In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Painting in New Spain, 1521–1820

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works and Bibliographies
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Symposium Proceedings
  • Cartography and Natural History
  • Feather Paintings and Paintings on Mother of Pearl
  • Biombos and Painted Furniture
  • Artist and Church Monographs
  • Guadalupe and Other Local Cults
  • Guilds, Techniques, and Academies
  • Race, Gender, and Hybridity
  • Regional and Patron-Based Approaches

Latin American Studies Painting in New Spain, 1521–1820
Aaron Hyman, Barbara E. Mundy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0096


The modern study of the painting of New Spain, as the region controlled by the viceroy who had his seat in Mexico City was called, began in the modern nation of Mexico. Here, an appreciation of Mexico’s past constituted an integral part of its fervent nationalist impulse following the 1910 revolution. The study of art history was cultivated within state-supported universities and museums, particularly the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, established within the National University in 1936. Early Mexican art historians, among them Manuel Toussaint, Justino Fernández, Federico Gómez de Orozco, and Rafael García Granados, followed precedents set by their European counterparts, assigning works to artists and schools, sketching out the contours of period styles, and uncovering biographical information about creators. Thus, in relation to the larger field, the art history of New Spain is newly broken ground. The study of the very earliest works created in New Spain—that is, the paintings by indigenous artists—was initiated by scholars who saw these works as vestiges of a lost pre-Columbian past. It was a large cast, as, beginning in the 19th century, German, French, and American scholars and collectors joined with Mexicans in the study of native manuscripts. Thus, another important branch of the study of painting in New Spain has international roots, which are found in the works of Alexander von Humboldt, Eduard Seler, Ernst Förstemann, Paul Schellhas, Hermann Beyer, J. M. A. Aubin, Eugène Boban, Charles Etienne Brasseur de Bourbourg, Frederick Starr, Charles Bowditch, William Gates, Zelia Nuttall, Ernest T. Hamy, and Léon de Rosny, as well as those of Mexicans, such as José Fernando Ramírez, Alfredo Chavero, Antonio Peñafiel, Francisco del Paso y Troncoso, Antonio García Cubas, and Manuel Orozco y Berra. A useful annotated bibliography for the early study of native manuscripts can be found in the Handbook of Middle American Indians (Cline 1975, cited in Reference Works and Bibliographies). Various bibliographic guides covering painting in New Spain, or some aspect of it, exist both online and in published form (cited in Reference Works and Bibliographies). While it includes seminal scholarship about painting published since the 1960s, this article focuses on art-historical research since the mid-1990s.

General Overviews

Unlike many other art-historical fields in which standard narratives and canons have long existed, comprehensive surveys devoted solely to painting in New Spain have appeared only in the early 21st century (Alcalá and Brown 2014). The newness of the field means that research concerning individual artists, workshop structure, and artistic commissions is limited (see Monographic Works). Thus, survey authors have needed to establish alternative methodologies to present overarching narratives of the development of painting in the viceroyalties, which range from Kubler and Soria 1959, which stresses style, to Toussaint 1965 and Toussaint 1967, which apply European typologies and categories; for example, Toussaint’s accommodation of Mexican material to a traditional, European art history leads him to seek an early-17th-century Mexican “Renaissance” that he triumphs over a formal decline into baroque decadence by the century’s end. The works presented here are of surprisingly divergent scope and format, from books to online/DVD resources (Leibsohn and Mundy 2010), and they are, therefore, as important for their content as they are for their methodological approaches. Many surveys, such as Bailey 2005 and Burke 1992, are notable for their high-quality reproductions; Leibsohn and Mundy 2010 includes 350 works (although not all are paintings), most with high-resolution images of exceptional quality. By no means exhaustive, this section includes not only early-21st-century surveys, but also older works of historiographical importance; newer works feature comprehensive bibliographies.

  • Alcalá, Luisa Elena, and Jonathan Brown, eds. Painting in Latin America, 1550–1820: From Conquest to Independence. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014.

    The most thorough overview of colonial painting. An introductory essay introduces painting in Latin America, and essays by contributors work to provide a chronological account of painting in New Spain. The focus on painting in the Viceroyalty of Peru in the second half of the volume allows for comparison.

  • Bailey, Gauvin Alexander. Art of Colonial Latin America. New York: Phaidon, 2005.

    This is the most accessible survey written for a nonspecialist audience, and it quite successfully integrates art from throughout Spain’s overseas territories, albeit with a focus on the Viceroyalty of New Spain and, to a lesser extent, Peru. It is particularly noteworthy for its account of painting across a large temporal span.

  • Burke, Marcus. Pintura y escultura en Nueva España: El barroco. Mexico City: Grupo Azabache, 1992.

    In constituting the continuation of Tovar de Teresa 1992, this book completes a survey of Mexican painting from soon after the conquest to independence. Less biographically focused than its companion, this volume includes discussions of female religious commissions, socioeconomic changes and their effect on artistic production in the 18th century, and the foundation of the Academy of San Carlos in 1785.

  • Kubler, George, and Martin Soria. Art and Architecture in Spain and Portugal and Their American Dominions, 1500 to 1800. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1959.

    Now of more historiographical than informational interest, this volume was the first to present a broad survey of Iberian and colonial art and architecture in English. A view of colonial painting as purely derivative and poorly executed colors the account, which relies on analysis of “style” as a driving methodology and confines its treatment to scant pages in an otherwise expansive book. The division of painting by region rather than country, however, was a novel approach at a time when nationalist art histories largely predominated.

  • Leibsohn, Dana, and Barbara E. Mundy. Vistas: Visual Culture in Spanish America, 1520–1820. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010.

    The first survey treatment of the region’s visual culture to be published in digital format as a DVD. About 10 percent of the material of the DVD is available online via a small companion website. This work sets painting in the larger context of visual culture in the Spanish Americas. Instead of a chronological approach, the authors group works along unifying themes, such as the phenomenon of mestizaje and expressions of political power, with introductory sections to each theme as well as a selection of primary documents and a large bibliography.

  • Toussaint, Manuel. La pintura colonial en México. Mexico City: Imprenta Universitaria, 1965.

    Still a treasured resource more than eighty years after it was written, particularly as a reference work, this book is highly invested in stylistic periodization, individual artists, workshops, and schools. Toussaint maps much of the extant art in Mexico and provides stylistic and archival materials to support his narrative and attributions.

  • Toussaint, Manuel. Colonial Art in Mexico. Edited and translated by Elizabeth W. Wilder. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1967.

    This survey discusses the development of the arts in Mexico from conquest to independence. Separating this broad expanse into medieval, Renaissance, baroque, and neoclassical periods, the book frames the painting of New Spain within a typology developed for European art, wherein style is understood to be expressive of period concerns. For painting alone, Toussaint 1965 is more useful, but this book is the more readable of the two.

  • Tovar de Teresa, Guillermo. Pintura y escultura en Nueva España, 1557–1640. Mexico City: Grupo Azabache, 1992.

    In line with the intellectual legacy of Toussaint, this survey traces the trajectory of Mexican painting through generations of painters, from indigenous muralists to the artists who planted the seeds for a Mexican “baroque” in the 17th century. But within his framework, the author incorporates the discoveries of a broadly surveyed and well-cited secondary literature, which makes this volume a reference resource, a bibliographic guide, and a source for fantastic reproductions.

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