Outstanding Artists during Colombian Independence

The way in which we can begin to understand life in colonial times, the beginnings of Independence and the heroes part of it, is, in part at least, thanks to paintings by the hands of three big artists of this time: José Gil de Castro, Pedro José Figueroa and José María Espinosa. In fact, there´s an art exhibition at the National Museum of Colombia (Bogotá) called “Painters in times of Independence” where some of their artistic works are being shown, since the 29th of November of this year, until the 1st of March 2020, with the coordination of Daniel Castro Benitez, director of this museum. There are 112 paintings of the three artists, some of them brought from Peru, specifically from the Museum of Archeology, Anthropology and History of Peru (Museo de Arqueología, Antropología e Historia de Perú), (MNAAH). In its Spanish acronyms, and the Reserve Bank of this country; you may ask, why some of the paintings are brought to this museum from there, and the answer is very simple. One of the iconic artists, José Gil de Castro, was from Peru, but he portrayed iconic heroes, important not just for Colombian independence, called at the time Nueva Granada, but for other Latin American countries, such as Venezuela, Bolivia, and Peru.

Let’s talk about them in more depth and get to know a bit more about the context in which these artists were immersed:

José Gil de Castro

As I mentioned before, he was a Peruvian artist, who was born in 1785 in Lima; his family was in some way stigmatised against having a black ancestry, which made difficult for him to develop his profession as an artist. This was especially so, as some of his family members, such as his mother and brother, were slaves; I must emphasize during colonial times, the heritage of a person was a potential obstacle for being accepted socially and having more participation in society. He learned to read and write,  which at that time was a genuine privilege and achievement, and when he started painting he marked his works in the Latin language, a language which just a few educated people were able to learn. At this time, there was a huge emphasis on social class, largely based on race, where Spanish artists had more opportunities for professional success. This is particularly so in comparison with local ones, who often had black heritage. For this reason he decided to leave Peru for some time and live in Chile, where he portrayed some Chilean heroes such as Bernardo O’ Higgins and others, obtaining more recognition for his work.

The most representative aspects of his paintings were that he signed his works with his name, a demonstration of the way art evolved towards the end of the 18th century and beginnings of the 19th. There was less anonymity in artistic paintings. 

His signature eventually changed from Latin to Spanish, showing the way he adopted the Spanish language as the vernacular, especially during his permanent stay in Santiago (Chile´s capital). He was the founder of republican paintings, depicting the valor of Chilean heroes. There’s not a portrait of himself, but there´s the theory that his factions are retracted on his portraits; it´s worth saying that portrait pictures were more accentuated in Latin America, in comparison to Europe, because of the idea of mimesis of art; an enormous influence on his way of painting.

Simón Bolívar, José Gil de Castro,  (1825), Technique: Óleo sobre tela
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Capitán General Bernardo O’Higgins Riquelme, José Gil de Castro, (1820), Óleo sobre tela

Pedro José Figueroa

Well known as a Colombian artist, who had his own artistic workshop “El Taller de los Figueroa”, after finishing his studies in art with Pablo Antonio Garcia. There he educated artists such as Luis García Leiva, his three children (José Miguel, José Celestino, and José Santos) and a historiographer José Manuel Groot. In his paintings, there is a demonstration of the social change process, from a colony controlled by the Spanish viceroyalty to the instauration to a new republic; he had not a specific ideology, but painted according to commissions, just like the previous artist, he also did portraits, being one of the most iconic being “Bolivar con la América India” which represents the victory of America´s liberator Simon Bolivar, after Boyaca´s battle. This historic event was a starting point of the journey to definitive independence of Colombia (at that time Nueva Granada). There´s also an indigenous woman, who represents freedom allegorically – it´s not a special mark of this artist specifically, as it has been used by other artists with the same meaning, such as Crispin de Passe, the fact of painting a woman with some ornaments was taken from Europe´s artistic technique as a representation of the known continents at that moment: Europe, Asia, Africa and America, and she is seated in a horn full of fruits, as a symbol of abundance. Finally, if you rotate the painting 90 degrees, you will see the face of a man in the woman’s dress, probably was the general Pablo Morillo, who coordinated the royal troops in that moment.

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Bolívar con la América India, Pedro José Figueroa, (1819), Technique: Óleo sobre tela
The face of the man is enclosed in the oval 
La muerte de Sucre, Pedro José Figueroa (1836), Technique: Óleo sobre tela

Jose Maria Espinosa

Known as the most important Colombian artist during the 19th century, he was the founder of cartoons in Colombia, and also the prince of Colombian miniaturists and standard-bearer. 

During this time, an interest in registering the battles, and relevant events according to the national context started to emerge; this job seemed almost impossible at that moment, taking into account most of the artists portrayed iconic heroes, but not the environment of a battle by itself, how would it be possible, if most of them had not been there to depict it accurately? The answer is in part of the life of this artist. Espinosa was part of the revolutionary troops commanded by Antonio Nariño with the objective to not give way to Spanish troops, commanded by Juan Sámano, who had the control of Pasto and Popayán, it was finally successful for the first ones. He made up part of others as The Battle of Palacé (1811), Calibío (1814), Juanambú (1814), Tacines (1814), and others.

Espinosa felt strongly that this gave him an opportunity to show the reality in his works – the environment of the battle in a first grade and to a lesser extent, the participants of this one. He tried to reflect as accurately as possible the landscapes in which this fighting took place, also emphasizing the artillery used during the struggles and finally its soldiers and commandants. It´s important to recognise, however, that these paintings were done a long period after the definitive independence (1819), approximately in 1830, so he had a written memorial called “Memorias de un Abanderado”, where he relates each of the battles he was part of, transcribed by the writer Jose Caicedo Rojas. 

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Batalla del Alto Palacé, José María Espinosa, ca. (1845-1860), Technique: Óleo sobre tela

Art proves to be a means of immortalising the evolution of society and its context in a profound way, a source of our history and identity as Colombians. These are more realistic about the events and people that make part of it, as a way to remember the struggle for freedom, the inauguration of democracy, and the constant development of what we know today as Colombia.

Recommendation: La independencia en el arte y el arte en la independencia.


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