Subscribe to Art + Ideas:
“You could easily say ‘I can’t believe Rubens held such sway deep into the 18th century in Latin America as a touchpoint. Wow. That’s profound.’ But that, to me, is much less important than rethinking fundamental categories of picture making.”
One of the biggest influences on art in the Spanish Americas from the 16th through 18th centuries was Peter Paul Rubens. Although the renowned Flemish artist never traveled to the Americas himself, missionaries, merchants, and colonizers flooded the region with prints of his work. These images became the basis for large religious paintings and sculptures, but the resulting works have long been written off as mere copies and have received little critical attention. In his new book Rubens in Repeat: The Logic of the Copy in Colonial Latin America, Aaron M. Hyman explores how artists, particularly in Peru and Mexico, expanded on Rubens’s designs, creating their own inventive compositions.
In this episode, Hyman discusses his new framework for understanding copies and improvisation in Spanish colonial art. He also explains how studying art in Latin America sheds new light on European works of the period. Hyman is an assistant professor of art history at Johns Hopkins University.
More to explore:
Rubens in Repeat: The Logic of the Copy in Colonial Latin America buy the book
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
AARON HYMAN: You could easily say “I can’t believe Rubens held such sway deep into the eighteenth century in Latin America as a touchpoint. Wow. That’s profound.” But that, to me, is much less important than rethinking fundamental categories of picture making.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Aaron Hyman about his new book Rubens in Repeat: The Logic of the Copy in Colonial Latin America.
In a highly original study, Rubens in Repeat: The Logic of the Copy in Colonial Latin America, Aaron Hyman, assistant professor in the Department of the History of Art at Johns Hopkins University, argues that the works of the 17th-century Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens were well known and deeply influential in Latin America.
I recently spoke with Aaron to discuss his book, published by the Getty Research Institute.
Thank you, Aaron, for speaking with me today. You begin your book with an account of the terms of a contract signed in 1675 by the New Spanish painter, Baltasar de Echave Rioja, in the Puebla de Los Angeles. He was to reproduce to paintings by the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens. Set the scene for us and give us a sense of the career of the painter Echave Rioja and the particular terms of this contract.
HYMAN: Yeah, so we start with this commission, which to me, sets out the basic terms of the book. This painter, Baltasar de Echave Rioja, is asked to produce two paintings for the sacristy of Pueblo’s Cathedral. And these paintings are to be copied from prints designed by Rubens, that had been shipped across the Atlantic, and that the patrons were supplying to this painter. And in this case, Baltasar de Echave Rioja signs directly onto the prints themselves, and the notary involved in drawing up the contract certifies this.
Meaning that the prints effectively function as a type of guarantee of what the final paintings are going to look like, what it is exactly that the patrons are going to be receiving. So that’s kind of one key piece of this book: prints being sent across the Atlantic from Europe to Latin America and artists then taking them up, sometimes of their own volition, other times because of a commission, and then using these designs—copying them, we could say—to produce works of art in other media.
There’s another reason that that commission is particularly emblematic to me and why I wanted to start the book in that spot, with these particular Rubens compositions, a series that was about the triumph of the Catholic Church.
Baltasar de Echave Rioja was asked to use these prints to make paintings. But this was not the reason that Rubens himself designed these compositions. He created sketches, oil sketches, and then his workshop produced much larger cartoons that served as the basis for a tapestry production.
Rubens is working in his home city of Antwerp; the tapestries are woven in Brussels, and they are sent to the Convent of the Descalzas Reales, an important convent in the heart of Madrid. This was all done at the behest of Isabella Clara Eugenia, who was daughter of Philip II, King of Spain, and governor, at least for part of her life, of the Southern or Spanish Netherlands.
So these compositions and their movement, it was important for me to start with them because they connect to various Spanish geographies of the period. The Southern Netherlands, or present-day Belgium, which people don’t often think of as a Spanish territory, but was a critical European holding of Spain’s during the period, and also a main printing center in Europe, the heart of imperial power of Madrid, and through their movement and copying, cities like Puebla and other important cities in places like the Vice-Royalty of New Spain and the Vice-Royalty of Peru, present-day Mexico, roughly, and the present-day countries of Bolivia, Peru, Chile, and Ecuador.
CUNO: Was Rubens the only painter with a contract like this?
HYMAN: No. He definitely was not alone in having his printed designs show up in such contracts with artists in the Spanish Americas. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries—so that is the entirety of the Colonial or Vice-Regal period in the Spanish Americas—European prints basically were flooding, one might say, the Americas.
