José María Velasco, The Candelabrum

An enormous cactus dots the landscape in this painting by the Mexican artist José María Velasco.

José María Velasco, The Candelabrum, 1887, oil on canvas, 61 x 45 cm (Museo Nacional de Arte, Mexico City); a conversation between Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Beth Harris

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Dr. Beth Harris: [0:06] We’re looking at a beautiful painting of an astounding cactus by the great landscape painter José Maria Velasco, and we’re here in the National Museum of Art in Mexico City.

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:17] The painting that we’re looking at is the famous “candelabrum” cactus from Oaxaca. This particular candelabrum cactus that Velasco has painted is near the town of Tecomavaca in Oaxaca state.

Dr. Harris: [0:27] It fills the entire canvas, which is vertical, which is an unusual format for a landscape painting. You can see that he’s carefully studied the way that the light falls on each of the branches of the cactus.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:41] We know Velasco saw this on his travels, and he became fascinated by it, and so returned to it and did studies of the cactus to then create the painting that we’re seeing here.

Dr. Harris: [0:51] Yet for all its capturing perfectly of the light on the branches, it’s also loosely painted in some areas: along the tree — especially on the shady side — those purplish pinks. You can feel a love of the Mexican countryside here.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:09] Which is something that we can see throughout his paintings in the late 19th century, where there is this love of landscape as a symbol of the national identity of Mexico.

Dr. Harris: [1:17] He’s included a figure so we have a sense of the enormous scale of the candelabrum cactus, and also the smallness of man in relationship to the landscape. A sense of the age of this tree that’s reached this enormous height and the many generations of human beings that have passed while this cactus has endured.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:38] José Maria Velasco, as a painter, was doing many of these different preparatory drawings and was interested in the scientific accuracy of his paintings. As we look around the gallery here, we can see numerous examples of his studies of wildlife, of his studies of even the pre-Hispanic past.

Dr. Harris: [1:55] This interest in Mexico in his own time, but also Mexico looking back historically, archaeological sites. There’s a watercolor here that he did of an Aztec pot. Although the subject matter is Mexican, to me, these landscapes speak of the beauty of nature.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:12] Endowing nature with this monumental, grandiose quality.

[2:16] [music]

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”VelascoCactus,”]

More Smarthistory images…

Velasco was the most important landscape painter of 19th-century Mexico.

Important terms:

  • lanscape painting
  • national identity
  • Mexico

Cite this page as: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Beth Harris, "José María Velasco, The Candelabrum," in Smarthistory, February 12, 2021, accessed July 19, 2024,