Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 22, 2020
Kelly Donahue-Wallace Jerónimo Antonio Gil and the Idea of the Spanish Enlightenment Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2017. 398 pp.; 111 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780826357342)

The field of Spanish colonial art, to use a widely known if contested term, has enjoyed somewhat of a resurgence in the United States in the last decade or so. More and more universities are offering classes in the area, and an increasing number of museums are making serious overtures to establish collections. Perhaps mirroring these efforts, institutions in Europe are also starting to take a fresh look at the field and consider the region’s rich artistic output as part of the larger history of the Iberian world. To be sure, this growing interest in the field goes hand in hand with the expansion of the art historical canon and the invigoration of art historical discourse in general across various disciplines. In the United States, there has been a powerful trend, particularly in academia, to focus on specific genres or on the so-called contact period, examining the effect of local indigenous cultures on the art created under Spanish rule. As of late, however, scholars and museum professionals are also turning their attention to other aspects of the story and looking at broader swathes of this cultural dynamic, which is where this important book finds its well-deserved place.

Jerónimo Antonio Gil (1731–1798) has long been recognized as a key figure in the history of New Spanish or Mexican art, under whose leadership the first official art academy of the Americas was established in 1783—the Royal Academy of the Three Noble Arts of San Carlos. Despite this transcendental fact, this is the first monographic study devoted to him. Drawing on a range of archival documents and building on the earlier work of Mexican and Spanish scholars, Kelly Donahue-Wallace provides a rich contextual background for understanding Gil’s trajectory in his native Spain, the reasons that led to his move to Mexico and the challenges he faced there, and how he carefully crafted his own persona to gain a place among Spain’s distinguished community of enlightened thinkers (ilustrados). One of the book’s virtues is the author’s thoroughness in tracing the transatlantic journey of this major enlightened royal functionary, providing a sense of Gil’s personality and motivations, and successfully weaving in the institutional histories of his main places of action—the Royal Academy of San Fernando in Madrid and the Royal Academy of San Carlos in Mexico. In her study, the author does a commendable job showing how Gil linked the two institutions across time and space.

The book appropriately opens with an analysis of the famous portrait of Gil by the Valencian painter Rafael Ximeno y Planes (1759–1825), who arrived in Mexico in 1794 as the academy’s second director of painting. Gil likely commissioned the picture (which illustrates the book’s cover) to be displayed in the academy to memorialize its founders. With stern demeanor and fashionably dressed, Gil is shown holding a coin in his left hand struck from the die in his right hand, which in turn rests on a bound copy of the academy statutes (estatutos), printed with a typeface of his design. Behind him is a plaster bust from the famous Laocoön group, which signals Gil’s interest in Neoclassicism, and to the right is a screw press (volante), used for coins and medals, decorated with the Spanish coat of arms. Donahue-Wallace reads the inclusion of the tortured head of the Laocoön group autobiographically, suggesting that it stood for Gil’s travails over a life devoted to royal service. Whether this was Gil’s intention or not it is difficult to say, but what is clear is that the portrait is carefully constructed as a summation of his long career on both sides of the Atlantic, one that ultimately garnered him a place among Spain’s nobility.