It’s being sent by booksellers, it’s being put in the chests of missionaries, it’s being taken with individuals crossing the Atlantic. And artists from the very well-known, like Rubens, to the very obscure, or relatively obscure, had material that was transmitted across the Atlantic as part of that cultural process. And the practice of copying—or conforming, as I choose to frame it, to such prints—was so common that now, you can walk into really any church or museum in Latin America and find a work of art that matched or matches a European printed source. So this is really a vast phenomenon that the book uses Rubens to focus in on an aspect of.
CUNO: Why was Rubens so prominent as a provider of this material?
HYMAN: Rubens is important as a provider of this material for several reasons. On the one hand, he’s emblematic of a kind of Catholic Counter-Reformation style in this period. So the book looks really 1650 to 1750, roughly.
Rubens returns from Italy early in his career, to a landscape in Antwerp that has been decimated by waves of iconoclasm at the end of the sixteenth century, and he forges this very effective Counter-Reformation style. And those works are then reproduced in prints. So there’s, on the one hand, his kind of preeminence as a figure, his effectiveness as a stylistic manipulator, his ability to communicate important tenets of the faith, and then the fact that Antwerp itself is a dominant print center in Europe, and thus is really reproducing his works at an astounding and astonishing rate.
CUNO: Did Rubens benefit personally from such contracts? As did, I gather, Echave Rioja.
HYMAN: So Rubens didn’t have much to gain by this. Indeed, by the time most of the designs he made were used in this way in the Americas, he was dead. But an artist like Echave Rioja had a lot to gain.
There was obviously financial gain. In the case of that commission in Puebla de Los Angeles, one of them is actually over twenty-five feet tall. So these are big, expensive pictures. But Puebla Cathedral, as a commission, as also an extremely prestigious place to paint. And this places this practice of copying from European prints at the very center of artistic achievement in the Americas. Which is something I think, you know, many art historians, or just most of us more generally would instinctively resist, would instinctively think of copies as being bad or less than or deprioritized in comparison to an original. Art historians are certainly not exception around that kind of thinking.
So that’s a really important stake of this book for me, is to reconfigure how we understand the status of the copy within artistic practice sort of more broadly conceived. I should say, though, Rubens himself didn’t benefit from, necessarily, this kind of commission; but there were other actors, European actors, who benefitted tremendously.
So printed production itself is inherently collaborative. Rubens may have designed an initial composition, but that design, if it’s painted or drawn or sketched, would have to be engraved or etched, so as to reproduce it on paper. And so there’s a practitioner of the graphic arts that’s benefitting from this. And then in most cases, the copper plates that are engraved or etched are owned and then published by a publisher, who’s responsible for printing them and bringing them to market. And those people have a great deal to gain from Spain having transatlantic connections and overseas territories in this period.
And indeed, it was that kind of export market that kept Antwerp’s art scene so vibrant, or really thriving, in this period. And that’s another stake of this book, which is to suggest that the Americas are really critical to Europe’s own artistic success and achievement in this period.
CUNO: You mentioned the scale of the paintings that resulted from the transfer of the print. They were much, much larger than the prints themselves, so there was a tremendous amount of sophistication associated with the process of taking a print and then turning that into a painting. What do we know about the process and how it was executed there, and who was executing it? What kind of training did Echave Rioja, for example, have? Do we know anything about that?
HYMAN: It’s so tricky. We know very little about artists and their training in the Americas. And this is one of the things I wrestled with probably most in doing the research for this book, was an incredibly uneven source base between European artists of this period—so the sixteenth, the seventeenth, or early eighteenth centuries—and their Latin American counterparts.
So for an artist like Rubens, we have multiple volumes of letters that he sent; we have contemporary and near-contemporary criticism about his work; we have complaints from patrons; we have celebration from patrons. We have pretty robust sense of how his workshop functioned, and we really don’t have any of this kind of information for artists working in Latin America. And that’s really tricky, as an art historian.
And what it meant was that I really had to be working from the objects themselves, which is something that art historians say a lot: we start with the object. But in reality, to be faced with an object around which there’s very little text is a tremendously tricky thing, as an art historian.
CUNO: Well, what role in this process did the Catholic Church play?
HYMAN: You know, the majority of the art of this book is religious. So the Church is an important force, although generally, at the level of individuals who act as patrons, whether those are really high-ranking ecclesiastical officials or they’re individuals who are commemorating themselves in religious spaces or decorating the walls of their own convents.
