Category Archives: Art History

Personification of America(s)

During the Golden Age of Exploration, maps conveyed as much personality of a place as it did the detail about its physical layout. The continents were usually personified in art, (think Rubens in the early 17th century, among others)

Rubens has the four continents embraced by their four respected rivers, Africa-The Nile, Europe-The Danube, Asia-The Ganges, and America in the back with The Rio de la Plata. Which for those unfamiliar with South American geography is the “Silver River” that empties into the Atlantic at Buenos Aires. As there was more colonial success in South America at the time, and Rubens was a diplomat in service of the Spanish crown (among others) it is natural that he is more familiar with South America than El Norte, the symbolism remains the same though. 
Europeanized or not, the personification of America began as a Minerva figure, but quickly took on the guise of an Indian Princess usually seen with, often times riding, some dangerous reptile. As in this frieze on a German building. 

My favorite really is Adrien Colleart II’s mid-18th-century version where she, armed with bow and ax is riding a giant armadillo. 

As for the subtle warnings to explorers, Henry Popple included some hard to miss “here be dragons” moments. The ever present alligator is near the princess, as well as a monkey, and and armed warrior. In case that wasn’t explicit enough (apparently Popple, knew his audience), she has her foot on a (ver European-looking) severed head that has been pierced with an arrow. To be fair, this map is the west coast of British Honduras and not specifically the North American continent, but the allusion is the same. 

As relationships deteriorated (read as the Europeans lost control), the Princess grew ever more threatening, until she was at least replaced by a male indian warrior. This wasn’t just artistic license and/or personal choice as a religious edict called for the replacement of the female figures with that of a male.

When the West was North

It is probably better to speak of the West at this point as simply the Frontier. On the American continent the East was even at once considered West. But it is more than a direction. Colonial frontiers such as New York and Ohio, are almost laughable as “West” by the standards of the Montanans and any of the video game characters that you managed to get to the end of the Oregan Trail without dying of dysentery or starving to death. Even the idea of West as being westerly falls into disarray when you look at it from the perspective of New Spain and Mexico. For them the West was North, into Texas (and even farther).

This notion goes overlooked by many because there are not the copious amounts of art that depict encounters between the Spaniards and the Indians and/or Mexicans, or the Mexicans and Spaniards against the Indians, or Mayan, Aztec, and Incan civilizations. The bulk of European (or at least European style) art depict the French and Indian Wars that ravaged the colonial holdings of France and England in what is now the northern United States and southern Canada. Even literature followed this suit. I still do not know of a spanish equivalent of “The Last of the Mohicans.”
There are a few things that we do have, however and they paint a vivid picture of the American Southwest, or the Mexican Northwest depending on your point of view. One (or really, two) is the Segesser Hide Paintings that are housed in the New Mexico History Museum in downtown Santa Fe. 
The other is a piece of religious and historical art. “The Destruction of Mission San Saba in the Province of Texas and the Martyrdom of the Fathers Alonso de Terreros, Joseph Santiesteban” was completed in the 1760s. To have room for the subjects and the title, the piece is an enormous 83 by 115 inches (6’11” x 9’7″) and tells the story of the destruction of a Spanish Mission. So, there’s that. 

Learning to See

       The beauty of finally making it to the “build your own” portion of a PhD program is the ability to make connections outside your department. Having “mastered” the basic foundations of your discipline it is now time to build onto it using materials and tools from far and wide. This is where you carve out your academic niche and bring the history, perspective, and baggage that only you possess. The plan here is to share some of the highlights, links, and images from my foray into Art History of the American West. Hopefully these will be short(er), and entertaining if not illuminating. Plus rehashing what we went over for you will help me remember things.

I have always enjoyed art. I hasten to add “good” just to bother those people that think art is completely subjective and that a geometric abstract is just as “good” as a perfectly represented landscape or natural history painting. For me, it is not. I enjoy realism, and allegory. But I am aware that there are artists who have shaken off the fetters of artistic confinement and have collectively given the art world a raspberry. Images and imagery are now, and mostly forever been important. They exist on millennia old cave walls for instance, and they are still important today. The impact their manipulation and broadcast from general photoshop to official propaganda cannot be understated.

Art history should be required courses for whatever subject you are studying and at whatever level you are working. At the very least it should be strongly suggested as electives. It is nearly impossible to understand the modern money flow in science and research without understanding early scientific patronage. That, in turn, is almost impossible to unravel without understanding the patronage system of art–that is official, high-class, royal, courtly art.

For this quick installment I want to share two videos and some thoughts on Art in the American West. You may or may not be aware that Western art has been held to a higher standard of accuracy than any other genre. It was imperative that the artists accurately represent what was “out there” so those wanting to start a new life would have at least some idea of what was going to kill them.

In “The Death of General Wolfe” Benjamin West broke with the tradition of painting modern subjects in classical dress and poses. West kept the posing and dramatics but but everyone in period dress.

The biggest argument over this painting was the infamous moccasin incident. West had failed to put moccasins on the Indian (never mind the fact that the only Indian there fought against General Wolfe). In subsequent versions West painted a pair near the figure. Also forgivable was the inclusion of all his top ranking officers close by his side when he died. As mentioned in the video, this was no way to run an engagement. There is a lot going on to this, and it is useful to understand the period not only that the battle took place, but when the scene was painted and what politics were influencing the artist, was it a commission of some sort, etc. All these questions will help you learn to see a painting in contrast to simply looking at one.