José de Páez, Mexican Castes, 1780.
José de Páez, Mexican Castes, 1780. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

San Antonio’s complicated family history will be on display at the San Antonio Museum of Art, in a survey of the art of Mexico covering 100 years of the “viceregal” era.

Opening Feb. 17 as part of the museum’s Tricentennial programming, the San Antonio 1718: Art from Viceregal Mexico exhibition charts the city’s people, places and cultures from the year of its founding as an outpost of New Spain to the Mexican War of Independence that culminated in 1821.

The term “viceregal” refers to the 103-year period after 1718, during which the regions of present-day Mexico and the southwestern United States were ruled by colonial viceroys and other officials loyal to the Spanish crown.

We Are Family

San Antonio 1718 features several significant family trees, of the early Franciscan order, of the aristocracy of New Spain and early revolutionary Mexico, and of the everyday social order, but also features themes that resonate with current events, said Marion Oettinger Jr., the museum’s curator of Latin American art.

Dr. Marion Oettinger, Jr., San Antonio Museum of Art curator of Latin American art
Dr. Marion Oettinger, Jr., San Antonio Museum of Art curator of Latin American art. Credit: Courtesy / San Antonio Museum of Art

Such modern concepts as diversity, upward mobility, urban planning, material culture –even the Spurs and Dennis Rodman—are all part of the 1718 show in some way, Oettinger explained during a conversation at the museum Tuesday, before the show opened to the public.

A goal of the exhibition is to provide San Antonians a baseline of knowledge for understanding the complexity and origins of the place, Oettinger said, and a baseline for “dealing with how we grew” together as a city.

“I’m hoping they’ll learn about the people who played roles in establishing San Antonio,” Oettinger said of visitors to the exhibition, “the good, the bad, and the in-between.”

The exhibition’s signature image, on the cover of the catalogue, is a family portrait of sorts. A 1780 oil painting by José de Páez illustrates a proper New Spaniard gentleman, with an indigenous woman, their union resulting in a “Mestizo” child.

De Español, e India, produce Mestizo is one of 15 such images on the opening wall of the show, which chart the range of social castes, or castas, present in New Spain at the time. The paintings were meant to reassure the Spanish aristocracy that that their investment in the New World was sound, and that proper social order was being maintained, Oettinger said.

Paintings in the group depict diverse groupings, and the “mixed” children produced, including “Mulato,” “Castizo,” and “Tente en el Ayre,” the latter term translated by Oettinger as a person with “just a drop of color in the air.” Although some of these terms are considered offensive today, at the time they represented a general desire of the era for cataloguing the perceived natural order of things, Oettinger explained.

“This is a beautiful way to represent the variety of the early population” of San Antonio, Oettinger said of the Castas Mexicanas paintings. “Most representations of Indians that you see are at the moment they’re being evangelized, kneeling before a friar and submitting to the [Christian] doctrine. In these paintings, all the players are dignified, positive, beautifully painted.”

That the exhibition centers around a problematic period in regional history, when Europeans subjugated – often violently – indigenous peoples, the colonial era of  Mexico provides an opportunity to learn the truth about our shared past, Oettinger assured.

“We are all mixed blood. All of us,” he said.

Beyond The Alamo

Oettinger made the lighthearted reference to Rodman, the former Spur known for his body piercings as much as for his rebounding, as he pointed out a painting showing a heavy lip-ring piercing shut the mouth of a Franciscan friar who had taken, or been punished with, a vow of silence.

The Vow of Silence (El voto de silencio), an 18th-century painting by an unknown artist, depicts the austerity of the Franciscans, who modeled their lives after Christ and lived meagerly. The painting is not a literal depiction, Oettinger said, but an allegory meant to express the Franciscan’s strict devotion.

The Vow of Silence, 18th century, artist unknown.
The Vow of Silence, 18th century, artist unknown. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The Franciscan order founded the world-famous missions that lend San Antonio one of its chief modern-day legacies, but Oettinger said that too much attention is paid to the Alamo.

Much rich history lies in the art and artifacts of the century and a half before that pivotal 1836 event. Examining that history offers an educational opportunity, he said, and a window into our collective past.