But equally important in this is Rubens himself as this kind of premiere Counter-Reformation artist, whose work was totally definitional to the interests of the Church in this period, as it defined itself against the Protestant Reformation of the previous century. When he returns home to Antwerp, after being in Italy at the beginning of the seventeenth century, he’s basically rebuilding a religious space that had been decimated by iconoclasm. And he forges a particular and a particularly effective mode of representation that comes to enjoy a certain kind of imprimatur within the Church.
And then there’s the mere fact of also having had his work reproduced as prints. Which means they come under the eyes of Inquisitors and other kinds of ecclesiastical officials. So by the time they get anywhere, let alone across the Atlantic, they’ve already been vouched for as doctrinally effective and seemingly correct. So I think there’s another way in which Rubens benefits from the Catholic Church, because of the way that it has its careful eyes trained on these kinds of artworks.
CUNO: Now, you ask the questions how did Colonial Latin American artists understand the act of working from European prints, and how did contemporary audiences value or not value the resulting objects? These are big questions. Let’s take them one at a time. First, how did Colonial artists understand the act of working from European prints?
HYMAN: So I think, you know, one thing to say here is to sort of try to get clear on why answering those questions is difficult to begin with. For what were the Spanish Americas during this period, the art historian faces a near total lack of records for Colonial artists. That stands in really stark contrast to Europe in the same period, where you have European artists offering up massive caches of letters, personal documents, where there’s a lot of contemporary or near-contemporary writing about this kind of production. And you know, we have no cognate sources like this for Latin American artists, no letters between artists and their patrons, no contemporary art theoretical texts, very few preparatory materials, and even the prints themselves—so those things from which artists worked, that might have given us some kind of material indication of working practice—those are almost entirely gone. They’ve almost all vanished.
So Latin American archives offer very little for us, in terms of the lives and working methods of Colonial artists. And in this book, I had to try to reconstruct that process—reconstruct artists, their modes of working, looking, and thinking—principally from the finished works themselves, the final works that conformed or that I could match up with European prints; and the ways that those final works were then installed, the way they exist in situ. And additionally, from some seriously unforthcoming, extremely tedious archival documents, like routine contracts, that don’t seem like they would offer us all that much.
That’s not gonna tell us how artists felt, which maybe is kind of some of the presumption behind that kind of a question. But it will tell us how they navigated in a field of copies, where their own work would be configured by and set in relation to works of art from afar; and those that had been locally produced, and that had set out some of the stakes or the kind of groundwork against which they were gonna make their own marks on the pictorial landscapes that surrounded them.
CUNO: Yeah, I’m probably asking questions that can’t be answered, but did the local artists who were given the commission to make a painting after a print—for example, a print by Rubens—did they have any sense of the European reputation of the artist with whom they were working, or for whom they were working?
HYMAN: Yeah, that’s a really good question, and one that, you know, I thought would be a kind of simple thing to answer. It sort of seemed like it would be.
But let’s take a place like Mexico City for an example. The preeminence of Rubens within works of premiere artists in Mexico City at really important sites like the cathedral suggests that they indeed understood him to be particularly important as a touchpoint. And one imagines this is because they thought he had a kind of primary position within his own context. It’s really, really hard to get at that because of a lack writing from these artists, despite the fact that they mobilized Rubens’ compositions to such amazing effect.
What we do know is that some important art theoretical texts of this period circulated in the Vice-Royalties, and particularly in very cosmopolitan places like Mexico City. And what was interesting to me was to go back to those sources, ones that I’ve read, you know, many times as an art historian, and to read them very neutrally, and with the question in mind, like, if this is what you know of Rubens, what do you think of him? What do you really know when you read one of these kinds of sources?
So for instance, if you go to Francisco Pacheco, who’s the preeminent Spanish theorist of the period, and his 1649 Arte de la Pintura, and you look to Rubens, he has all manner of discussions about Rubens’ fame and notions of his ingenium—that is to say his sort of creative capacity to invent. But he also includes this quite sizable section, a really large portion of his life on Rubens, about Rubens’s trip to Spain and his time copying paintings after Titian in the royal collection.
Now, we as art historians have all manners of kind of explaining away that practice of copying, to see it as a form of emulation by which you outdo your rivals through this practice of copying and internalizing their compositions, so as to reinvent them or do them better. But if you look at that text neutrally and carefully, this is a text that really just tells you that Rubens was a great copyist, and that he was doing that alongside his process of being extremely inventive. And I found that totally fascinating, because it mirrors almost precisely the artistic practices in Mexico City, where you have artists inventing and citing really carefully from Europe, and placing those inventions in frames—sometimes like quite literal frames—sitting side by side with what we might term mere copies.
