Folk Arts of the Spanish Southwest from the Index of American Design

  • Overview

    During the early history of the southwestern United States, a folk art developed that was dependent on two major sources: Old World Spanish tradition and native Indian sensibilities. The areas that comprised what can be called the "Spanish Southwest" were California and New Mexico. By 1610, Santa Fe, New Mexico, was the capital of an area that encompassed most of the southwest region other than California. It was not until the middle of the eighteenth century, however, that Spain took decisive action in occupying the area that is now California. There are three broad historical periods related to the Spanish Southwest: the Spanish period until Mexican Independence in 1821; the period of the Mexican Republic from 1823 to 1846; and the American period beginning in 1848 when Mexico ceded these territories to the United States.

    Geoffrey Holt (artist), American, active c. 1935, and Harry Mann Waddell (artist), American, active c. 1935, Anonymous Craftsman (Native American) (object maker), Restoration Drawing: Wall Painting; Door, 1937, watercolor, colored pencil, pen and ink, and graphite on paper, Index of American Design, 1943.8.5983

    1 of 26

  • The interiors of Spanish colonial missions were usually decorated with wall paintings. Seen here are the holy water font, beam, and ceiling decoration from Mission San Juan Capistrano, located between modern Los Angeles and San Diego. Although the mission itself dates from about 1776, the decoration is a restoration from about 1812-1813. The font is carved sandstone and plaster. Bold, brilliant colors are used to create strong contrasts. In the ornamental borders the motifs are derived from European art but appear in simplified, almost primitive shapes. There was no single "mission style" of decoration in California; European, Mexican, and Indian influences were intermingled everywhere, and the arts found at the different missions were markedly individual in character.

    Randolph F. Miller (artist), American, active c. 1935, Anonymous Craftsman (Native American) (object maker), Wall and Ceiling Decorations, and Holy Water Font; Restoration Drawing, 1936, watercolor, colored pencil, pen and ink, gold ink,and graphite on paper, Index of American Design, 1943.8.5998

    2 of 26

  • This window from the Mission of Santa Barbara is located in the sanctuary of the church. Executed in tempera paint on plaster, the graceful floral design around the window reflects a distinctly European inspiration, in contrast to the native character of some mission painting. The painting was possibly designed by a padre, or, more probably, by a layman decorator engaged for the work. In either case, the designer would have been assisted in painting by an Indian apprentice. Originally done in about 1820, this painting was restored after the earthquake of 1925.

    Edward Jewett (artist), American, active c. 1935, Anonymous Craftsman (Native American) (object maker), Mission Santa Barbara (object owner), Wall Painting, c. 1940, watercolor, colored pencil, pen and ink, and graphite on paper, Index of American Design, 1943.8.5986

    3 of 26

  • Aided by the fertility of its lands, San Fernando Rey de España became one of the most prosperous missions in California. It is located between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. In 1819, the mission owned cattle and sheep numbering twelve thousand or more, along with five hundred horses and mules. The vineyards produced as much as two thousand gallons a year of both wine and brandy. The wall painting decorated the doorway of the mission house. The hunting scene illustrated the Indian practice of decoying deer: the animal on the right is actually a deer's pelt draped over the hunter, enabling him to come within shooting distance of the creature he is stalking. Painted in red on a white ground, the design represents the native Indian style and shows affinities with hunting-culture paintings elsewhere.

    Geoffrey Holt (artist), American, active c. 1935, Anonymous Craftsman (object maker), Restoration Drawing: Wall Decoration Over Doorway, Facade of Mission-House, c. 1937, watercolor, colored pencil, and graphite on paper, Index of American Design, 1943.8.5941

    4 of 26

  • The workshops of San Fernando were renowned for their ironwork. Produced by Indian blacksmiths, this handsome window grille is an example of their craft, and its style is typical of San Fernando, which created the most ornate grilles of all the missions. This window grille continues an art form that was indigenous to Spain. Not only is the design of European origin, but iron itself was a new artistic medium for the Indian craftsmen of California who had previously worked only in stone and wood.

