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Members' Research Report Archive

Learning to Draw in Spanish: Copying the Body in Latin American Academies of Art, 1781–1910

Oscar E. Vázquez, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Paul Mellon Visiting Senior Fellow, September 1–October 31, 2014

My book “Learning to Draw in Spanish” will examine the relationship between art pedagogy and political power in Latin American art academies during the colonial and early independence periods. I consider how the legislative statutes and regulations governing these institutions facilitated ideological views that reinforced a colonial condition and, after independence, the construction of the national body politic. Specifically, “Learning to Draw in Spanish” analyzes practices surrounding the copying of the life model in four of the earliest and most influential academies in late colonial and postcolonial Latin America. In these academies, training replicated European models of copying: from drawings, prints, and plaster casts, but, most important, from the life model. During my two months at CASVA I analyzed artists’ manuals and anatomical treatises in the collection of the National Gallery of Art Library that were employed by academicians in Spain and Latin America. Among these were Gérard Audran’s Les proportions du corps humain (1683), translated into Spanish by Jerónimo Antonio Gil as Las proporciones del cuerpo humano, medidas por las mas bellas estatuas de la antigüedad (1780), and Juan de Arfe y Villafañe’s Varia commensuración para la escultura y arquitectura (sixth edition, 1773; originally 1585), which were used in or influenced the teaching of theory and anatomy in Mexico’s Academia de San Carlos.


Musculature of the Body, from Juan de Arfe y Villafañe, Varia commensuración para la escultura y arquitectura, 6th ed. (Madrid, 1773), 165. National Gallery of Art Library, Washington

“Learning to Draw in Spanish” examines the Academia de San Carlos (1784) and Cuba’s Academia de San Alejandro (1818) as instances of colonial academies and, in turn, Chile’s Academia de Pintura (1849) and Argentina’s Academia Libre de Bellas Artes (1878) as examples of arts institutions of independent nations. While acknowledging their relationship to Italian and French academies, whose legacy was manifest in the curriculum and ideals of art in Spain and Latin America, my work examines how these later academies diverged both pedagogically and artistically. I contend that, although the Latin American academies adopted similar pedagogical methods, their particular geographic, historical, and sociopolitical conditions engendered differences in life drawing practices and in finished paintings and sculpture that reveal dissonances between European institutional models and their colonial copies.

“Learning to Draw in Spanish” begins with the premise that in academies of Latin America, copying, and its theoretical counterpart of mimesis, were central both to artistic pedagogy and to the apparatus of political power. On one hand, copying was a tactic that allowed for the institutionalization of Spain’s power over its colonies by the extension of regulations (for example, the adoption in Mexico of statutes nearly identical to those of Spain’s academies). On the other hand, duplication in curricula of repetitive training exercises ensured that the taste and vision of elites, namely their stylistic and subject preferences, would be perpetuated.

Copying began early in the student’s career with drawing from prints and moved on to plaster copies of antique statues and, finally, to the human figure to produce “académies,” as these drawings were called. A sequential, methodical, and disciplinary curriculum was further supported by a number of tools. These included anatomical training texts that instructed students in a canon of proper human proportions, poses and style.

The uniformity of students’ drawing was further ensured through the interior layout of life drawing classrooms, where controlled, amphitheater- style assigned seating guided students’ views toward producing similar representations of the nude model positioned at the very center of the room. Training that employed the use of the nude human model was by law the exclusive domain of the art institution, a privilege that had distinguished academies from guilds since the seventeenth century. Thus students in the life drawing classroom reproduced through their drawings the very symbol of the monopoly granted to the academy. It was a performance that allowed the academy to assert and replicate its own power, quite literally.

Still, the practice of copying did not preclude technical and stylistic variation. Differences in life drawing techniques and finished paintings and sculpture indicate that Latin American academies diverged from European institutional models. For example, although indigenous models were frequently used in certain Latin American academies’ drawing classes, their ethnic and racialized features were erased and rarely appeared in finished canvases placed on public display. By the late nineteenth century, however, incipient indigenist, nationalist currents in the pictorial arts produced an inversion: in later nineteenth-century productions, plaster casts served as models for any number of nativist narratives in a process whereby the antique Greco-Roman model became the indigenous Latin American subject on a finished canvas or in marble.

The particular characteristics of artists and subjects in the Spanish American colonies, especially after independence, emerge as quite different from those of their European progenitors with regard to the framing of the human body. It is these differences—as they may be discerned in training, works, and academic regulations—that my research examines. My investigations further ask what effect the arrival of ethnographic, anthropological, and medical photography may have had on artists’ conceptions of the human body. These changes and their differences from the practices of European academies reveal that, while many of the works their students produced in certain periods appear formally similar, academies were not homogeneous institutions. Rather, they were individually adapted to the different political and social demands of colonial and national powers. The differences among them are valuable for what they tell us not only about the functions of Latin America’s arts pedagogy, but also Europe’s.