Prints and the Circulation of Colonial Images

Kelly Donahue-Wallace

in Latin American Studies

ISBN: 9780199766581
Published online October 2011 | | DOI:
Prints and the Circulation of Colonial Images

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Printed images began circulating in the territories that would become Spain’s American colonies from the moment of first contact in 1519. Missionaries traveling to indigenous communities throughout the Americas distributed woodcuts and engravings to Amerindians to aid in evangelization efforts. The prints communicated European pictorial conventions and iconography and served to introduce the native peoples to Spanish epistemology. Indigenous artists copied the images in their mural paintings at monastic compounds and in their codices. The prints’ influence on colonial artistic production continued for the next two centuries, as artists, both European and locally born, developed regional schools that responded to European trends embodied by luxury single-leaf engravings and book illustrations. Typographic printing began in New Spain in 1538 and in Peru in 1584. Early books initially included woodcut illustrations imported from Europe, but printers soon employed anonymous local blockcutters to create heraldic devices, religious images, and playing cards. Throughout the 17th century, print production in colonial Spanish America gradually increased, and by the 18th century Mexico City, Puebla, Guatemala City, Lima, and other cities possessed communities of printmakers. Colonial printmaking thrived thanks to a vigorous trade in images, despite paper shortages and a near total lack of formal instruction before the establishment of art academies in the late colonial era. Prints poured into the viceroyalties from across the Atlantic. At the same time, local artists produced woodcuts, engravings, and a few etchings for individual and corporate patrons who displayed the images in their homes and distributed them widely. Unlike their European contemporaries, few Spanish American printmakers were active in what has come to be known as reproductive printmaking, that is, the creation of engraved reproductions of works of art. The closest most colonial printmakers came to making reproductive prints were the so-called statue portraits, or engravings of cult images, maps, scientific images, and other book illustrations. These prints, however, were created primarily as devotional and informational items rather than works made for aesthetic enjoyment. The artists’ oeuvres include saints’ images; scenes from the lives of Christ and the Virgin Mary; portraits, heraldry; allegorical themes; and some history, science, and genre images. As colonial territories sought independence in the early 19th century, printed images played a leading role in visualizing insurgent propaganda and helped to shape nascent national identities.

Article.  8036 words. 

Subjects: Regional and Area Studies ; History of the Americas

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