Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 4, 2021
Emily Engel Pictured Politics: Visualizing Colonial History in South American Portrait Collections Austin: University of Texas Press, 2020. 184 pp.; 24 color ills.; 79 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (9781477320594)

In January 1823, a month before he was named the first president of the Republic of Peru, José de la Riva Agüero asked the city council of Lima to remove the portrait of Viceroy José Fernando de Abascal y Sousa (r. 1806–16) from their chambers and contribute it to a nascent national collection of portraits. The councilors, however, could not comply with the request. The Lima-based artist Mariano Carrillo had painted his portrait of José de San Martín, the general who had declared Peru’s independence in 1821, over the image of Viceroy Abascal. As Emily Engel shows, however, not all portraits of viceroys—royal appointees who enjoyed a status of near-equivalence with the king of Spain—suffered this fate.

Over the course of five chapters, Pictured Politics: Visualizing Colonial History in South American Portrait Collections examines portraits of viceroys and other officials in Spanish colonial South America in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It is the first book to bring together this wide-ranging corpus of images, and one of its strengths is the novel perspective it provides on an era of political change and shifting boundaries. Established in 1542, the Viceroyalty of Peru comprised nearly all of Andean South America and the adjacent Pacific coastlands. Out of this vast territory the Crown carved two new jurisdictions in the eighteenth century. New Granada—the region that would become the nations of Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela—was administered from Bogotá, and Río de la Plata—comprising parts of today’s Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Paraguay—was governed from Buenos Aires. As viceroys were appointed to these jurisdictions, institutions such as city councils commissioned and collected portraits of them, acts that Engel says “established legitimacy for the nascent viceregal courts” (82).

While recognizing that likenesses of the kings’ alter egos were part of a broader visual culture invoking the monarchy’s presence in the Americas, Engel emphasizes their civic contexts, arguing that they “visualized local history as inseparable from imperial history” (10). In chapter 3, Engel provides an example of this effect in the context of Lima, the capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru. She identifies some of the portraits of viceroys listed in a nineteenth-century inventory as works in the collection of the Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Antropología e Historia del Perú (MNAAHP) and ties them to the patronage of Lima’s city council in the eighteenth century. Among them is a portrait of Ambrosio O’Higgins (r. 1796–1801), a full-length, life-size image of the viceroy by the Limeño painter Pedro Díaz. The O’Higgins portrait demonstrates the conventions of the genre, depicting its impassive sitter in courtly dress standing before a billowing red curtain in an unspecified architectural space. At the bottom of the canvas, three lines of text record aspects of his biography. In the background, an arched passageway frames an idealized landscape that Engel identifies as the city of Lima and interprets as a reference to the “unprecedented urban development projects supervised by the viceroy during his tenure in office” (75). The minutes from a city council meeting in 1798 support this reading, documenting the decision to commission a portrait of O’Higgins commemorating the completion of a road from Lima to the port of Callao during his tenure (74).

Of the fifteen portraits of viceroys Engel examines in the chapter, that of O’Higgins is the only one linked through colonial-period documents to the city council’s patronage. Scholars of Spanish colonial art are familiar with this problem. Extant paintings often cannot be associated with contracts and other relevant documents, and vice versa. In Pictured Politics there is another dimension to this challenge. As in Spanish colonial Mexico City, multiple portraits of viceroys were painted and collected in eighteenth-century Lima. In addition to those commissioned by the city council, others hung in the viceregal palace, the cathedral, and the tribunal of the merchant’s guild. The literature on the subject indicates that works commissioned by the city council were not the only ones that entered the collection of the MNAAHP, and scholars have been cautious in attributing individual paintings to particular institutional patrons. The reader is left to wonder how the provenance of the portraits of viceroys from the MNAAHP in Pictured Politics was determined. Other aspects of the postcolonial history of those portraits muddle their evidentiary status further. As Engel mentions in a footnote, some were damaged or destroyed in a twentieth-century fire and were subsequently restored or “re-created in replicas” (143). As an example, Ricardo Estabridis refers to the destruction of another portrait of Viceroy Abascal in a fire in 1921 and indicates that a replica painted by José Gutiérrez Infantas (1897–1997) is held today in the collection of the MNAAHP. Readers of Pictured Politics might reasonably ask if any of the replica portraits are among those examined in the chapter.

