Art of the Americas After 1300

First Things First...

You may want to use the “Founding of Tenochtitlan” from the Codex Mendoza as the key image from which your lecture and discussion will stem for this class on Art of the Americas After 1300. You could use this class activity at the beginning of your class to get your students to look closely at the object and ask students to pair off and discuss what they see, then open up the discussion to the whole class and analyze the context of the codex together. The period 1300 CE–Present adheres roughly to a pre-Columbian/post-contact timeline, emphasizing cultural and historical shifts that occurred as a result of European settlers “discovering” the Americas.

Regarding terminology in the Americas, many scholars choose to write ‘precolumbian’ in order to de-emphasize Columbus’s role in this time period. This language intends to correct and mitigate the prevailing Eurocentric worldview that has been historically imposed upon the Americas and has often obscured recognition of indigenous influence, achievement, and rights. Either term is acceptable nomenclature, and invoking this debate may provide a succinct in-road to discussing issues of identity that arise frequently in American art. The lectures on this website use ‘pre-Columbian’ exclusively for purposes of clarity.

Background Readings

The Founding of Tenochtitlan,” page from the Codex Mendoza, Aztec, sixteenth century.

Background reading might include your survey textbook, Miller, Mary Ellen. The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec (London: Thames & Hudson, 2001), and these thematic essays from the Met Museum’s Timeline of Art History. Jacqueline Barnitz’s Twentieth-Century Art of Latin America and the A History of the World in 100 Objects podcast on the Aztec double-headed serpent are particularly informative.

There are some great online resources for this lecture including the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies (FAMSI) and MoMA’s Diego Rivera: Murals for the Museum of Modern Art interactive site.

Content Suggestions

This course spans a large geographic region, multiple cultures, and five historical eras. In an hour and fifteen minutes, the class can investigate the art of the Americas from pre-European contact to the contemporary moment through:

  • “The Founding of Tenochtitlan,” page from the Codex Mendoza, Aztec, sixteenth century.
  • The Goddess Coatlicue, Aztec, 1487–1520.
  • Coyolxauhqui, Aztec, fifteenth entury.
  • Colossal Head of Coyolxauhqui, Aztec, n.d.
  • Double-Headed Serpent, Aztec, fifteenth-sixteenth century.
  • Vase, Puebla, Mexico, eighteenth century.
  • Francisco Laso, Inhabitant of the Cordillera, 1855.
  • Francisco Laso, Portrait of Gonzalo Pizarro, 1855.
  • Juan Cordero, Columbus Before the Catholic Monarchs, 1850.
  • Diego Rivera, History of Mexico: Mexico Today and Tomorrow, 1929–35.
  • Frida Kahlo, My Birth, 1932.
  • Goddess Tlazolteotl in Childbirth, fifteenth-sixteenth century.
  • Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Enrique Chagoya, and Felicia Rice, Codex Espangliensis, 2001.

“The Founding of Tenochtitlan” from The Codex Mendoza, which functions as a picture book on European paper, introduces students to the contact between the pre-Columbian world and Europe. The King of Spain ruled the Viceroyalty of New Spain (1521–1821), which covered the geographic region of current day Mexico and Central America. He appointed a minister, called the viceroy of New Spain, to govern the colonial territory. Native artists painted the pages, and Don Antonio de Mendoza (1535–50), the first Viceroy of New Spain probably annotated the manuscript in Spanish. The manuscript includes a history of Aztec rulers, annual tributes paid by towns to the last emperor Motecuhzoma, and the life-cycle from birth to death. Even though book production was common under the Aztec civilization, most manuscripts did not survive because the Europeans destroyed them. The page that we are viewing depicts the founding of Aztec capital Tenochtitlan (modern-day Mexico City) founded in 1345. The Aztecs spoke Nahuatl and claimed to be nomads from Aztlan—the legendary place of origin of the Aztecs. In the early fourteenth century, the Aztecs were driven from their settlement. Legend says that Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec cult god of war, promised to lead them to a new homeland, which he would signal by showing an island in a lake where an eagle holding a serpent was alight on a cactus. The eagle, still the national emblem of Mexico, is an Aztec symbol for the sun. Students may recognize this image at the center of the Founding of Tenochtitlan from its modern usage as the central image on the Mexican flag. In the four quadrants, which possibly represent wards of the city, are the city’s ten founders. Below are two conquest scenes, each depicting the burning of a temple. Around the margin is the 51-year count of the first Aztec leader Tenuch’s rule (1325–75).

