Painting local landscapes in Mexico
Renowned Mexican landscapist José María Velasco painted views of the Valley of Mexico more than seven times. In one of his famous versions, called the Valley of Mexico (1877), Velasco painted the valley on site from the hill of Santa Isabel. Different from his earlier versions, Velasco raised the horizon line, allowing for the sky to occupy only one-third, rather than half the composition. This in turn allowed him to expand the foreground and include an eagle perched on a prickly pear cactus with a snake in his beak—a clear reference to the founding of the city of Tenochtitlan by the Mexica, who had resided in the Valley of Mexico prior to the arrival of Europeans.
According to the Mexica, their patron deity—Huitzilopochtli—had told the them to look for a sign similar to this one so that the Mexica would know where to settle after making a long journey from their ancestral homeland. In Velasco’s painting, the eagle seems to have just flown from its perch on the cactus, and is ascending towards the sky, its prey still firmly held.
Additional references to Mexico’s pre-Hispanic past can be seen in the middle ground. Here, we find Mexico City and Lake Texcoco, both associated with the former Mexica capital city of Tenochtitlan. Behind the lake, and in the far distance, rise the recognizable peaks of the volcanoes of Iztaccihuatl and Popocatepetl.
A close admirer of nature, Velasco also took the time to record the changing colors and shapes of clouds. In this particular canvas, one can make out the white puffy cumulus clouds near the center, in contrast to the thin, almost feathery cirrus clouds around the edges. Through these historic and observed references, Velasco does not provide a composite view of nature, but rather makes clear that the represented territory is indeed Mexico City.
Trained at the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City, under the leadership of Italian painter Eugenio Landesio (1810–1879). Velasco devoted his career to depicting the regions, volcanoes, and sites of Mexico, particularly the historic Valley of Mexico. Velasco, like many other Latin American artists in the nineteenth century, developed interests in painting the local landscape. They sought to document the land accurately and descriptively, working to create a sense of pride in their country’s past, present, and future.
European and U.S. artists had traveled to different countries in Latin America to paint the land, but had sought to create images of virgin or unspoiled nature, often with a romantic flair. Local artists, on the other hand, often imbued their views of nature with either historic or regional specificity, as we see in Velasco’s View of the Valley of Mexico.
The Volcanoes of Chimborazo and Cotopaxi
In Ecuador, painters Joaquín Pinto and Rafael Troya documented the famous volcanoes of Chimborazo and Cotopaxi, the two highest peaks in Ecuador. Alongside the German explorers William Reiss and Alphons Stübel, Troya depicted these natural wonders, painting on site on more than 800 canvases. His depictions differ from those of foreign artists, such as German scientist Alexander von Humboldt, who sought to capture Cotopaxi in a scientifically methodical way, or American painter Frederic Edwin Church’s apocalyptic vision of the volcano. Instead, Troya captures the simple yet grandiose presence of this iconic volcano in paintings like View of Cotopaxi from Tiopulo. While Pinto’s and Troya’s works were made for an international audience, and were shipped to Germany where they were then copied into prints, they nevertheless sparked a local interest in rediscovering sites from their country.
Painting the landscape of the Caribbean
In the Caribbean, a somewhat different phenomenon unfolded. Local artists tended to depict their native landscapes as a result of their own journeys abroad. Cuban painter Esteban Chartrand and Puerto Rican painter Francisco Oller both trained abroad in France. In the case of Chartrand, he studied under the famous French landscape painter Theodore Rousseau, who formed part of the Barbizon School of landscape painters near Fontainebleau. Oller studied under various renowned French masters, including Thomas Couture and Gustave Courbet. Like Courbet, who painted the rural customs of his native Ornans, Oller recorded the folkloric customs of the Puerto Rican countryside.
Paintings such as Landscape with Royal Palms communicate a strong sense of Puerto Rican identity through the elevation of the palm tree, which would eventually become the logo of the New Progressive Party, one of the two major political parties in Puerto Rico. Known for its physical strength and ability to withstand strong winds, the royal palm sits humbly yet majestically in this rural Puerto Rican landscape.
The palm tree was not only a trademark of Puerto Rico, but of all of the Caribbean, as seen in Chartrand’s Yumurí Valley. In this more expansive landscape, Chartrand depicts not only the rugged and bountiful terrain of Cuba, but also the simplicity of rural life in his native Matanzas, located on the northern shore of Cuba.
An awakened national spirit
Works by artists like Velasco, Troya, Chartrand, and Oller offer an alternative to depictions by foreign artists. Minor yet significant details like the palm tree may seem lost in the work of foreigners, who instead focus on more iconic sites. Yet even when depicting something as iconic as the mountain, Cotopaxi, the view of the insider may differ, since for locals these views were not exotic, but rather a part of their immediate world waiting to be repurposed, for an awakening nationalist spirit. Depicting local sites allowed native artists to craft a new sense of cultural identity, while also reclaiming their historical past.
Read more about Picturing the Americas from the Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic from the Terra Foundation for American Art
Read more about Velasco’s The Valley of Mexico from the Santa Isabel Mountain Range