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Mexico’s Academy of San Carlos:
How a School of Art Helped To Build a Nation

by Steven Carr
October 2013

Academy Of San Carlos in Mexico City. Even during the most turbulent periods of Mexican history the academy reinforced republican values and national unity.

At many critical moments in Mexico’s sometimes stormy history, its national school of art, the Academy of San Carlos, was a decisive factor in defending national sovereignty and promoting progress. President Benito Juárez, in his effort to forge a lasting, true republic, and create an advanced economy that engaged every segment of society, found some of his most ardent allies here. (Juárez spent many tense hours at the Academy in 1862 during the first few days of fierce fighting against the French invasion at Veracruz, knowing that it was here that the country’s patriotic response would be mustered.)

Portrait of President Benito Juárez done in 1862 by Santiago Rebull, a director of the academy. President Juárez worked closely with much of the leadership of the academy and even suggested themes to be painted.

At its best, the Academy was a force for national unity, a national identity, and human dignity. It survived kings, dictators, emperors, foreign invasions, and revolutions, but always served as a steady, guiding beacon for the nation. Often it was here that Mexico first dealt with its core historical issues—whether they were social, economic, racial, or political.

Nationalists vs. Royalists

Long before the War of Independence (1810-21), as early as 1793, Mexican Royalists began sending frantic letters to Spain warning that the Academy was a “political mistake.” They accused the Academy of being a “political body” opposed to the system of colonialism, and called for the Academy to be moved to Madrid, Spain, “where the Sovereign resides” to regain obedience. During the struggle for independence, the Academy, along with its sister institution, the School of Mining, provided much of the intellectual leadership and a fertile recruiting ground for the patriot cause.

One director of the Academy, Francisco Sánchez de Tagle (1782-1847), was a signer (and editor) of the Declaration of Independence, and another director, Pedro Patiño Ixtolinque (1774-1835) was known for his bold military actions when he went to the mountains to fight alongside General Vicente Guerrero. (When the Royalists resorted to brutal public executions of political opponents, and the grotesque displaying of the severed heads of the victims in town squares, they frequently included some of the best students in the carnage—such as the young painter, José Luis Rodríguez Alconedo, and the science students, Casimiro Chowel and Rafael Davalos).

Spain’s Leibnizian Carlos III

The Academy, the first in the Western Hemisphere, was founded in 1785 by King Carlos III (1716-1788) of Spain, who used his Leibnizian education and Colbertian economic policies to lift the Spanish realm out of Hapsburg feudalism and the clutches of the Inquisition. Carlos III used a national bank to build roads, canals, universities, observatories, medical schools, hospitals, botanical gardens, libraries, and Mexico’s Academy of San Carlos. His circles also created the equally crucial School of Mining in Mexico, but it was not founded until three years after the King’s death.

Aqueduct in the state of Puebla, painted by Eugenio Landesio, an Italian painter who gave classes at the academy and was impressed with the water projects across much of Mexico.

Mexico has a history of eager acceptance of this patriotic nation-building impulse, for example, in the 1530s, when New Spain was the shining example of how the New World could surpass the entrenched thinking of Europe. As Spain declined, and became embroiled in geopolitical wars, New Spain enjoyed 300 years of relative peace, building vast water projects, transforming agriculture, investing in mining, and promoting arts and sciences. Mexico’s first viceroy, Antonio de Mendoza (1495-1552), whose family was often credited with bringing the principles of the Italian Renaissance to Spain, built new cities in Mexico using Renaissance principles from Alberti’s On Architecture. His wide, clean, paved streets, designed in an orderly grid plan, with large public plazas encouraged a civil society. This always amazed European travelers who were accustomed to urban centers from the Middle Ages, where large defensive walls constricted the cities to overcrowded, haphazard street grids that were narrow and filthy. What Europeans called “utopia” was becoming a reality in the New World.

Joel Poinsett, America’s first ambassador to Mexico wrote:

“The streets ... are all well-paved and have sidewalks of flat stones. The public squares are spacious and surrounded by buildings of hewed stone, and of very good architecture. The public edifices are vast and splendid ... and have an air of solidity and even magnificence.... There is an air of grandeur in the aspect of this place.”

This commitment to progress reached the rural areas also. Bishops Juan de Zumárraga (1468-1548) and Vasco de Quiroga (early 1470's to 1565), were promoters of Erasmus of Rotterdam, and helped to pass the “New Laws” of 1542 that abolished slavery and other injustices. They founded towns, built schools and hospitals for the Indians, and worked to end the near-feudal encomienda system. However, by 1563, the Council of Trent argued that the dignity of man was an insult to God, and the Christian-humanist spirit of progress went into retreat. This backlash continued until 1571, when the Inquisition was established in Mexico (ironically doing more damage to the Church’s missionary zeal than anything done by their more commercially oriented rivals).

