In societies all over the world, the portrait is one of the most popular and enduring forms of artistic expression. Vermeer’s beautiful Girl with Pearl Earring, Da Vinci’s enigmatic Mona Lisa, Gilbert Stuart’s heroic George Washington, van Gogh’s penetrating Portrait of Gachet, Stieglitz’ sensual study of Georgia O’Keeffe, Frida Kahlo’s disturbingly introspective Self-Portraits, and countless other powerful portraits annually attract millions of visitors to museums in this country and abroad. Portraiture is an art form with which most of us identify, and is an expression that provides us valuable insight into the minds of both the artist and the sitter, as well as their time and place.
Latin America has a long and rich tradition of portraiture. For over 2,000 years, portraits have been used to preserve the memory of the deceased, provide continuity between the living and the dead, bolster the social standing of the aristocracy, mark the deeds of the mighty, advance the careers of politicians, record rites of passage, and mock symbols of the status quo.
Recent archaeological research on the ancient Moche of Peru reveals strikingly realistic portraits of important individuals made during different stages of their lifetimes and distributed throughout the land, perhaps to affirm lineage rule and consolidate power. Thousands of Moche portraits remain, adding a special human dimension to our perception of that exceptionally gifted culture. The classic Maya of Mexico and Central America painted amazingly poignant portraits on cylindrical jars or sculpted them in clay and stucco for the facades of important buildings to record special events during the rule of kings. Later, Mixtec painters produced colorful manuscripts (codices) containing interesting portraits of culture heroes, such as 8 Deer/Tiger Claw, and vividly recorded his conquests. Many pre-Columbian portraits from Mesoamerica were physically indistinguishable but contained identifying markers that associated them with particular individuals, such as special clothing and insignia or birth glyphs.
During the viceregal period (1520-1820), portraits were used to symbolize the Spanish Crown’s power in America. Other portraits of this era showed the wealth and social standing of men and women who controlled colonial economies and societies. Puerto Rican José Campeche artfully created
jewel-like portraits of aristocratic women astride festooned horses, a style he repeated several times, changing only the color of the tack and the
identities of the riders. Among the most extraordinary portraits of the Mexican viceregal period were “crowned nuns”, painted only days before young women entered the cloistered life as a last show of vanity before embracing a life denying worldly things. Generic portraits of the period attempted to create an imagined ideal social order in the Americas through an intriguing, albeit disturbing, series of “caste paintings”, which meticulously delineated Latin American racial groups, with Iberian-born Spaniards at the top of the system.
As Latin American republics achieved independence from Spain, France, and Portugal, leaders such as Toussaint l’Ouverture, Simón Bolívar, San Martín, Hidalgo, Morelos, and others became symbols of the break, and their portraits were used as emotional and political touchstones in the formation and maintenance of new governments and national identities. They were followed only decades later by other bold individuals, such as Mexico’s Benito Juárez and Cuba’s José Marti.
Less political portraits of the era showed children with a favorite toy or pet, and provincial leaders in cut-away coats or crinoline skirts, some strikingly similar to “limner painters” of nineteenth century New England. Many portrait painters of this period, such as Bustos and Estrada, were starkly honest and showed “all the warts” of their clients. Others made a living by painting hauntingly sweet portraits of deceased children, preserving their likenesses for bereaved parents and siblings.
Twentieth century Latin American portraiture records, in sculpture and paintings, deeply entrenched oligarchs, bold revolutionaries, and Nobel laureates. Satirical portraitists such as Botero, Covarrubias, and José Guadalupe Posada poked fun at Latin American society, usually to the delight of everyone except those represented.
During the twentieth century, self-portraits (auto-retratos) became popular. The dynamic relationship between the artist as sitter and the sitter as artist often yields special insight into the psyche of the artists and reveals to us an otherwise hidden part of their souls. No artist of the twentieth century did this as effectively as Frida Kahlo, whose self-portraits laid bare a life of pain, betrayal, jealousy, and suffering. This exhibition marks the first time a comprehensive exhibition of Latin American portraiture has been organized and sent on tour around the United States. It shows both the depth and breadth of the tradition and allows us to explore the meaning of this interesting art form for the societies represented. RETRATOS: 2,000 YEARS OF LATIN AMERICAN PORTRAITS explores such thorny issues as “generic” portraiture vis à vis “individual/realistic” portraiture. The exhibition also examines such concepts as “psychological” portraiture and the artist’s concern for capturing the “character” and “personality” of the sitter. Comprised of approximately 100 portraits, in a variety of different media, the exhibition contains examples from Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and the United States.