Mexico at the Louvre. Masterpieces from New Spain, 17th and 18th centuries.

Paris, Musée du Louvre, from 7 March to 3 June 2013.

1. Sebastián López de Arteaga (1610-1652)
The Stigmatization of Saint Francis, 1650
Oil on Canvas - 241.5 x 166 cm
Mexico, Musée de la Basilique de Guadalupe
Photo : Alberto Rios Legorreta

Among the positive actions exerted by Henri Loyrette as head of the Louvre there is the undeniable effort to extend the scope of the painting and sculpture collections to previously unexplored territories. This was notably the case first for American painting, today that of Mexican art, and just recently the very beautiful discovery of the works by the Ukrainian sculptor Pinsel (see article, in French).

Then again, is Mexican painting of "Louvre" quality ? Despite the interest of the Colonial Baroque in Central and South America, these works are often charming but a bit too naive and unpolished to merit hanging in leading fine arts establishments. Even those in Texas which we visited just a few weeks ago (Texas was part of New Spain, along with Mexico, until its independence) do not own first rate works.
We were thus pleasantly surprised on seeing the paintings now presented at the Louvre. There are only a few works but these are of high quality, some even qualifying as masterpieces.

The first painters, active in the 17th century, often came from Spain where they had received their training. Thus, there is a Stigmatization of Saint Francis by Sebastián López de Arteaga (ill. 1), born and trained in Seville who draws his inspiration, true, from a Rubens engraving. As of the 16th century, many studios in Spain worked almost exclusively for export production. Flemish painters also found an almost inexhaustible sales market in New Spain : the excellent essay by Jonathan Brown in the catalogue explains that between 1623 and 1648 no less than 6,000 works were sent from Antwerp to America, transiting through Seville. Many of these were not of much interest, but some important painters, such as Martin de Vos, also exported works some of which can be found today in Mexico.

2. Cristóbal de Villalpando (c. 1649-1714)
The Lactation of Saint Dominic, 1685-1695
Oil on Canvas - 361 x 481 cm
Mexico, church of Saint-Dominic
Photo : D. R.

The exhibition focuses however mostly on painters active in Mexico. The first original and really important artist, if we are to believe the catalogue as well as the works on view, was Cristóbal de Villalpando. He also was influenced by Rubens whom he probably knew thanks to engravings, but his art is nevertheless profoundly original. He liked complex compositions with countless figures, all saturated in color. His largest canvases, such as the ones in the cathedral in Mexico City, are gigantic in size, over nine meters wide in some cases. The catalogue reproduces several which of course could not be shipped for the exhibition. There is for example the magnificent Apparition of Saint Michael.
The Louvre presents three of his paintings, including the very beautiful Lactation of Saint Dominic (ill. 2), with a complex iconography which has not yet been entirely elucidated, as well as a copper, The Flood, showing that the artist also knew how to work in small formats.

3. José Juárez (1617-c. 1662)
The Apparition of the Virgin and Child to Saint Francis
Oil on Canvas - 264 x 286 cm
Mexico, Museo Nacional de Arte
Photo : Wikimedia Commons

4. Mexico (or Spain ?), XVIIth century
San Felipe de Jesus
Polychrome Wood
Mexico, cathedral
Photo : Musée du Louvre

No doubt due to the distance from the main centers of western art, Mexican paintings, no matter how fine they are, often appear to be behind their time. Villalpando, who was born around 1649 and died in 1714, worked in a manner which in Europe would be seen as corresponding to the early 17th century. This is less the case (at least judging from the painting on view here) for José Juárez who was strongly influenced by Zurbarán (ill. 3), but in the 18th century this observation is confirmed with notably Miguel Cabrera (Virgin of the Assumption, private collection), which looks like it was painted one hundred years earlier.
Another masterpiece in the exhibition is a sculpture, the only one presented here, of a Mexican saint, Felipe de Jesús (ill. 4), an anonymous work but worthy of the best Spanish sculptors, for example Juan Martínez Montañés or Pedro de Mena. As a matter of fact, there is no way of excluding the possibility that this work, today residing in the cathedral in Mexico City, might have come directly from Spain.

Since the purpose of the exhibition was to prove that the Mexican painters are of comparable quality to the Spanish, the exhibition is presented within the Iberian section of the museum, unfortunately making it necessary to remove some of the works in the permanent collection. We also regret a catalogue of uneven quality, as the entries for the paintings are a bit too brief and it does not include a bibliography or ownership history of the works.
This is not the case, however, for the very useful inventory of Mexican paintings in French public collections written by Guillaume Kientz in which several works are accompanied by a very complete entry. It goes without saying that these paintings are not well known to the general public, except for perhaps the two works by Cristóbal de Villalpando residing in Paris in the church of Notre Dame de la Gare. Indeed, they had been discussed on our site in two news items, one pointing out they had been stolen (see news item, in French) of 20/06/05, the other, quite fortunately, announcing they had been recovered (see news item of 4/12/11, in French).
Another artist in this exhibition at the Louvre has works in French museums, Juan Rodriguez Juarez. The Musée Goya in Castres owns a Christ Carrying the Cross and the Musée Granet in Aix-en-Provence an Immaculate Conception which, like most of the works from before the 19th century, is kept in storage and not on view to the public.

Curators : Jonathan Browne and Guillaume Kientz.

Collective work, Le Mexique au Louvre. Chefs d’oeuvre de la Nouvelle Espagne, XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles, El Viso, 2013, 136 p., 19€. ISBN : 9786077612667

Visitor information : Paris, Musée du Louvre. Tel : +33(0)1 30 20 53 17. Open every day except Tuesday from 9am to 6pm, evenings on Wednesday and Friday until 10pm. Admission : acces with a museum ticket : 11€.

Louvre website

Version française

Didier Rykner, jeudi 9 mai 2013

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