The story unfolds chronologically in seven highly readable chapters. The first three delve into Gil’s early training in Spain and his immersion in Madrid’s enlightened elite from 1749 to 1778. Gil was among the early cadre of students who joined the new Royal Academy of San Fernando in Madrid, established in 1752 to modernize Spanish art, train local artists, and end the country’s reliance on foreign goods. Along with other royal institutions founded in the second half of the eighteenth century, the academy was part of the Bourbons’ plan to increase their political and economic power globally. Although Gil initially intended to study painting, he was offered a pension in metal engraving (1754–58), which set him on a different path. Engravers were tasked by the monarchy with producing thousands of prints, coins, and medals to help spread the idea of Spain’s grandeur. The first cluster of chapters describes Gil’s experience working under the direction of the engraver and medalist Tomás Francisco Prieto (1716–1782) and the tensions that arose between them, and how in 1760 Gil was honored with the title of académico de mérito (academic of merit) in recognition of his skills as a printmaker, medal engraver, and typeface designer. This ascension came alongside the concession of a nobility title and the concomitant patriotic responsibilities. In 1775, Gil became a socio de mérito (member of merit) of the Royal Economic Society of Madrid, which widened his exposure to Madrid’s enlightened elite. There he came in contact with the likes of the Spanish reformer Pedro Rodríguez Campomanes (1723–1802), author of the influential Discurso sobre el fomento de la industria popular (1774) and a proponent of providing free education to artisans to revive Spain’s economy. Donahue-Wallace meticulously considers Gil’s role in promoting a standardized visual language as part of Spain’s national agenda, his voluminous print output (he produced over 560 plates between 1758 and 1778, mostly for illustrated books and pamphlets), and his type design and manufacture, for which he adopted an emphatically Spanish character for the letters.

Encouraged by his rapid ascent, in 1777 Gil applied unsuccessfully to become director of copperplate engraving at the Royal Academy of San Fernando. The following year he accepted a position as New Spain’s principal engraver of the Royal Mint—a nomination he had rejected in 1773. Chapter 4 focuses on Gil’s early years in New Spain, a subject that until now has remained little understood. He arrived there in 1778 with orders from King Charles III (r. 1759–88) to reorganize the engraving office of Mexico’s principal mint and reform taste, banning what the proponents of Neoclassicism largely considered an unpalatable hybrid artistic style. Aside from instructing the mint’s engravers, Gil also offered free evening drawing classes to the public. The success of this provisional school prompted Gil to lobby for the establishment of an art academy, which is the subject of chapters 5 and 6. While local New Spanish artists had made repeated attempts to establish an art academy and receive royal endorsement (ca. 1722, 1754, and 1768), the project only came to fruition under Gil in 1783. Local artists initially greeted the project with enthusiasm, though the situation soon turned acrimonious over matters of precedence between the academy’s directors and Gil’s alleged intransigence. This part of the story, including Gil’s legendary tension with the directors he recruited from New Spain and Spain, has been extensively treated by other scholars (e.g., Thomas Brown, Eduardo Báez Macías, and Susan Deans-Smith, among others). Donahue-Wallace, however, adds to the conversation by tracing Gil’s adeptness at navigating colonial politics and establishing a strong network of allies that enabled him to materialize the academy. Appealing to the king’s reformist ethos, he justified its foundation on the grounds that it would educate artists in the noble arts, help implant Neoclassicism, and also train skilled artisans, which would stimulate local manufacturing, help improve the colony’s productivity, and provide more revenues for Spain. As Donahue-Wallace points out, Gil was also a master strategist and made good use of the local newspaper and other avenues to promote the academy and its centrality within the viceregal system.

The last chapter provides a fascinating glimpse into Gil’s personal museum. Amassing a collection was a sign of sociability that reflected the high social status of the educated elite. Based on the close inspection of Gil’s probate inventory, Donahue-Wallace dissects the over four thousand objects he collected (jewelry, medals, arms, silverware, coins, paintings, prints, books, clothing, furniture, carriages, engraver’s tools, and more), suggesting that many were likely acquired in New Spain. The sheer quantity of objects and their diversity of materials recalls Ximeno y Planes’s painting by describing Gil as an artist, fervent royal servant, and hombre de bien (respectable citizen). Still unanswered, however, is the question of the extent to which Gil’s teachings and buen gusto (good taste), based on classical art, impacted the largely eclectic artistic output of the viceroyalty in the crucial years leading to the country’s wars of independence beginning in 1810. Comprising as much institutional history as biography and history of taste and aesthetics, this exemplary book represents a significant contribution to the history of eighteenth-century Iberian art in the age of Enlightenment. Besides its scholarly merit, this volume (along with other recent studies) also represents the healthy growth of the field beyond more-established paradigms.

Ilona Katzew
Department Head and Curator, Latin American Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art