    William Kieckhofel (artist), American, active c. 1935, Anonymous Craftsman (Native American) (object maker), Iron Grille, 1941, watercolor, colored pencil, and graphite on paper, Index of American Design, 1943.8.7577

    5 of 26

  • In California, most existing carving in the round is of stone, in contrast to the many wooden "bultos," or statues, of New Mexico. An example is this sandstone waterspout from the Santa Barbara mission. One of the reasons the site was selected for a mission, in fact, was the presence of abundant building stone. This piece may represent the grizzly bear, native to California. The waterspout was situated at the head of a stone laundry vat below a fountain in front of the mission. The overflow from the fountain was conducted to the laundry vat, emptying through the mouth of the bear into the basin of the vat. Indians brought their family wash to this basin, dipping garments in the water and beating them against the rim with paddles.

    Raymond E. Noble (artist), American, active c. 1935, Anonymous Craftsman (object maker), Water Spout, Sandstone, 1939, watercolor, colored pencil, and graphite on paper, Index of American Design, 1943.8.6900

    6 of 26

  • This waterspout in the form of a human face, from the Mission of San Luis Rey de Francia, in San Diego County, and the one from Santa Barbara may both have been designed by the same person — Padre Antonio Peyri or his assistant. Padre Peyri was in charge of San Luis mission from its establishment in 1798 until 1832. The Mission of San Luis Rey, named after King Louis IX of France, was adorned with other stone waterspouts carved in the shape of animal or human faces. Such decoration derives from European tradition; in Spain, such faces can be seen as corbels, or architectural supports, on medieval churches.

    Raymond E. Noble (artist), American, active c. 1935, Anonymous Craftsman (Native American) (object maker), Water Spout, 1939, watercolor, colored pencil, and graphite on paper, Index of American Design, 1943.8.6899

    7 of 26

  • In New Mexico, priests taught skills to local workers, who became known as "santeros." The latter produced ""santos," or religious images, that were either carved in the round — "bultos" — or painted on panels — "retablos." Whereas the California missions owned numbers of oil paintings, either imported from Mexico or the work of mission-trained artists, in New Mexico such paintings are rarely found. Instead, the artists were taught to paint with tempera on wooden panels that were first treated with gesso. A few panels were modeled in the gesso, like this one representing Our Lady of Sorrows. This type is rare and is believed to be from the early "santero" period in New Mexico. Such paintings have been dated by tree rings in the wood panels to the period 1765–1812.

    Maude Valle (artist), American, active c. 1935, Anonymous Craftsman (object maker), Denver Art Museum (object owner), Santo, 1936, watercolor, colored pencil, and graphite on paperboard, Index of American Design, 1943.8.6937

    8 of 26

  • The New Mexican panel paintings were known as "retablos." They were probably the work of only about a dozen men. This particular piece has been attributed to Miguel Aragon of Cordova, New Mexico, one of the best-known artists. Representing Saint Anthony in a characteristic pose, this panel is from an early nineteenth-century altarpiece in the Church of Llano Quemado near Taos. The altarpiece, or "reredos," had eight panels arranged in two tiers of four each; it was similar in concept to the many-paneled altarpieces of fifteenth-century Spain and Italy. Typical of Miguel Aragon's work, the panels of this altarpiece have white backgrounds with simple figure compositions. Also typical of the artist's style are the two small trees in the foreground, the draperylike framing, the clear, bright, color scheme, and the carefully delineated eyelids of the saint.

    E. Boyd (artist), American, active c. 1935, Anonymous Craftsman (object maker), New Mexico Historical Society (object owner), Panel from Altar Piece of San Antonio, c. 1936, watercolor, colored pencil, and graphite on paperboard, Index of American Design, 1943.8.6843

    9 of 26

  • Muted color schemes are typical of "retablos" in New Mexico. This "retablo," depicting Saint Michael, is painted on gesso over cottonwood. In keeping with most other "retablos," the design of this piece is flat and abstract in feeling; decorative motifs like the drapery are simplified. In these respects it is akin to a folk art style; the origins of this type of painting, however, go back to the numerous devotional images painted by followers of the seventeenth-century Spanish painter Murillo.

