The Enlightenment and its Visual Manifestations in Spanish America

Daniela Bleichmar

in Latin American Studies

ISBN: 9780199766581
Published online October 2011 | | DOI:
The Enlightenment and its Visual Manifestations in Spanish America

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  • Regional and Area Studies
  • History of the Americas



The Spanish American Enlightenment is loosely dated as the period starting with Charles III’s accession to the Spanish throne in 1759 and concluding with the emergence of independence wars in 1810. During this period, Spanish American visual culture was extremely rich, varied, and significant in multiple contexts, including political, social, historical, cultural, and scientific. It is crucial to note that the Spanish American Enlightenment, particularly as manifested visually, was distinct from the European one and must be taken in its own terms, which will often have a decidedly baroque tinge for scholars of Europe. This is particularly the case given that baroque forms and genres coexisted with Enlightenment ones—for example, baroque crowned-nun portraits (see Gender) were commissioned and created at the same time and for the same audiences as Enlightenment casta paintings (see Depicting Race). Spanish American elites reconciled paintings that to modern eyes appear disparate. Traits that characterize visual culture in the Spanish American Enlightenment include the emergence of new institutional contexts for the production of art, most notably fine arts academies; the continued importance of visual statements within imperial administrative contexts; the creation of visual treatises and encyclopedias that pictorially documented Spanish American nature, territory, and peoples, often made within administrative contexts; the operation of numerous scientific expeditions that privileged the production of visual evidence; the emergence of antiquarianism based on the study of pre-Hispanic visual and material culture; an increasing tendency for visual statements to convey Creole patriotism in various settings, including local religious devotions, history painting, portraiture, and science; in architecture, a shift away from a churrigueresque (Spanish American baroque) to a neoclassical style; the growing presence of secular-themed visual culture despite the continued dominance of religious visual culture; and the involvement of visual culture in political unrest. Despite these general themes, attention to local conditions is of extreme importance because of the enormous expanse of the Spanish Americas and the multiplicity of settings for the production and consumption of visual statements—from opulent bustling urban centers such as Mexico City, Lima, and Manila to smaller provincial nodes such as Trujillo in Peru or Bogotá in New Granada, to borderlands and contact zones. Finally, it is worth noting that the visual manifestations of the Spanish American Enlightenment are less well known than warranted by the materials available for the study. This may be because scholars of the Spanish American Enlightenment have tended to privilege political, economic, and intellectual history topics such as the study of Bourbon political and economic reforms and the emergence of Creole patriotisms, while historians of Spanish American visual culture have tended to focus on 16th-century contacts between Spanish and Amerindian cultures and the transformation of the latter, as well as the emergence of visually spectacular Spanish American baroque art and architecture during the 1600s. New scholarship continues to refine our understanding of the visual culture of the Spanish American Enlightenment.

Article.  9808 words. 

Subjects: Regional and Area Studies ; History of the Americas

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