This work is sold with a certificate of authenticity signed by Ma. Elena Altamirano Piolle.
José María Velasco is a seminal figure in the history of Mexican art. As a student of the Italian-born Eugenio Landesio at Mexico City's historic Academy of San Carlos, he was schooled in the traditional compositional motifs of the great 17th century master Claude Lorrain, and he would always retain that sense of classical order. This he augmented with close observation of his native countryside, including its geology, flora, and light. He collaborated on projects relating to natural history and archaeology: two disciplines that evolved over the course of his career. In the late 1870s, Gumersindo Mendoza, director of the National Museum, commissioned several pictures of pre-Hispanic ruins focusing on the site of Teotihuacán. He was later engaged to paint mural-size works of the pre-historic epochs and anthropological discoveries. This study honed the sense of time and history which permeate his art. As realist landscapes his pictures depict identifiable landmarks while they subtly suggest the centuries of history that unfolded there.
Mexico was the artist's home and subject. Born in Temascalcingo, he moved as a young boy a few miles south to Mexico City, and remained there during his studies and early years of marriage. In 1874 he relocated his growing family to La Villa de Guadalupe, where he would reside for the remainder of his career. This moment marks his preoccupation with the Valley of Mexico. Even more significant, Cerro de Santa Isabel was just a short distance northwest of his home. He adopted that high hill as his belvedere or viewing platform from which he composed his personal interpretation of the valley. He first painted it from that perspective in 1875 (Národní Muzeum, Prague) and two years later produced his early masterpiece Valley of Mexico from the Hill of Santa Isabel (1877; Museo Nacional de Arte). There the artist presents a sweeping panorama of the valley and invites the viewer to travel through it, metaphorically following the path of the ancient Mexica people, searching for an island within a lake where--according to the prophecy of the god Huitzilopochtli--they would find an eagle perched on a prickly pear, devouring a serpent. These details are incorporated in the painted foreground including an eagle soaring in the sky and a cactus growing below: emblems of the founding myth of Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital located where Mexico City now stands. These elements appear naturalistic, yet with unmistakable reference to the legend.
The painting at hand, a later and perhaps final version of Valley of Mexico from Santa Isabel, achieves that same effect. Handsome to behold, it is redolent with historic allusion. The space flows from the foreground vegetation to the middle distance marked by the architectural contours and receding waters of Lake Texcoco referencing Tenochtitlán, the city founded upon the lagoon. Along the horizon stand the volcanoes of Popocatépetl (Aztec for "Smoking Mountain") and Iztaccíhuatl ("White Lady" in Náhuatl), recalling the star-crossed lovers of pre-Hispanic times from the familiar myth. The sky in this painting is extraordinary, with the cirrocumulus clouds casting their shadows on the land below. This chiaroscuro momentarily transforms that terrain into abstract patterns, and then brings the observer's eye back to the foreground, where the symbolic cactus appears in sunlight and the eagle in shadow.(1) The lightened palette used here may reflect his observation of French Impressionism during his trip to France for the Universal Exposition in 1889.
The painter returned repeatedly to this subject, from 1875 until 1892.(2) Critics noted its re-appearances, but argued that each time Velasco seemed to create it anew. Critic Francisco Diéz de Bonilla praised his 1877 depiction of it as a fresh subject, quite distinct from the 1875 version, and wrote enthusiastically: "Truly, I know of nothing more spontaneous, more bold; and who knows, more novel, in the light of our tropical sky and in the nature of our valley."(3) Velasco was born in the region and lived there all his life. Like John Constable's painted series of the Stour Valley or Paul Cézanne's of Mont Saint-Victoire, Velasco's concentration on this single motif close to home fostered a special intimacy with his subject that bore unique pictorial results.
Velasco represented his country at the great international expositions of the last quarter of the nineteenth century, winning praise and medals in Philadelphia, Paris, Chicago, and beyond. He showed his work against stiff competition, for it was the great age of landscape, when nations across the western world each boasted a major representative in the genre. Yet few could rival Velasco, and his signature renderings of the Valley of Mexico.
© Katharine E. Manthorne, Professor of Modern Art of the Americas, The Graduate Center, CUNY.
1) The standard monograph is M. E. Altamirano Piolle, National Homage. José María Velasco (1840-1912), 2 vols. Mexico City, Museo Nacional de Arte, 1993, for the 1877.
2) According to M. E Altamirano, the artist's great granddaughter and the current authority in his work, there are seven known versions of the 1877 composition. This painting appears to be the eighth and possibly last one.
3) Diéz de Bonilla, "Academia de Bellas Artes, colaboración," quoted in S. G. Widdifield, The Embodiment of the National in Late Nineteenth-Century Mexican Painting, Tucson, University of Arizona Press, 1996, 113.