The powerful sculpture of Coatlicue (1487–1520) will help students understand several aspects of the Aztec religion and aesthetics. Blood sacrifice was important to Aztec sculpture; indeed, Spaniards found an accumulation of human blood on some of the sculptures. Along with blood, sculptures were encrusted with jewels and gold. This sculpture of Coatlicue (meaning “She of the Serpent Skirt”) shows Coatlicue’s decapitated head replaced by two snakes, which symbolized flowing blood in Aztec iconography. In profile the sculpture resembles twin pyramids. The story of Coatlicue introduces students to the importance of cosmology for the Aztecs, evidenced by the origin stories they created for the celestial movements they witnessed.

While cleaning a temple, Coatlicue was legendarily impregnated by a ball of feathers. Her existing daughter Coyolxauhqui and her five hundred sons were enraged by the pregnancy and plotted to kill her. When they decapitated her, Huitzilopochtli (the Aztec god of war) rose fully grown from Coatlicue’s severed head and dismembered Coyolxauhqui. Huitzilopochtli in this origin story was equated with the sun, Coyolxauhqui was representative of the moon (whose dismemberment parallels the moon’s phases), and her 500 brothers were representative of the stars. Each night Huitzilopochtli (as the sun) chases and defeats Coxolxauhqui and her brothers (the moon and stars) to create the dawn of a new day.

The serpent, as a symbol of dualism, was a fundamental part of the Aztec religion. If your class has studied Hinduism or other world religions, you can also bring in a cultural comparison of other world religions’ representation of dualism in religious artforms. For the Aztecs, the serpent was a symbol of regeneration, resurrection, and fertility, as explored through Coatlicue. Further, the Aztec Double-Headed Serpent was made of two thousand pieces of turquoise on a curved wooden frame, with red shells for the snout and gums and white shells for the teeth. Reflecting light on the sculpture alters its colors to look like feathers, so it functions as an earth-dwelling snake and a sky-dwelling bird, signifying the duality of the feather-serpent deity Quetzalcoatl. Therefore the serpent symbolizes the fusion of heaven and earth, eternity and renewal. This work was most likely worn or carried in a religious ceremony.

The Vase from Puebla is part of the Hispanic Society of America’s collection in New York City and emphasizes the syncretic nature of colonial American art production. If you have already taught Chinese and/or Islamic art, this is a good place to bring in a review of Chinese and Islamic ceramic production for comparative purposes in order to emphasize the historic and geographic dialogues taking place in the eighteenth century during the colonial period of the Americas.

The Spanish crown’s Manila Galleon brought porcelain, silk, ivory, and spices from China to Mexico in exchange for silver. The ship sailed through the Philippines, which, like much of the Americas, was also under Spanish rule. Of particular importance to this lesson is the subject depicted on the vase. Through this trade route, artisans in the New World were directly exposed to Chinese ceramics, and this blue and white motif with a crane-like design incorporates the history of blue and white Islamic ceramic production and the history of Chinese porcelain with a now-familiar Mexican subject—the eagle alighting on a cactus to mark the founding of Tenochtitlan.

Peruvian painter Francisco Laso’s Inhabitant of the Cordillera from 1855 also focuses on ceramics and pre-Columbian motifs. In this painting, Laso depicts an idealized native figure. The figure holds a jar from the Moche culture. The Moche civilization (100-800 CE) was agriculturally based and located on the northern Peruvian coast. Their ceramic production was varied and included works such as three-dimensional ruler portraits, animals, and the one depicted here, of a prisoner with a rope around his neck and his hands tied behind his back. Laso painted this work thirty years after Peru declared its independence from Spain. Inhabitant of the Cordillera functions even today as an allegory of the continued repression of the indigenous peoples of Peru. Laso equated the imagery on the Moche vessel with the plight of the mid-nineteenth-century indigenous peoples in Peru who did not have the same rights as the Peruvian creole population—Peruvian citizens who were descendants of Spaniards, but who were born in Peru.

Laso painted in the Realist style popularized in France in the 1840s, and this particular work was meant for a European audience at the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1855. This exhibition was a fair that displayed new technologies, industry-related inventions, and works of art from around the globe. Laso hung Inhabitant of the Cordillera with an “imaginary” Portrait of Gonzalo Pizarro, who accompanied his brother, the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro, to Peru in 1532 and captured the Inca capital of Cuzco. This juxtaposition drew a direct connection between the historical exploits and oppression of the Spanish invaders and contemporary nineteenth-century struggles for equality within the indigenous population.

Juan Cordero’s Columbus Before the Catholic Monarchs from 1850 highlights the search for identity that the newly formed nation of Mexico sought to imagine after it gained independence from Spain in 1821. Mexicans wanted to examine their own past instead of Europe’s history in the context of the New Republic of Mexico. Cordero created the first secular Mexican history painting, and it is an example of the first time the Mexican public saw American subject matter represented in history painting. History painting was the highest genre in the official French salon’s hierarchy and in Mexico’s official art academy, the Academy of San Carlos (founded in 1781). Most painters at the Academy of San Carlos prior to Cordero’s work painted European historical narratives, mythological and religious subjects.

