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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Arts of the Spanish Americas, 1550–1850

The arts that evolved in the Spanish viceroyalties of New Spain and Peru were, from their beginnings in the sixteenth century, very different from those of the much younger North American colonies. Unlike the iconoclastic culture of the Protestant settlers of our nation, derived from England and Northern Europe, the Iberian culture transferred to the Americas was one in which both image making and the decorative arts were deeply intertwined with the state religion of Roman Catholicism. Thus, in Latin America, the church not only exerted enormous power over the lives of the European and indigenous peoples, but also, through its patronage, profoundly influenced the nature of the visual arts in these regions.

The course followed by the arts in Spanish America rapidly diverged, however, from the medieval and Renaissance models introduced by Spain and its church. Moreover, for all the commonalities, other factors (for example, powerful indigenous survivals or imports from Asia via the Manila Galleon trade) led to the emergence of local artistic differences among the vast and various regions ruled by Spain. This held true for both New Spain (which, when established in 1535, included modern-day Mexico and other regions) and Peru (initially, in 1542, comprising all of South America except Brazil).

Contributing to these differences were the numerous descendants of the once highly evolved and organized Aztec, Maya, and Incan empires, which would become incorporated into an elaborate colonial society. Although huge numbers toiled grimly in lethal conditions within underground mines, others formed part of a skilled workforce, with artists of Spanish descent, that helped to generate vast quantities of luxurious and labor-intensive objects, utilizing and underwritten by the very wealth extracted from the soil. In many cases, indigenous artists and craftsmen soon left their own locally distinctive marks on the work they produced. It is the involvement of the native hand as well as the religious nature of much of this art that distinguish it from that of the colonial United States.

The colonial art of Latin America has always been a component of the Museum’s collection. The works shown here, drawn from the collections of several departments, provide a striking profile of the broad range of artistic activity in that portion of the New World once ruled by the Spanish crown.