Throughout the exhibition, florid and colorful paintings depict the life and times of an evolving region, bearing continuing traces of European culture and influence. Daily life and traditions are represented, not only of the many immigrants who came to populate the area, but also the many native peoples who had lived here for centuries, thriving despite harsh conditions.

Páez (1720-1790) also features prominently with another painting. Identified in the catalogue as “the first known representation of a Texas landscape,” the nearly mural-sized Martyrdom of Franciscans at Mission San Sabá of 1765 is a dramatic history lesson in itself.

“This is the most important painting that will ever be shown in Texas,” Oettinger said, joking that he’s talking in “Texas hyperbole.”

Regional landscapes of the period are rare, he said, in part due to harsh living conditions and unsettled lives that did not allow for much art to be produced. The illustrative Páez painting details an attack by the French-Comanche alliance that destroyed the early mission, and killed its devotee leaders gruesomely. A letter key catalogues each incident depicted, which readers of Spanish will particularly appreciate.

The painting is also a chance to see what the original missions actually looked like, with thatched roofs and wooden fences, Oettinger said, before their modern stone counterparts were built.

Other landscapes in the show depict the mines around Mexico City that would produce the wealth that drove imperial exploration, the founding of the Spanish missions, and eventual settlement.

An Educational Mission

Having trained as an anthropologist, Oettinger also values the paintings for meticulously recording the material culture of 18th and 19th century life in Bexar. He pointed out details in the Páez paintings that record elements of daily life in the various cultures and communities of the era.

Among the paintings, avocados and bananas are among fruits shared between a distinguished black gentleman and his native wife, cedar shakes overlook the storeroom of a Castiza and her Spanish husband, and a bamboo gate shows the relative austerity of a Coyota maiden and her mixed-race soldier’s kitchen.

“I’m still doing anthropology,” Oettinger said, but with this exhibition “I’m using material culture to bring up ideas of family, of gender, of the sexual division of labor, of festivals,” and of how people related to each other at that time.

The earliest piece in the show is a bound volume from 1579, that acts as a precursor to the history on view in the exhibition. Rhetorica Christiana, produced by mestizo Franciscan friar Diego Valadés, visually charts early Christianity in the Americas. The tome includes Ideal Atrium, an image of art being used to educate the subjects in the atrium of an early Franciscan mission, similar to the layout of the Mission San José familiar to many San Antonians and tourists.

San Antonio Museum of Art curator of Latin art.
San Antonio Museum of Art curator of Latin art points out the promise of mining through early works in North Spain. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Several paintings and prints depict art of striking similarity to artworks on view in the 1718 galleries, such as painted scrolls that were used to educate the subjects of the missions.

Oettinger sees the exhibition as a further opportunity to educate, but this time with a modern view, for modern audiences who understand the complexity of San Antonio’s formation as a community.

Regarding a striking, very tall 1796 painting of a very tall gentleman, Martin the Giant (El gigante Martín) by José María Guerrero, Oettinger said he wished the San Antonio Spurs players might see it, because they might appreciate the early portrait of a 7-foot-3  “giant” who was famous throughout New Spain in the late 18th century. The painting includes a thorough physical description, much like the statistics that measure the physiques of modern sports stars.

Lastly, the Virgin of Guadalupe transcends even the show’s three themed sections, “People and Places,” “The Cycle of Life,” and “The Church,” with what is essentially her own shrine in the museum’s Spanish Colonial section on the second floor.

“She is the most powerful of all the images for South Texas, and for Mexico,” Oettinger said.

The painting-filled room charts her evolution from the Spanish Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, to her American manifestation, the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Crucially, Oettinger said, as Guadalupe “she appears as an indigenous person. That’s really important. she’s not a Spaniard. The mother of God is an Indian.”

Though the mythical El Dorado – the city of gold hoped for by the colonists of northern New Spain – was never found, Oettinger summed up by saying the city eventually founded here provides a rich and varied vein of history to explore.

The historically charged maps, textiles, devotional relics, books, scrolls, wooden chests, and many paintings of San Antonio 1718: Art from Viceregal Mexico will be on view through May 13.

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...