Although this is an American subject, Cordero was in dialogue with European works such as Jacques-Louis David’s The Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine (1806–7), painted a few decades earlier. Cordero painted his work while living in Italy as a tribute to the Italians (Columbus was from Genoa, Italy). Cordero revealed the hierarchical nature of the Spanish court through his representation of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the military, the Church, and Christopher Columbus. Columbus acts as a conduit between the ”Old” and ”New Worlds” and mediates visually between the Europeans and the indigenous peoples. Cordero depicted him as the one who brought civilization to the “barbaric” Americas, a common misconceived European projection. Tellingly, the Mexican critics at the time were more interested in Columbus and the monarchs than the Native American figures. Pre-Hispanic indigenous peoples were essentially invisible in academic painting until Cordero. However, Cordero painted his own portrait as an indigenous person in profile. Cordero was a creole—a descendant of Spanish parents, but born in Mexico. His choice of self-depiction indicates his identification with Mexico’s indigenous past. This theme, which we have seen present in Peru around the same time period would remain prevalent in twentieth- and twenty-first-century artists’ work.

This cultural fusion is also seen in the work of modern Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Rufino Tamayo, who incorporated Pre-Columbian imagery into their art. The Mexican mural movement began in post-Revolutionary Mexico in the 1920s under President Alvaro Obregon (in office 1920–4). It was the only avant-garde art in Latin America to receive government support in the 1920s. The post-Revolutionary government used murals as a tool for their education program. The government introduced a new, public, monumental art to create effective visual language for propaganda. There were three main protagonists of the Mexican mural movement: Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco. We will be focusing on one of Rivera’s works, which included the proletarian worker as a subject. The muralists saw themselves as one with the worker’s movement and often worked for workmen’s wages and likened the physical labor of painting frescoes to assembly line production. Of particular relevance to this lesson is the organizational structure that Rivera used in his History of Mexico: Mexico Today and Tomorrow, National Palace in Mexico City, whose composition he derived partly from pre-contact manuscripts. This borrowed manuscript structure preserves unity in a very detailed scene. His mural narrative includes the history of Mexico from the conquest to the Mexican Revolution. Rivera treated the injustices toward Mexico’s indigenous population as historical rather than contemporary. At the top of the scene, Karl Marx is depicted holding a scroll in which he defines a classless society while pointing to a future utopia as workers agitate. This scene reveals Rivera’s embrace of Communism as a political system. Rivera painted an indictment of capitalism and depicted United States businessmen around a ticker tape, which frames scenes depicting the decadent and debauched behaviors of those benefiting from a capitalist system, including a sprawled, semi-naked woman in the scene above workers carrying loads of bricks on their backs. As a foil, he depicted his wife Frida Kahlo and her sister teaching children to read the works of Marx and his writing partner Friedrich Engels.

Kahlo would also adopt pre-Columbian objects as inspirations for her work. For example, in My Birth (1932), Kahlo looked toward the Aztec sculpture of the Goddess Tlazolteotl in Childbirth.

Performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña, visual artist Enrique Chagoya, and book artist Felicia Rice collaborated to create the Codex Espangliensis, 2001, a contemporary take on historical codices about the history of the Americas. The work is printed on amatl paper, which was the traditional medium of Mesoamerican manuscripts, and the language of the text mixed Spanish, English, and the Aztec language Nahuatl. The narrative includes characters in the history of the Americas from Hernán Cortés and Mohtecuzuma to Mickey Mouse and Superman and takes the reader on a journey through the struggles of the Chicano experience. Chicano is a term used to describe people of Mexican origin living in the United States. The Chicano movement began in the 1960s and was a civil rights movement that had multiple aims, including farm workers’ rights and better education. The movement also fought to reform negative or reductive stereotypes of Mexicans in media outlets and popular culture in the U.S.

There are several online resources for viewing the Codex Espangliensis that include the Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University website, a graduate student website from the University of Miami, Florida, and Google Books.

At the End of Class...

Ask students to write a short essay in which they compare two objects for a homework assignment. Instruct students to choose one object from the Art of Latin America After 1300 and an object from a previous class. Students should explain why they chose both objects for comparison and how each object is in dialogue with the other based on subject, medium, style, time period, geography, formal elements, trade routes, etc.

Another optional activity is to invite students to work in groups to create an artistic dialogue trade route map through Harvard’s open source interactive World Map Project that can be shared with the class.

Further Resources

Marisa Lerer (author) is an Assistant Professor of Visual and Performing Arts at Manhattan College.

Jon Mann (editor) is an Adjunct Lecturer at Lehman College, a Senior Contributor at Artsy, and a lecture contributor and editor at Art History Teaching Resources and Art History Pedagogy and Practice.