    Margery Parish (artist), American, active c. 1935, Anonymous Craftsman (object maker), Santo (St. Michael), c. 1939, watercolor, colored pencil, and graphite on paper, Index of American Design, 1943.8.6974

    10 of 26

  • The individual "santeros," or artists who created images of saints, are usually not known by name, but scholarly research has identified several distinct styles and artists. A painter whose work stands out was Molleno. This unidentified saint, possibly Saint Rosalia of Palermo, is shown on one of a series of altarpieces of a church. The panel exemplifies Molleno's early style, somewhat like traditional Spanish style, especially in the elongated figure and expressive hands. The color scheme, with its emphasis on bold, black outlines, is characteristic of Molleno's work.

    Carl O'Bergh (artist), American, 1911 - 1978, Anonymous Craftsman (object maker), Denver Art Museum (object owner), Retablo, c. 1939, watercolor, colored pencil, and graphite on paper, Index of American Design, 1943.8.6982

    11 of 26

  • One of the popular motifs for the "retablo" painter was the Holy Trinity "La Santisima Trinidad." This has always been a difficult subject for the artist to depict; the usual portrayal consists of the Father, the Son, and a dove representing the Holy Spirit. The version shown in this "retablo" originated in Byzantium. It portrays the Holy Trinity as three men. The Byzantine form was abandoned in Europe in 1745 because of a papal edict, but continued unchanged in Spanish America.

    E. Boyd (artist), American, active c. 1935, Anonymous Craftsman (Native American) (object maker), Caddy Wells (object owner), Retabla of the Trinity, c. 1936, watercolor, colored pencil, and graphite on paper, Index of American Design, 1943.8.6815

    12 of 26

  • The other form of artistic expression most common to colonial New Mexico was the "bulto." Also made by the "santeros," these are small carvings in the round representing a single religious figure or a group. Usually made of cottonwood roots or pine, the figures were covered with gesso ground and painted. This "bulto" depicts the Holy Trinity. Here, the three figures seem grown together, giving additional emphasis to the idea of the Trinity. A knotted leather thong is tied around the figures.

    Ranka S. Woods (artist), American, active c. 1935, Anonymous Craftsman (object maker), Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center (object owner), Santo, c. 1937, watercolor, graphite, and gouache on paperboard, Index of American Design, 1943.8.17138

    13 of 26

  • A "bulto" was used for daily reverence, for general decoration, and as a talisman. "Bultos" were placed in churches and private homes. "Bultos" and "retablos" were often produced by traveling "santeros," who went from town to town selling their work. This figure represents Saint Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order. The identification of the saint, who was a popular subject in Spanish New Mexico, is based on the monogram IHS, a contraction of "Jesus."

    Carl O'Bergh (artist), American, 1911 - 1978, Anonymous Craftsman (object maker), Denver Art Museum (object owner), Bulto (St. Ignatius), c. 1938, watercolor and graphite on paper, Index of American Design, 1943.8.16465

    14 of 26

  • This is an exceptionally fine "bulto." It represents the Virgin and Child, a favorite subject of New Mexico artists. The Virgin, "Nuestra Señora," was portrayed in at least half a dozen versions that differ in their attributes. In this case, several attributes have been merged, such as the crescent on the skirt, which usually belongs to the praying Immaculata Virgin; and the outstretched arm, which is a gesture characteristic of the Madonna known as Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The tilt of the head and the gestures of the arms give particular liveliness to this "bulto." The upper part of the figure is solid; the lower part is a hollow framework built up on an armature of sticks, bound together, fastened to the waist and base, and covered with cloth dipped in gesso. The bell-shaped skirt gave a fine opportunity for decoration. Figures like this, about two feet high, were carried in processions at church festivals.

    Polly Duncan (artist), American, active c. 1935, Anonymous Craftsman (object maker), Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center (object owner), Nuestra Senora, 1938, watercolor, colored pencil, graphite, and heightening on paper, Index of American Design, 1943.8.6954

    15 of 26

  • Perhaps the best example of a small group, this "bulto" represents Saint James Santiago, the warrior saint of Spain and the patron saint of horses and horsemen. Saint James is a national hero in Spain, having supposedly caused the Spanish victory against the Moors in the Battle of Clavijo in 834. According to legend, he is buried at Compostela in northwestern Spain, perhaps the most famous shrine in Europe during the Middle Ages. In many cases, Saint James is therefore shown as a pilgrim; but in the New World, his venerators more closely identified with his image as a horseman — the killer of the Moors — and that is how he is shown here. The horse is traditionally white; but unlike similar European versions, it is quite small in proportion to its rider, indicating that the main concern of the craftsman was the saint himself.