And you know, it can be hard for art historians to inhabit that kind of a space, to sort of free yourself up from so much of the historical baggage and the weight of reputation that comes attached to a name like Rubens. But I felt like that was the task of forgetting that was a really important part of this project, and in terms of trying to think about what it meant to know someone, or to know anything from across the Atlantic.
CUNO: Yeah, you wrestle with the term copy when referring to works of art made after the original.
HYMAN: Yeah. Copies itself is actually not a word that’s used so often in contracts or accounts of this period. Art historians have and would tend to call the works that I explore in this book, works made after European prints, ones that they could match up to European prints visually, copies.
But in period documentation, when a patron was going to ask an artist to make a work using a print, they specified that the artist was to conform to the print that was given. The language that shows up in contracts is usually something like conforme a la estampa que recibe. And in this, I think what’s interesting is that patrons are explicitly acknowledging that there was gonna be a difference between a source and a final work of art. There was gonna be a change in medium; there was gonna be a massive change in scale; in color—namely, that there was going to be some, right? Prints are often black and white.
They didn’t want another printed object; they wanted something else. And so they don’t speak of copying, they don’t speak of replication, they don’t speak of reproduction—our words for this. What they wanted something that conformed. Namely, that shared forms—if we’re looking at the Latin root of the word conform, it’s to share forms—of the model work. And this was principally defined, I think we can interpret from the products that resulted from this practice, in terms of major figural groupings or motifs.
So you have an artist, you get a print; they have to dissect the figural groups and in effect reconfigure them on the picture plane, move them around, whether that was to fill a wide canvas or compress them, in order to fit into an alternative format.
So those resulting works of art are not, then, some sort of strict copy or some form of replication, but instead, what I call in the book conforming copies, in an attempt to capture exactly what you said, some of that process of what it meant to produce them, and what it was exactly that artists were doing when they worked from a print—which was namely to make a work that shared formal properties.
All of that said, I really wanted to keep the term copy present and intact, perhaps paradoxically, because it’s been marshalled against Colonial art so thoroughly, to describe it as derivative, lacking in originality, to call it uninteresting or point to it being belated, like literally, that it’s made after European art. So conforming copy as a term works for me to sort of precisely describe in period terms the practice, while also reclaiming or redeeming this type of artistic production in the face of certain biases around originality.
CUNO: Well, tell us about the term Colonial artist. And was it a term given only to artists working in the Colonial enterprise? Or was it used already in the seventeenth century and eighteenth century to distinguish local from European artists? Who used that term?
HYMAN: Yeah, so the Colonial artist was not a term that was usually used in this period. It’s a modern kind of bracket term, catch-all term, to describe artists working in Colonial Latin America to kind of embrace them all. But one should understand that this was an incredibly diverse group of people, who thought about and parsed their own identities in really particularized ways.
In certain parts of the Americas, they had guilds. And those guilds often fractured across ethnic lines, so excluding certain people of mixed caste, they would say, or a kind of proto-racial category, and coalescing artists in certain kinds of regional centers. So Mexico City or Lima or Cusco.
There were regional identities that could be expressed not just through guild formations, but also through the actual production of art itself. So for instance, artists working in Mexico City in the eighteenth century would often sign “pinxit Mexici,” in Latin, or painted in Mexico, to signal a certain kind of regional pride in their own local marketplace, and to create a kind of brand identity for their products.
And this brand identification, if we want to call it that, was eagerly sought out by local patrons and consumers much further away—some of these works even exported to Europe. But this sense of Colonial identity, as opposed to European identity, was absolutely present in this period. And people—generally Colonial subjects, not just artists—who were of Spanish blood but born in the Americas, for instance, were called Creole, Criollo. And these people were barred from the highest echelons of government and of ecclesiastical administration. This is a feature of Colonial life in this period. So you know, there are these kinds of distinctions between Europe and its colonies. And at moments, this could be turned against artists. So I have an example of this in the book, for instance.
There’s a very important mid-seventeenth century artist working in Mexico City, Jose Juárez. And he was a painter who worked directly for the Vice-Regal court, and for some of the most important churches in Mexico City. So he’s operating at this very elite, most elite level.
When he draws up a will in 1661, he indicates that the Viceroy, Juan de Leyva y la Cerda, had commissioned him to paint seven portraits and that he’d only been paid 100 pesos of the full sum of 600. And ultimately, this results in this lawsuit where the person who’s given power of attorney over the case testifies to say that they’re only gonna pay 200 pesos total, even though they’ve agreed for three times this sum. And he says it’s because in these parts, in New Spain, there is very little good painting. And he says that the Indies, they have a great lack of notable painters.
