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Latin American Painting

pre-Columbian civilizations, Brazilian culture, European traditions, European models, Latin American art

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Latin American Painting, painting produced after the arrival of Spanish and Portuguese colonists in South America, Central America, and Mexico. The blend of European and indigenous (native) American cultures that characterizes Latin America today began to develop in the late 15th century. The Latin American artistic tradition was founded upon ancient, highly developed pre-Columbian civilizations, most notably those of the Aztec and Maya in Mexico and the Inca in Peru.

The Native American artistic traditions that European colonists encountered dated back centuries. Native painting traditions included manuscript illuminations; brilliantly colored, large-scale murals that decorated temples and illustrated historical events and ceremonies; and works of art in exotic media such as iridescent feathers. The strength of these traditions, along with the patronage of indigenous rulers and the numerical superiority of native peoples, ensured that colonial painting—at least initially—did not reflect European models alone but rather represented a mixture of European and indigenous artistic values. However, after about 1600, as the continued arrival of new settlers expanded the European presence, artistic styles increasingly reflected European models, especially in the urban centers.

The overall structure of colonial art history is remarkably similar throughout Latin America, despite the enormous geographic area and the diverse traditions it encompasses. Most regions experienced similar stages from early colonial art to modern art, although the timetable varied greatly with location; some areas became colonized too late to experience the full sequence of stages. In addition Brazil, because it formed part of the vast Portuguese empire that extended to Africa and the Indian subcontinent, departed from the Hispanic pattern in many respects. Because the Portuguese imported large numbers of Africans to supplement native labor in Brazil, Brazilian culture became a blend of the cultures of three continents: Africa, South America, and Europe. Uniting all Latin American art from about 1580 was a tendency to revive the late Renaissance style of Mannerism, largely because it was the dominant style in Europe when European traditions became established in the Americas. From about 1630 on, the baroque style was dominant, although elements of Mannerism remained until the early 19th century.


Most of Latin America won independence in the early 19th century. Although independence brought no sudden change of style, it did bring social changes with long-term consequences for artists. Sources of patronage changed: The middle class, military, and government administrators emerged as important patrons, while the aristocracy and the church rapidly declined in importance as patrons. The dialogue between official art forms and folk art was reopened as new patrons looked for art that reflected local life. Scenes of everyday life, landscapes, and still lifes moved from the margins of artistic production to the center.


Burke, Marces B., B.A., M.T.S., M.A., Ph.D.

Curator of Paintings, Drawings, and Metalwork, The Hispanic Society of America, New Ypork City. Coauthor of "Spain and New Spain: Mexican Colonial Arts in Their European Context" and other books.

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