    Agnes Sims (artist), American, active c. 1935, Anonymous Craftsman (object maker), Bulto of Santiago, 1955, watercolor, gouache and graphite on paper, Index of American Design, 1943.8.1641

    16 of 26

  • Isidore, the patron saint of farmers and protector of crops, was a farm laborer employed by a wealthy landowner near Madrid in the early twelfth century. According to legend, Isidore spent so many hours in prayer that he was in danger of falling behind with his farming chores. As a reward for his exceptional piety, divine intervention dispatched an angel to help Isidore finish his plowing on schedule. This miraculous event is the subject of an eighteenth-century New Mexican devotional sculpture, or bulto. The most important figure in a bulto's composition was typically represented as the largest, sacred hierarchy triumphing over naturalism. This is why Isidore towers above the angel, who in turn outranks the oxen, surpassing them in scale. Bultos such as this one were placed in both homes and churches to help enlist a saint's intercession on behalf of a prayerful supplicant. This sculpture of Saint Isidore is attributed to a Franciscan friar, Fray Andres Garcia. Unfortunately, the face of Saint Isidore has been repainted at least once or twice, and a conclusive attribution is not possible. The Franciscans established missions in New Mexico, the northern frontier of Spanish America, which was first settled at the end of the sixteenth century.

    Eldora P. Lorenzini (artist), American, 1910 - 1993, Anonymous Craftsman (object maker), Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center (object owner), Bulto, 1938, watercolor, pen and ink, and graphite on paper, Index of American Design, 1943.8.16638

    17 of 26

  • Spanish Renaissance traditions were continued in the furniture of Mexico and reached California and New Mexico with the establishment of the early missions. This armchair from California is of pine and dates from the late eighteenth century. Often such furniture, doweled and pegged together without nails, shows the natural unpainted wood and a native folk style in the carved motifs. The primitive lines and rigid construction of the pieces can be attributed to the scarcity of tools and implements.

    Hal Blakeley (artist), American, active c. 1935, Anonymous Craftsman (object maker), Southwest Museum (object owner), Chair (Arm), 1941, watercolor, colored pencil, and graphite on paper, Index of American Design, 1943.8.7548

    18 of 26

  • The carving of this chest is identified with Taos, New Mexico. The piece dates from about 1870. Decorative motifs are contained in separate units which, varied and repeated, cover the panel without any connection between the units; sequence rather than rhythm is the underlying principle. The sawtooth motif on the base is typical of effects resulting from limited tools. The massive proportions of such chests were in harmony with the large adobe houses of the southwest.

    Majel G. Claflin (artist), American, active c. 1935, "Casa en Mesita" or Chest on Stand, c. 1939, watercolor, colored pencil, graphite, and heightening on paperboard, Index of American Design, 1943.8.7533

    19 of 26

  • Richly painted chests had been made in the area of Chihuahua, Mexico, at the turn of the eighteenth century. Visitors from New Mexico brought examples back with them as containers for wedding finery. During the first part of the nineteenth century, such chests were copied in New Mexico, possibly by artists who had lived in or had come from Mexico. This example, made in pine, is attributed to a period between 1810 and 1820. It is from the Rio Grande Valley south of Taos. One of a group of about forty chests of a similar type, it displays lush decorative motifs and bright colors.

    E. Boyd (artist), American, active c. 1935, Chest of Native Pine Painted in Oil, 1935/1942, watercolor, gouache, colored pencil, and graphite on paperboard, Index of American Design, 1943.8.7515

    20 of 26

  • Baskets of the California Indians have been considered the finest of their type ever made. This one was made in 1822 at the Mission of Buenaventura. An inscription woven into the border reads: "Made by Anna Maria Marta, Neophyte of the Mission of the Serafic Doctor, Saint Bonaventura." The central panel shows the coat of arms of Spain: a crown above the castles of Castile and the lions of Leon. The representation of the coat of arms is so simplified that it is barely recognizable, partly because the technique of weaving tends to give a geometric character to any design. The basket is made in the usual Indian fashion: coils of a tall, thin grass were covered with rush and sewn together.