So that’s to say that even though Juárez is really important in New Spanish painting and the Vice-Regal court is itself depending on him, this court case shows that at any moment, there could be a kind of bias mobilized against a quote/unquote “Colonial artist.” So there’s not a term Colonial artist, but the concept is operative. And ultimately, any of these artists could be caught, like Juárez, in some sort of comparison between a here and there, or between a Spain and a New Spain, or between Europe and Latin America.
CUNO: Now, we’ve been talking about paintings and prints going in one direction Did the contract and did the fruit of the labor ever go in the opposite direction? That is, to go from the Colonial Americas to the European communities.
HYMAN: There’s two-way traffic. So it depends on what we exactly mean by European patron, because there are a lot of people coming from Europe across the Atlantic during this period. Governmental appointments, economic opportunities, religious missionization, as part of religious order, and then sometimes even fleeing from their own criminal behavior. Getting out of Dodge, as it were. And artists are, of course, working for all these kinds of people.
And sometimes those people become permanent residents of the Americas. They stay there for the rest of their life, they have children. Other times, though, they end up going back to Europe and taking their collections with them.
CUNO: Well, tell us more about Cusco as a Colonial center. Those of us who aren’t familiar with South America as you are, think of Mexico City as the principal place for such activity. But Cusco, of course, is an imperial center, as you said.
HYMAN: Yeah. So you know, there’s a real density of objects that conform to Rubens’s design in Cusco. And sometimes those came directly by copying from prints; but more often, artists were asked to copy—and this is something I discovered in archival contracts—they were a sked to copy from already existing works in the city, and then to copy from those already existing copies in the city.
And those chains of copies effectively severed Rubens from his own products and at times, turned his works into designs that were, instead of being recognized as Rubensian, or as from Rubens, were seen as paradigmatic of the city of Cusco itself, rather than even European. So that’s one piece of that story and it’s really juxtaposed in the book against Mexico City, where Rubens acts as a touchpoint across many generations of painters.
But Cusco’s also largely an indigenous city in this period. And that sets it apart. It’s the former capital of the Inca Empire. It’s situated very high up in an Andean valley. So we have a really sort of different artistic landscape there.
CUNO: So tell us about his painting The Triumph of the Church Through the Eucharist, which I gather is a series of works for a cycle of tapestries, after which a set of paintings were made for the Cusco Parish church or the Hospital de los Naturales.
HYMAN: Yeah. So the Hospital de los Naturales is a interesting, though by no means unusual situation, in that you have a group of indigenous patrons, the lead members of a confraternity, having acquired prints of a composition, or rather compositions, designed by Rubens, and presenting them to a Creole painter. So that is to say, a painter of European descent, but one living in the Americas. And asking him to them conformingly copy these prints, in order to produce a cycle of paintings for their church. So that’s to say you have indigenous patrons as the driving engine of artistic production and of this specific artistic project.
In the book, there’s also a sort of poetic coincidence in the timing of the commission that I lay out. The patrons want these paintings in time to be installed for the celebrations of Corpus Christi, an important religious festival in the city, in 1672. And Cusco, at this point, was on the verge of welcoming a new bishop, Manuel de Mollinedo y Angulo. And he was coming from Madrid, where Rubens’s tapestries, the prime objects that these compositions were designed for, were on view during the Corpus Christi celebration in that city—that is to say, Madrid.
So he arrives to Cusco one year later, in 1673. And that’s kind of all to say that the last time Mollinedo saw Rubens’s tapestries in Madrid was the first year that Cusco celebrated the same religious holiday with these same Rubens compositions, in the form of paintings. So you have this connection between an imperial center and a transatlantic city, through the production of these artworks, in the very same year. And I think it’s really remarkable to imagine someone like the Spaniard Mollinedo arriving to Cusco and seeing these works, ones he would’ve known really well, already hanging there in the city.
And then moreover, to kind of complicate the story, he goes on to commission his own series of the very same pictures in the following years. Meaning he’s effectively taking his lead from these indigenous patrons, who already have had the same idea, had been desirous of having these Rubens compositions to hang in their city.
CUNO: What about The Descent from the Cross in Cusco and its relationship to Rubens?
HYMAN: Yeah, so The Descent from the Cross was one of Rubens’ most important compositions, and he devised it for the confraternity of the Arquebusiers, to be displayed in Antwerp’s cathedral, where it’s still present. And then prints of this composition were made and they’re sent across the Atlantic, and these are copied by painters. But in Cusco, the composition quickly came to be copied from object to object, rather than from the original point, to the point that it totally saturates the market.
