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The Art of Painting in Colonial Quito ed. by Suzanne L. Stratton-Pruitt (review)

From: The Americas
Volume 70, Number 3, January 2014
pp. 577-578 | 10.1353/tam.2014.0019

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This catalog, compiled by a group of art historians from Ecuador, Spain, and the United States and edited by Stratton-Pruitt, is a welcome and timely publication that is both far-reaching and methodical in its investigation of painting in colonial Quito. As capital of the viceroyalty of New Granada, Quito flourished during the colonial era, witnessing a golden age of architectural expansion and artistic achievement. Until now, the great building projects of this city and the sculptural works that adorned dozens of Quito’s monuments, convents, and churches have served as the foci of art historical scholarship. With the publication of this bilingual catalog, it is painting—here presented in 231 beautifully reproduced images—that emerges for the first time as a significant contribution to the city’s artistic panorama.

As explained in the preface by project organizer Judy de Bustamante, the book’s genesis can be traced back to discussions on the historiography of colonial painting that took place during the planning stages of the 2006 exhibition “The Arts in Latin America 1492–1820,” which exposed a dearth of scholarship dedicated to painting in Quito. Not since the 1991 publication of José Gabriel Navarro’s book on painting in Ecuador had painting in Quito received scholarly treatment, despite the availability of recent and important studies and exhibitions examining the city’s other genres. The team of art historians who created this publication set out to correct this problem by producing a self-described “virtual exhibition catalogue” (p. vii) with wide appeal that would bring the scholarship up to date, but there is little that is “virtual” about this publication. Instead, it may be said that the handsomely illustrated catalog is the fruit of a virtual exhibition, one that models its layout on the exhibition catalog format. This approach allows for each painting to garner individual attention and concentrated scholarly treatment in regard to chronology, attribution, iconography, style, and patronage. The paintings, many of which are not on view in any museum, and most of which have never before been photographed, let alone published, are here reproduced in large-format brilliant color to highlight their visual quality and appeal.

The unearthing of these treasures reveals an enormous variation in style and subject matter. The featured works were commissioned for private spaces, cloisters, convents, and churches in the colonial capital and depict both secular and religious themes. Some of the paintings form part of larger commissions and contain complex iconographic programs. An example of such a project and a highlight of this catalog are 14 of Miguel de Santiago’s paintings for the Monastery of San Agustín; these are based on a series of prints on the life of Saint Augustine by the engraver Schelte à Bolswert. Also included are nine portraits dating from the second half of the eighteenth century that reveal the trends, styles, politics, and societal shifts among the middle and upper classes of colonial Ecuador. Their inclusion is of particular significance since past scholars of Quito have often claimed that the city’s art was exclusively beholden to religious interests, to the exclusion of other influences.

Carmen Fernández-Salvador’s deft introductory essay aims to clarify lingering questions in the existing literature, including those of attribution. Of the 231 paintings presented here, slightly more than one third are attributed. Many attributions without foundation have been tossed aside, though alternative possibilities are not offered. Other persistent myths have been dismantled, for example, the link between Nicolás Javier Goríbar and Miguel de Santiago is shown to be unfounded, as is the undocumented hypothesis that the late colonial painters Bernardo Rodríguez de la Parra y Jaramillo and Manuel de Samaniego y Jaramillo were related or that they collaborated together on a project for the city’s cathedral in the early nineteenth century. In fact, Rodríguez’s connection to the cathedral in the early nineteenth century remains suspect.

Though the paintings themselves are rightly privileged in this catalog, it would have been useful to include some images of the churches or chapels that contained the works to help the reader understand the visual contexts more fully. In addition, the numbering of the entries is a...

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