Chapter 4 turns to portraits of the viceroys of New Granada. Engel effectively draws from works in Bogotá’s Museo Colonial to trace a narrative of pictorial evolution. An image of the first viceroy, Jorge de Villalonga (r. 1719–24), follows the life-size, full-length format used in Lima, but the painter Joaquín Gutiérrez would set a different standard, portraying Villalonga’s successors in three-quarter length and surrounded by a fictive oval frame. Engel argues that the frame within a frame “created a sense of timelessness or longevity” and interprets the absence of the convention in later portraits as “reflecting the tastes of individual viceroys, the political circumstances that brought them to power, and the instability spreading across the viceroyalty” (99). The case of official portraiture in Buenos Aires is also examined in chapter 4. A compelling section of the chapter recounts the city council’s failed attempt to acquire a portrait of Pedro Antonio de Cevallos (r. 1776–78), the first viceroy to govern there (101–2). Portraits of the viceroys of Río de la Plata receive comparatively little attention in the chapter, the consequence of the viceroyalty’s short lifespan and, presumably, a lack of extant portraits. Nonetheless, incidents like the city council’s pursuit of the Cevallos portrait provide a window onto the mechanics of institutional patronage as a new system of governance took shape.

Preceding the studies of portraits of viceroys from Lima, Bogotá, and Buenos Aires are two chapters on related themes. Chapter 1 centers on Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala’s line drawings of the viceroys of Peru in his El primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno (1615–16) and proposes that through their representation on consecutive pages of the manuscript, they “become a collective group that represents the history of early colonial South America” (30). Following Rolena Adorno, Engel notes that when they are considered in relation to their accompanying texts, Guaman Poma’s drawings of viceroys reveal an “inarguable gap between an ideal imperial governance of the Peruvian viceroyalty and the territory’s actual colonial administration” (34). Chapter 2 considers royal portraits in their Spanish colonial contexts and addresses the role of city councils in commissioning them and the pictorial sources painters used in producing them. Few of these works survived the wars of independence, but references to them in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century documents abound. Among the examples highlighted in the chapter is the Buenos Aires city council’s decision to commission a portrait of Charles III from the local artist Francisco Pimentel in 1772. Engel writes that the painting Pimentel produced was based on a portrait of the monarch by Anton Rafael Mengs, and she details some of the ways in which the Buenos Aires portrait both mirrored and differed from its prototype (51–52). Engel returns to the subject of royal portraits in chapter 5, examining José Gil de Castro’s portraits of Ferdinand VII and his adaptation of the compositional conventions of viceroy images when portraying military leaders of the independence period, among them Simón Bolívar.

The arguments advanced in Pictured Politics are contingent on the kinds of historical sources that pose some of the greatest challenges in the field of Spanish colonial art history. Questions about the provenance and dating of the portraits are difficult to resolve, as are those about the architectural settings in which they were displayed. These issues are central to an analysis of the ways in which portrait collections celebrated and, as Engel argues, even impacted the work of their institutional patrons. In cases where Engel links paintings to patrons in ways different from scenarios proposed by other scholars—such as the identification of the Lima city council as the institutional patron for Gil’s portrait of Bolívar (126–27) and Díaz’s portrait of Viceroy Abascal (119–20)—the nature of the intervention and the evidence supporting it are not made clear. Despite these obstacles, Pictured Politics provides a model for studying the ways in which local and imperial concerns converged in artistic patronage and serves as a fine example of how interviceregal comparison can be revealing and, at the same time, generate new research questions.

Michael J. Schreffler
University of Notre Dame