This form of copying, one that effectively bypasses the print fairly quickly, challenges notions that Latin American artists are always copying directly from prints. That is to say, the kind of default assumption that when we are faced, as art historians, with a work of art in Latin America that matches a European printed composition, it must’ve come from artists working from a print. That’s quite clearly not what’s happening in Cusco all the time.
And in this alternative mode of production, the composition fairly quickly came to be seen as local, to be divorced totally from Rubens, and instead, to become definitional of the local artistic landscape in Cusco. And in fact, we get cases where The Decent from the Cross is made in Cusco to be shipped to other places in the Vice-Royalty of Peru, like Santiago de Chile, precisely because it was paradigmatic of the Colonial artistic center of Cusco.
CUNO: Well, are there instances by which there is a kind of translation of Rubens into the vernacular of the south? I have some memory of being at Cusco and going to a church where there was a painting of the Last Supper. And on the table of the Last Supper, there was a dish that is a Peruvian dish. That is, I mean, of foodstuffs that are Peruvian.
HYMAN: Yeah, so there’s often what one could call a kind of translation or a interpolation of Latin American objects, ideas, motifs, landscapes, those kinds of things, into compositions by Rubens. And that was one of the primary ways that I think art historians have looked at the ways that European compositions have been rendered, quote/unquote, “local.”
And one of the things for me in this book was to instead suggest that an, in fact, what we might consider kind of slavish practice of copying over and over and over again—extreme repetition, that is to say—could paradoxically have the same effect. That each copy rooted a Rubens composition more thoroughly into the local artistic landscape or the local idiom, at every step. And that’s really what the Cusco case shows us, is that when you get The Descent from the Cross echoing across the Andean hills in fifty different versions or a hundred different versions, it comes to signify Cusco as much as anything else.
CUNO: Yeah, that’s fascinating. Now, who was Cristóbal Villalpando, and what is his role in the story?
HYMAN: Yeah. At the time he was working, Villalpando was the most important painter in New Spain, by far. Some really might compare him to Rubens, in this way. He has a kind of bravura style of loose brushwork, a particular pictorial intelligence. He’s receiving commissions from all the kind of quote/unquote “important” places. And he’s also really engaged with Rubens and the broader canon of European visual material that he was receiving in printed form in Mexico City, where he was based.
He produces some of the most important pictures for the most important spaces in New Spain—Mexico City’s cathedral, Puebla’s cathedral, where the book starts. These are really, really masterful paintings of exceptional technical and stylistic achievement, that rival any other artistic production in Colonial Latin America. And these compositions are really, really intricate in their citational plays with European sources. There’s a kind of profound mixing and matching and a kind of witty juxtaposition of sources.
But at the same time, Villalpando produced what we might now call just copies or conforming copies, and often in those very same very important spaces. In fact, he’s on the cover of the book, which the Getty designed really cleverly as a split image. Half of the cover is the print source, an Assumption of the Virgin by Rubens; and half is the Villalpando painting on the other side, because so close is the match between them that you can kind of lay them on top of one another.
So he’s a figure who really challenges presumed hierarchies then about originality and technical achievement, and the space of the copy within that kind of artistic practice, because he’s working at the highest echelons and then also copying.
CUNO: Yeah. Forgive me for asking this question a number of times, but I’m just interested in how it is that we know about the training of these artists who were indigenous artists or local artists, and who are having to take the task of copying these European sources. For example, Juan Rodriguez Juárez and his relationship to the early years of Mexico City’s academy and Neoclassical paintings. So there was an academy there somewhere. What do we know about that practice of training an artist?
HYMAN: It’s a super interesting question. And my answer to this question probably isn’t going to please most people, but— Or it’s not gonna please everyone.
Juan Rodríguez Juárez was effectively the most important painter in Mexico City in the early eighteenth century. And he continues this kind of game of citational practice that Villalpando and other artists of the previous generation had set up in Mexico City. And specifically in this book, I focus on the space of the cathedral of Mexico City.
He’s often also singled out as being the founder of a supposed artistic academy in Mexico City. And to my eyes, there is extremely, extremely scant evidence that such an academy, in fact, ever existed. And one of the more controversial claims in the book is to suggest that in fact, it didn’t, and that the legal petitions we have on the part of these artists to try to get official recognition were actually an attempt to forge some sort of alternative to the guild of painters in Mexico City, which had become impotent by the early part of the eighteenth century in legally protecting these artists.
