colonial Images

  • Introduction
  • Defining Printed Images
  • Reference Texts and General Histories of Printed Images
  • Printing in Colonial Spanish America
  • Prints as Sources of Artistic Inspiration
  • European Prints Picture the New World
  • Censorship
  • Studies of Single-Leaf Prints, Maps, and Illustrated Books
  • Print Collections

Latin American Studies Prints and the Circulation of Colonial Images
Kelly Donahue-Wallace
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 April 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 April 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0020


Printed images began circulating in the territories that would become Spain’s American colonies from the moment of first contact in 1519. Missionaries traveling to indigenous communities throughout the Americas distributed woodcuts and engravings to Amerindians to aid in evangelization efforts. The prints communicated European pictorial conventions and iconography and served to introduce the native peoples to Spanish epistemology. Indigenous artists copied the images in their mural paintings at monastic compounds and in their codices. The prints’ influence on colonial artistic production continued for the next two centuries, as artists, both European and locally born, developed regional schools that responded to European trends embodied by luxury single-leaf engravings and book illustrations. Typographic printing began in New Spain in 1538 and in Peru in 1584. Early books initially included woodcut illustrations imported from Europe, but printers soon employed anonymous local blockcutters to create heraldic devices, religious images, and playing cards. Throughout the 17th century, print production in colonial Spanish America gradually increased, and by the 18th century Mexico City, Puebla, Guatemala City, Lima, and other cities possessed communities of printmakers. Colonial printmaking thrived thanks to a vigorous trade in images, despite paper shortages and a near total lack of formal instruction before the establishment of art academies in the late colonial era. Prints poured into the viceroyalties from across the Atlantic. At the same time, local artists produced woodcuts, engravings, and a few etchings for individual and corporate patrons who displayed the images in their homes and distributed them widely. Unlike their European contemporaries, few Spanish American printmakers were active in what has come to be known as reproductive printmaking, that is, the creation of engraved reproductions of works of art. The closest most colonial printmakers came to making reproductive prints were the so-called statue portraits, or engravings of cult images, maps, scientific images, and other book illustrations. These prints, however, were created primarily as devotional and informational items rather than works made for aesthetic enjoyment. The artists’ oeuvres include saints’ images; scenes from the lives of Christ and the Virgin Mary; portraits, heraldry; allegorical themes; and some history, science, and genre images. As colonial territories sought independence in the early 19th century, printed images played a leading role in visualizing insurgent propaganda and helped to shape nascent national identities.

Defining Printed Images

When we say “prints,” what do we mean? Are they devotional images produced by the thousands and purchased by the faithful for pennies, or fine images made by an artist like Rembrandt van Rijn (b. 1606–d. 1669) or Francisco de Goya (b. 1746–d. 1828) in small quantities for the same art collectors who owned their paintings? It is important to understand what prints meant to their viewers in the early modern era. The resources listed here, though not exclusively addressing Spanish American prints, help to define printed images beyond their roles as cheap substitutes for paintings and as objects of personal devotion, offering a full panorama of their production, function, and reception. Emison 2006 summarizes the shifting views of print and its purpose, while MacGregor 1999 offers a penetrating analysis of the role of the printed image as a teaching tool. Parshall 1998 is focused on how early modern prints were marketed and collected. Cummins 2011 reflects on a broad range of associations colonial viewers made with prints, while Donahue-Wallace 2007 explains how popular perceptions of prints manifested themselves in Spanish American paintings. Gaudio 2008 considers printmaking as a physical act, and how the physical properties of the print were used to construct the subject of the printed image.

  • Cummins, Thomas B. F. “The Indulgent Image: Prints in the New World.” In Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World. Edited by Ilona Katzew, 203–225. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2011.

    Cummins reflects on the role and impact of printed images in the colonial context. Using examples from Europe, New Spain, and Peru, the essay claims that prints simultaneously operated as a common visual culture and a powerful and flexible tool for Europeans and native peoples crafting the image of the viceroyalties.

  • Donahue-Wallace, Kelly. “Picturing Prints in Early Modern New Spain.” The Americas 64 (2007): 325–349.

    DOI: 10.1353/tam.2008.0038

    This article considers how Mexican patrons exploited widely held assumptions about prints as these images were represented in portraits and genre paintings. The author applies William Macgregor’s ideas about prints and their perceived usefulness for learning to works in Spanish America, concluding that artists relied upon the perception of prints as efficacious didactic devices to communicate messages of social and professional identity.

  • Emison, Patricia. “The Simple Art and Certain Complexities in Trying to Understand It.” In The Simple Art. Printed Images in an Age of Magnificence. By Patricia Emison, 1–19. Durham: The Art Gallery, University of New Hampshire, 2006.

    Emison summarizes the historiography of prints, and describes how changing ideas about art, originality, and genius, have shaped our notion of this artform. Although she addresses the idea of 16th-century engravings, the information is applicable to the production of prints in other periods. She then retells the early history of Italian Renaissance prints and their impact on and place within the history of art.

  • Gaudio, Michael. Engraving the Savage: The New World and Techniques of Civilization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

    Gaudio radically rethinks the significance of prints in the colonial context, brilliantly analyzing how the material of the print and the technique of its manufacture contributed to its meaning, when it came to representing Amerindians. This book is essential reading for anyone interested in theories of prints and printmaking.

  • MacGregor, William. “The Authority of Prints: An Early Modern Perspective.” Art History 22 (1999): 389–420.

    DOI: 10.1111/1467-8365.00163

    MacGregor examines what early modern Europeans thought about prints and what power they invested in the images. His discussion of the conversion of printing technologies into a set of metaphors of cognition is particularly applicable to the Spanish colonial context. The special efficacy attributed to prints as didactic devices is also useful for scholars considering the role of prints in the Americas.

  • Parshall, Peter. “Prints as Objects of Consumption in Early Modern Europe.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 28 (1998): 19–36.

    This article does an excellent job in addressing the unique qualities of early modern prints as compared to paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts. The article also explains the different types of prints, ranging from the scientific to the artistic, which must be taken into account in any study of print history.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.