    Gordena Jackson (artist), American, 1900 - 1993, Maria Marta (object maker), Museum of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley (object owner), Indian Basket, 1935/1942, watercolor, graphite, gold ink, and silver ink on paperboard, Index of American Design, 1943.8.8118

    21 of 26

  • In 1939 the saddle blanket portrayed in this rendering belonged to J. G. Trescony, owner of Rancho San Lucas in Monterey County, California. It is made of hand-spun woolen thread dyed with native dyes. Since there was no blanket-weaving tradition among Native Americans in California, it is unlikely that Trescony's blanket was made in this region. It seems most closely related to a hybrid style of blanket-weaving that evolved through overlapping traditions among indigenous peoples and Hispanic settlers in northern New Mexico, along with significant influence from Mexico. Like many other Index objects, the blanket may therefore have traveled to a place far from its origin by the time it was rendered in the 1930s. The serrated zig-zag motif in this rendering probably originated in central or northern Mexico in the middle of the nineteenth century. It was one of the patterns used by Hispanic Mexican weavers for an intricately woven, splendidly ornamented garment known as the Saltillo serape. This pattern was then used by New Mexican weavers in the mid-nineteenth century. Both Hispanic and Navajo weavers combined zig-zags, as well as other Saltillo patterns, with the bands of plain stripes that had characterized an earlier, simpler blanket style. The design of the saddle blanket in Ethel Dougan's rendering may have resulted from this particular pairing of designs.

    Ethel Dougan (artist), American, 1898 - 1976, Avila (object maker), J.L. Trescony (object owner), Saddle Blanket, c. 1930, watercolor, graphite, and colored pencil on paperboard, Index of American Design, 1943.8.14718

    22 of 26

  • This ecclesiastical vestment was made from a Chinese embroidered, red silk shawl that was probably brought across the Pacific on a Spanish galleon to Acapulco, Mexico, and then shipped to California. Around 1890, an Indian woman at the Mission of San Buenaventura made it into a priestly garment, binding it with gold braid.

    Syrena Swanson (artist), American, active c. 1935, Anonymous Craftsman (Native American) (object maker), Ecclesiastical Vestment (front view), c. 1940, watercolor, graphite, and gouache on paper, Index of American Design, 1943.8.2867

    23 of 26

  • This ecclesiastical vestment was made from a Chinese embroidered, red silk shawl that was probably brought across the Pacific on a Spanish galleon to Acapulco, Mexico, and then shipped to California. Around 1890, an Indian woman at the Mission of San Buenaventura made it into a priestly garment, binding it with gold braid.

    Syrena Swanson (artist), American, active c. 1935, Anonymous Craftsman (object maker), Ecclesiastical Vestment (back view), c. 1940, watercolor, gouache and graphite on paper, Index of American Design, 1943.8.3232

    24 of 26

  • A love of embellishment is apparent in the riding gear of the old southwest, including everything from saddles and stirrups to bridles, bits, and spurs. The materials were iron, silver, leather, or even — as in this child's sidesaddle — velvet and silk. Like many other traditions of the American southwest, this craft developed from Mexican practices that in turn had their origins in medieval and Renaissance Spain. This saddle is a particularly handsome piece. It was made about 1820 by an unknown craftsman in Monterey, California. The designs are embroidered in silk and show Diana, protectress of maidens, in a chariot drawn by two goats, and cornucopias — attributes identifying the goddess with fertility rites and the harvest. The seat is upholstered in padded green velvet.

    Rose Campbell-Gerke (artist), American, active c. 1935, Anonymous Craftsman (object maker), Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, de Young (object owner), Saddle, 1935/1942, watercolor and graphite on paperboard, Index of American Design, 1943.8.14224

    25 of 26

  • Spurs presented an opportunity for embellishment using both leather and metal. While sometimes the heel bands and shanks were left plain, more frequently they were decorated. This example has an engraved silver design in the hand-forged steel. The leather is intricately tooled; in some rare cases, even jewels were set in the leather. This spur was made in California about 1890. Like the saddle, it reflects the tradition of adornment inherited from the Spanish "caballero."

    Rose Campbell-Gerke (artist), American, active c. 1935, Anonymous Craftsman (object maker), R.A. Poston (object owner), Inlaid Spur, c. 1937, watercolor, graphite, colored pencil, and pen and ink, Index of American Design, 1943.8.1860

    26 of 26