So there’s, to me, this sort of disturbing impulse in Colonial Latin American art history, which is to want Latin America to match up to what Europe deemed its important achievements and its own important institutions in this period. And I feel like this is a really good example, where we have these references to an academy, and the natural reaction is to sort of say, “Look. Look, they had it, too, in Latin America. It wasn’t just Europe; Latin America was up to date, and they wanted these same institutions, and they founded them.”
And I do think that they were up to date, but that their reaction was not just gonna be one of mere imitation and matching up to what they knew Europe had, what they knew of Europe. So part of the claim here is that they knew full well about Europe’s academies about academic discourses, but that they mobilized that sort of knowledge to totally different ends. Which in this case, was for legal protection around selling their goods in the marketplace of Mexico City, the place where they actually worked and where these issues were really important and mattered to them.
That, unfortunately, doesn’t tell us about their artistic training, though. To disqualify the academy as a mode is to then say, “Well, how else can we get at this training?” And that is a quite tricky matter.
CUNO: Now, toward the end of the book, you examine the copy as the work of the original. What did you mean by that?
HYMAN: So this question is really at the heart of an entire chapter of the book. It traces one particular composition that’s designed by Rubens, the so-called Austroseraphic Heavens, through both the Vice-Royalty of New Spain and the Vice-Royalty of Peru.
It’s a composition that has been really puzzling to scholars who were solely focused on European art, or to Rubens specialists. And part of the goal of this chapter was to answer some key questions about this composition using Latin American reception. There’s basically no information about this particular composition, its commission, or its use that has come to light in Europe. And this despite the fact that it’s an allegory featuring the kings of Spain, both past and present, and the Franciscan order. So the crown’s preferred or favored religious sect.
In Latin America, though, it was used to make all manner of objects. And these were not just strict or conforming copies, but rather these really complicated elaborations of what was already a complicated allegory. So pictures and sculptures that took features of the composition as springboards to dwell on related matters. So using these objects, I argue that we can come to understand Rubens’ design as having been intended as the top portion of what is called a thesis print. So that requires explaining a little bit what a thesis print is.
A thesis print was a kind of print that was made to be used at thesis disputations, which were these capstone events of a completed course of doctoral study. They often served as invitations to the event itself or they were left on the seats of audience members, and they featured as the key focal point for the person who was the key participant in the defense.
They had two parts. One was visual, and below was textual. These were often printed on separate sheets. So let’s say the Rubens print above and then a series of theological stipulations below. And the student would work through each of these theological stipulations—let’s say a defense of the Immaculate Virgin—and he would—and it was usually a he; it was always a he—he would have to work through the first idea and use the object above, the print above—in this case, Rubens’s print—to comment on this stipulation and to debate about it with his advisor. And the audience, who had these prints in hand, as well, could jump into this debate, effectively creating a kind of forum for discussion around these matters.
And what’s interesting to me is to sort of think about this broad group of artists and patrons in the New World effectively as participants in something akin to a thesis disputation. Which is to say, commenting on aspects of the composition, drawing out certain key elements, relating it to other theological precepts that they were going to add into the composition or swap out for one of its components. They were effectively working through the logic of that print, in much the way that an audience would in a thesis disputation.
So when I say that the copy is the work of the original, I mean that these objects taken together effectively fulfill the promise, or the potential that’s built into this very particular kind of object, the thesis print, that demanded an audience that was clever enough to exploit it and to think with it, to kind of move in other directions; and that by doing so, they prove the function of this original work by Rubens, something that scholars have not been able to settle methodologically or in any kind of evidentiary way, in any other way.
And I just wanna pause on that point because it’s related to another main stake of this book for me. I always wanted to try to answer this question, what does Latin American art bring to bear on the study of European art in this period, which has so long walled itself off from art produced in other parts of the world? And it’s a really tricky question to answer. But this, to me, was one way of getting at it. And so this chapter is really trying to suggest that Latin America offers a key to Europe here. Or at least to this particular European artwork. And that staying in Europe alone is at times wholly insufficient to telling the history of Europe’s own artworks and some of its most important artists.
CUNO: Now, the last chapter of your book is provocatively titled “Rubens Works Miracles in New Spain.” Tell us why that title.
HYMAN: Yeah. There’s a really interesting and distinctive figure that Rubens devises. It’s a figure of Saint Francis kneeling and balancing these large three orbs on his shoulders. And it’s devised as part of a broader, more complicated allegory about devotion to the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception.