Science, the Renaissance, and the Academy

The Academy of San Carlos was not always in the hands of nationalists, and in fact, many of the historical records and biographies of the key figures at the Academy were written by their outspoken enemies. However, the founding charter of the Academy helped to maintain the mission orientation of the institution. For example, the charter established the high standards of the Classical tradition. (If a student considered a fellow student as straying from this Classical course, he would often refer to him as a “future El Greco.”) European painters often described the artistic battle at the Academy of San Carlos as between the styles of Raphael Sanzio and Bartolome Murillo. (Murillo was inspired by Velázquez and also the Flemish tradition, but his Spanish hometown of Seville had a monopoly on trade with Mexico and thus Murillo had greater influence than he might otherwise have had.) The Academy graduated some fine Classical artists, such as José Maria Velasco, a follower of the scientific work of Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), and Juan Cordero, the first to combine a Classical style with a nationalist subject matter. (Cordero was such a committed nationalist that he only used domestically produced paints.) Often these students would go on to become teachers at the Academy, and pass down the Classical training to the next generation.

The founding charter also required the Academy to recruit students from all social classes and races, disrupting the caste system of the colonial period. In the early years, to guarantee that nobody could question the participation of Indian students at the Academy, Carlos III personally gave each Indian student a title of nobility. When Alexander von Humboldt visited the Academy in 1803, he saw a new society created inside these walls and wrote:

“In this assemblage ... rank, color, and race is confounded: we see the Indian and the Mestizo sitting beside the white, and the son of a poor artisan in emulation with the children of the great lords of the country. It is a consolation to observe, that under every zone the cultivation of science and art establishes a certain equality among men, and obliterates for a time, at least, all those petty passions of which the effects are so prejudicial to social happiness.”

The Academy endured many difficult periods, but perhaps the worst period was during the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz (who ruled from 1876 to 1911, and was a favorite of the European colonial powers). Díaz, so eager to sell his country to the highest bidder, felt threatened by the nationalist impulse of the population. His cronies made fortunes, while the Mexican people became debt-slaves, and his political enemies were hunted down like animals. He hated any art that might inspire a nationalist outlook, and reorganized the Academy to cater to the fleeting fashions of the elite. (Even at the celebration of Mexico’s 100th anniversary of independence (Sept. 15, 1910), not a single work of art by a Mexican was permitted—and in fact, every work of art was from Spain, the old colonial master!)

Classical vs. ‘Modern Art’

The purpose of Classical art is to celebrate man’s creative potential, as opposed to personal taste or the latest fads. A noted art historian identified the year 1913 as a turning point in American (i.e., North American) art. He argued that after 1913, American art was no longer American, but rather imported “modern art,” and the same could be said about art in Mexico. Mexico once again needs the Academy of San Carlos not to be a ministry of taste or a clearing house of the latest trends, but use its deeper understanding of man’s potential to do what it does best—to be a guiding beacon for a troubled world.

Juan Cordero, Painter and Patriot

Juan Cordero's self-portrait done in 1847. He dedicated his life to make Mexico a stronger and more unified country.
"The Triumph of Science and Industry over Ignorance and Sloth" was Cordero's last mural done in 1874, calling to bring the science and industry of Benjamin Franklin's circles into Mexico. It met a violent reaction from Porfirio Diaz--the mural was destroyed, and Cordero's career nearly ended. Seen here is a copy of the mural by the painter, Juan M. Pacheco.

In Mexico, Baroque art was sometimes called, “the Eighth Wonder of the World,” but Cordero (1824-84) saw it as a symbol of foreign occupation, and believed that Mexico’s turn to Classical principles was an artistic Declaration Of Independence. President Benito Juárez praised Cordero for always working to keep the Academy true to its highest ideals, and intervened on his behalf to clean out members of the Board of Directors who were not faithful to the cause.

In 1874, Cordero’s family doctor, and the director of the National Preparatory School, Gabino Barreda, requested that Cordero paint a mural in the school that would be, “...a delectable ode to the immortal glory of [Benjamin] Franklin, [Robert] Fulton, and [Samuel] Morse.” Cordero would title his mural, “The Triumph of Science and Industry Over Ignorance and Sloth.” The mission of this mural was to call on the students of this school to bring the scientific method of Franklin’s circles to Mexico, and build a strong, growing nation. This was Cordero’s greatest and most controversial work, and the greatest threat to Porfirio Díaz and his oligarchic controllers.

