Félix Parra, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas

Parra uses a 16th-century friar to comment on 19th-century events, as artists began to make a new art for a new nation.

A conversation between Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Beth Harris in front of Félix Parra, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, 1875, oil on canvas, 263 x 356.5 cm (Museo Nacional de Arte, Mexico City)

Additional resources

Read about this painting on the website of the Museo Nacional del Arte in Mexico City (in Spanish)

Read about this painting on Google Arts & Culture

Read more about the Academy of San Carlos on Smarthistory

Ray Hernández-Duran, The Academy of San Carlos and Mexican Art History: Politics, History, and Art in Nineteenth-Century Mexico (New York: Routledge, 2017).

Oscar E. Vázquez, editor, Academies and Schools of Art in Latin America (New York: Routledge, 2020).


[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:06] We’re in the National Museum of Art in Mexico City, looking at a large painting from the 19th century of a 16th-century friar. This is a heroic image.

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:16] This painting by Félix Parra, painted in 1875, is showing us the famous Dominican friar, Bartolomé de las Casas, who wrote in the 16th century a famous book called “The Destruction of the Indies” that defended the Indigenous peoples from the abuses acted out against them.

Dr. Harris: [0:35] Those abuses included the death of millions of Indigenous people that happened in the decades after the Spanish conquest of 1521.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:43] This painting is an academic painting of the late 19th century, and what we’re seeing here is Bartolomé de las Casas standing in the center of the composition, this solid figure, his arms crossed against his chest, his eyes looking up towards heaven, clutching a crucifix in his right hand.

[1:00] What we’re seeing is the aftermath of the attack on an Indigenous couple who have come to an Indigenous temple to honor one of their dead loved ones.

Dr. Harris: [1:11] In doing that, the husband is brutally murdered; the wife clings to the friar for protection. This heroizes a Spanish friar, but is also sympathetic to the Indigenous population that were treated so brutally by the Spanish.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:26] We’re seeing elements that identify this as the traumatic aftermath of this moment. On the left bottom of the composition, we see incense that’s still burning, but that’s been toppled over; we see a garland of flowers with paper banners that’s falling down and tattered, we see columns that have been toppled.

[1:43] And of course the husband whose body is splayed, and due to foreshortening looks like he’s coming out towards us and there’s blood running down from his head.

Dr. Harris: [1:51] All of this taking place within this architectural setting, borrowed from the architecture of Indigenous people.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:58] He is just combining different peoples from across Mesoamerica and throughout time together to evoke this sense of the pre-Hispanic past.

Dr. Harris: [2:07] We refer to this as an academic painting. The Academy advocates a style that’s readable, that’s based on the art of classical antiquity, of a high amount of finish and polish, dramatic lighting.

[2:19] This is a kind of art that appealed to the masses in the 19th century, but here in Mexico it answers a call for a new kind of art that tried to reconcile with its violent past.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:31] The 19th century in Mexican history is complicated. In 1821, we have independence. Eventually, much of Mexican territory is taken over by the United States in the middle of the 19th century. Then you have French occupation of Mexico for a period of seven years in the 1860s.

[2:48] Then in 1867, it’s like this second independence occurs, this freedom from the French who have taken control with Emperor Maximilian. It’s two years later that there’s this call for a national art, this art that looks to the Mexican past rather than the Greco-Roman past. We begin to see artists like Félix Parra who are looking to these conquest narratives.

Dr. Harris: [3:10] Parra could have looked at Indigenous people who were contemporary with him in the end of the 19th century, who were living impoverished lives. Here, he chooses a subject from the past. It’s safe at a distance to look at. It doesn’t force people in the late 19th century to deal with political reality.

[3:28] It’s a coming to terms, but in a way not as honest as maybe in the 21st century we wish it had been.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:34] Of course, while condemning the violence associated with the conquest, certainly not condemning that the conquest should have occurred.

Dr. Harris: [3:41] Right. The idea is that it was still the right thing to do to Christianize the people who lived here.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:46] Even if the violence was wrong. This painting was paired with another one of his paintings that was done two years later that shows the massacre of Cholula, which was a moment in the conquest narrative where the conquistador Hernán Cortés enters the city of Cholula and he demands luxury items, gold and silver, and wants the people to side with him, but they refuse. In return, he massacres thousands of people.

Dr. Harris: [4:11] This idea of condemning some of the acts of conquest, but not necessarily the idea of conquest.

[4:18] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Beth Harris, "Félix Parra, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas," in Smarthistory, November 23, 2020, accessed July 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/felix-parra-fray-bartolome-de-las-casas/.