But in New Spain, this figure is alighted upon by artists, and he’s excised alone from the print, and rendered as a statue base that in turn, supported other sculpted figures that are placed atop it. Now, in two cases, sculptures of the Virgin Mary are placed on the topmost orb of a kind of triangular or pyramidal stack that he is balancing on his shoulders, and these are sculptures that themselves were deemed miracle-working. Like many miracle-working objects in the Catholic world in this period, copies were then made of those miracle-working statues, and these circulated broadly.
And these copies were really fundamental for Catholic worship because they were thought to carry some of the fundamental power of the original object. That is, the copies of miracle-working objects could also themselves perform miracles by transmitting some of the numinous power of the originary object. Now, when copies of these two miracle-working statues of the Virgins are made, they included Rubens’ distinctive figure of Saint Francis that had been made to act as a mere base or pedestal to elevate these figures.
And through that reproductive process, through the process of copying Rubens’s figure was effectively pulled in to the miraculous potential of these Virgins. Rubens’s Francis, as much as the figure of the Virgin herself, came to be seen as constitutive of the miracle-working original. That is, like Rubens’ very figure, designed in Antwerp, not for this purpose at all, came to be seen to have miraculous potential. And that matters to me in terms of thinking about kind of copies and originals for another reason.
Which is to say that the book is mostly about a move of compositions from Europe to Latin America, where you have European prints that become paintings or sculptures or relief carvings in Latin America. So print in Europe, other media in Latin America. What’s really remarkable in this case is that Rubens’s figure, printed in Antwerp, after being made into these statue bases in New Spain, he then gets returned back to print, in the form of these miracle-working groupings. And then that Latin American print is forwarded on around the Vice-Royalties, to be copied again in other media, for the purposes of extending this miraculous potential that is now embedded within the figures of this group.
CUNO: Now, your book teases out the complexity of this relationship between Europe and the Colonial world in the Americas in such a sophisticated way. You conclude by saying that, “The challenge of the global should be one of ontology, not just temporality. And in tightly entwining categories often thought of as schematic, or even binary, the range of objects explored here renders those same categories, or these same categories, functionally non-definitional.” So that’s a big mouthful of words and a great number of concepts entwined with these words. Tell us what you meant by that.
HYMAN: Yeah. Well, let me just try to break that up into something more manageable. Those are big words.
The proposal of the book is that it’s not just enough to extend timelines or extend the timelines on which we think about the relationship of European art and the geographies to which it was closely connected, or came to be closely connected. That always just puts Latin America after, by suggesting we should consider some sort of longer durée or consider Rubens’s influence as more extended than we had previously thought it could be.
In the case of my book, you could easily say, “I can’t believe Rubens held such sway deep into the eighteenth century in Latin America as a touchpoint. Wow. That’s profound.” But that, to me, is much less important than rethinking fundamental categories of picture making, which we could consider their kind of ontological conditions. Which is to say, the copy, the original, a miracle-working object, the notion of authorship—what those things even are, and not just when they happen or where they happen.
So the goal of the book is to kind of look back down the chain in the opposite direction and ask, how stable were those categories really to begin with? And I think if there were some hopeful use of my book, it would be not just to sort of look at this historical phenomenon of a transmission of pictorial material from Europe to Latin America, but also to look back at Europe and see it slightly estranged from the vision we normally have of it.
CUNO: And also that I guess that you emphasize the kind of dynamic relation between Europe and South America, so that it’s not just in one single direction; it’s multiple directions. It’s simultaneous, and so forth.
HYMAN: Yeah, absolutely. And that happens at the level of objects moving at both directions. But I think it needs to also happen at the level of art historical practice, where we’re looking in both directions, and where Latin Americanists understand they have something quite profound to gain by knowing Europe’s traditions deeply.
But also that Europeans feel that there’s a kind of necessity to grapple with Latin America and the Colonial relationship that undergirded so much of the art that was produced in this period.
CUNO: Well, Aaron, this is a challenging and highly original thesis, which throws new light on the relationship between the art of Rubens and that of the Spanish Americas. And I wanna thank you for the book itself, of course; but I wanna thank you, also, for spending time with us talking about it here at the Getty. And for helping us navigate this fascinating and complex story of cultural exchange.
HYMAN: Thanks, Jim. It was really my pleasure.
CUNO: This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Mike Dodge Weiskopf. Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003, and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other podcast platforms. For photos, transcripts, and more resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts/ or if you have a question, or an idea for an upcoming episode, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening.
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
AARON HYMAN: You could easily say “I can’t believe Rubens held such sway deep into the eighteen...
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824
See all posts in this series »
Comments on this post are now closed.