The mural was destroyed in 1900 (replaced by a gaudy stained-glass window from Switzerland), and Cordero was persecuted and forced into near exile from his own artistic community. For 30 years, Cordero was prevented from exhibiting his works and was reduced to working as an itinerant painter in the then-remote Yucatán area of Mexico. Today all we have is a copy of the mural done by Juan M. Pacheco, and the description below by Cordero’s loyal friend, Felipe López:

“Minerva, goddess of wisdom, of majestic appearance, is seated on a substantial throne that symbolizes architecture. In back is a facade of the primitive Tuscan order; its pediment is surmounted by two small genii seated on the diagonal slopes; they offer honorific crowns of laurel and of oak, emblems of genius and of strength. On a lower level are seated ... two young deities symbolizing two powerful forces: Electricity and Steam, with their respective attributes. [On the left] ... sailors unload ... cargo from boats ... [and on the right] Cleo, Muse of History, writes ... her annals that compete in speed with time ... and a speedy locomotive [is seen in the distance].”

The mural also takes a jab at the culture of idleness and sloth of the nobility who thought that physical labor (and even intellectual and scientific pursuits) were dishonorable and fit only for the lower classes. Cordero was invited to speak at the unveiling ceremony where he said, “May these brush strokes ... reveal my love of country and my desire for the progress of a studious youth.” For the youth attending this school, Cordero included in the foreground a cherub with his finger pressed to his lips to impose quiet and to invite contemplation.

The "Casta" paintings by Miguel Cabrera were done in 1763. Before the Revolution much of the art in Mexico was designed to maintain colonialism and the racist caste system.

Before the Revolution, much of the art in Mexico was designed to maintain the colonial system and to reinforce the caste social structure (such as the “casta” paintings by Miguel Cabrera). Cordero wanted public art to be used decisively to establish Mexico’s independence and a new view of social justice. He wanted every government building, from the smallest school to the halls of Congress, to have murals and sculptures—not as decorations—but as a clear political statement that these government facilities are not owned by some local aristocrat, but rather belong to the people.

During his childhood, Cordero’s father saw his son’s talent and determination, and sent him to study at Mexico’s Academy of San Carlos. Later, the father would sell the family piano to send Juan to Rome to study at the Academy of Saint Luke. However, when Cordero arrived, Rome was under siege, and so he went to Florence instead, where he had even greater access to works by his idol, Raphael (1483-1520). The Mexican government made Juan a cultural attaché in order to give him a weekly stipend to cover his living expenses. (Official diplomatic correspondence of the Mexican government traditionally ended with, “God and Liberty,” but Cordero ended his personal letters home with, “God and Florence.”)

José Maria Velasco and Humboldt

Bridge at Metlac (1881) and Ravine of Metlac (1893) Here Velasco gives us a class on botany and celebrates progress with the engineering marvels of the new railroads.

Velasco (1840-1912), strongly influenced by Alexander von Humboldt, believed that landscape painting was a branch of natural science, not merely representations of picturesque scenes, but rather the deeper beauty revealed in the order and harmony of nature. To become a better painter he studied math, botany, zoology, anatomy, architecture, geography, and geology. His scholarly writings were published in scientific journals, and in 1879, he discovered a rare species of salamander that would later be named in Latin after him (Ambystoma Velasci). Mexico City was a center of scientific research, thanks in large part to the School of Mining and its scientific library, the largest on the continent. The school was free and open to all classes of society. Scientists in the United States often wanted to learn Spanish in order to keep up with discoveries in Mexico.

His hometown of Temascalcingo in the state of Mexico was one of the first to join the call for independence. Velasco traveled extensively across Mexico, but he limited nearly all of his landscape paintings to areas that were already scientifically mapped out by Humboldt (especially using Humboldt’s 1808 “Map of the Valley of Mexico”). Tranquil valleys are transformed into monumental scenes as he celebrates the progress of man. Some vistas are so vast that they suggest the curvature of the Earth. Humboldt’s methodology (much of it born in the Moses Mendelssohn intellectual circles in Berlin, Germany) carried much weight in the visual arts, but in landscapes, he not only generated public interest but also gave instruction on how it should be interpreted.

Valley of Mexico (1892). Velasco followed the footsteps of Humboldt and tried to continue his work using Humboldt's 1808 "Map of the Valley of Mexico" to document the valley from nearly every angle.

Humboldt had spent a year in Mexico, and was determined to fan the flames of its republican impulses. He loved Mexico, and said that no city in the Western Hemisphere had such a concentration of advanced studies as Mexico City, referring to the School of Mining, the Academy of San Carlos, and the Botanical Gardens. He left a lasting impression on the entire republican movement, and would be adopted as a hero of their cause. Later, President Juárez would make Humboldt an honorary citizen and bestow on him the title of “Benefactor of the Nation.” Still today, almost every house where Humboldt stayed has been converted into a museum.