Mexico and Central America, 1600–1800 A.D.

  • Mexico and Central America, 1600–1800 A.D.



In the course of the seventeenth century, the calamitous decline of the indigenous population of Mexico continues, reaching its nadir of 1.5 million inhabitants in 1650 (from a baseline at the time of the Conquest variously estimated to range from 5 to 25 million). Conflict over ministry and control of indigenous peoples continues, pitting the regular clergy (Franciscans and other mendicant orders, pioneers of the early missionary activities) against the increasingly powerful secular clergy, who are allied with the criollos (American-born people of European descent). This growing class of Spaniards born in New Spain begins to formulate a distinct identity even as the crown of Castile continues its efforts to regulate the economic activities of their burgeoning society. The crown maintains its right to skim 20 percent (the Royal Fifth) of silver mined in the colonies and keeps control of trade in the hands of peninsular Spanish merchants. As a further restraint, those not actually born in Spain continue to be barred from the highest civil and ecclesiastical offices, although the sale of lower-level offices by the increasingly penurious crown of Castile permits criollos a growing role in regional governance.

The indignity of their second-class citizenship rankles, especially given the growing prosperity of New Spain and the critical role it plays in the economy of the peninsular homeland. By the 1670s, Mexican silver production exceeds that of Peru. Unlike Peru, however, the mining regions of New Spain are located far from major native population centers and the maintenance of revenue requires an early transition from forced to wage labor. This factor leads to a more equitable distribution of wealth within the flourishing and diversified commercial network that spreads throughout New Spain. Finally, via the route of the Manila Galleons, Mexico serves as the nexus of Spain’s trade with the East Indies as well as a thriving contraband conduit of Asian goods to Peru.

Peninsular discrimination contributes to a growing sense of Mexican national identity of which the artistic manifestations are numerous in literature as well as the arts. By the later seventeenth century, painters diverge increasingly from European models in style and subject matter. Depictions of the apparition of the miraculous brown Virgin of Guadalupe , seen by Indians and criollos alike as a sign of divine ratification of Mexican identity, proliferate. Other themes promoted by writers and artists and embraced by the criollo elite are depictions of the Conquest of Mexico and fictional portraits of the Aztec emperors, whose history they coopt to ennoble the ancestry and identity of New Spain. Spanish sculptors train indigenous artists to carve wood sculptures of the crucified Christ, the Holy Family (64.164.168-172), and numerous saints, and to enrich them with the sumptuous and lifelike polychrome technique of estofado. One of the most characteristic Mexican artistic traditions is to be found in the thriving ceramics industry centered in the city of Puebla. The highly distinctive maiolica ware, inspired by Chinese porcelains brought by the Manila Galleons, is used for vessels as well as for the tiles traditionally applied to the facades and domes of regional churches.

In the eighteenth century, Bourbon reforms bring profound change to Mexico. A more open mercantilist approach loosens the bonds restricting New Spain’s relations with other parts of the Spanish empire as well as with Europe. But modernization of the country’s administration downgrades privileged local power structures, especially those that interfere with the authority of the Spanish crown. Among the most radical and momentous of these steps entails the expulsion of the Jesuits from all Spanish possessions and the confiscation of the order’s vast properties, which have operated as a virtual state within a state.

Many Mexicans regard the Jesuit order as their special protectors, and its expulsion creates a profound disaffection from the crown on every level of society. Nowhere is this anger felt more intensely than in the rich northern silver-mining region of the Bajío, which erupts in riots at the time of the expulsion and eventually becomes the cradle of the independence movement. Evidence of the vast wealth of the Bajío silver magnates is to be seen in the magnificent churches and convents they help to erect, at times at the actual site of their mines, throughout the cities of the region. High points of the distinctively Mexican late Baroque style are to be found in Querétaro and Guanajuato and even further north in Zacatecas, cities that may be seen as the last stronghold and apogee of the colonial style in New Spain.

The reign of Charles III (1759–88) introduces elements of the European Enlightenment that affect the arts as well as the governance of New Spain. Enlightenment interest in taxonomy and classification leads to one of the most distinctive and appealing genres of Mexican painting, the serial depiction of racial mixtures known as Castas, but the establishment of the Academia de San Carlos imposes a European classicism on the distinctive Mexican architectural style termed “ultra-Baroque.” The new taste is critical of the dizzying ornamentation of Mexican church facades and the perceived gaudiness of the traditional arts of New Spain. It is felt in every form of the decorative arts as well, although the more popular art forms, such as Puebla ceramics, are better able to retain their distinctive identities than the luxurious arts of the fashionable elites.


“Mexico and Central America, 1600–1800 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2003)