From Colonisation To Loss Of Empire; Nationalism And Decline In 19th Century Spanish And Colonial Art

Published on 22/09/2008 in Spanish Culture

Isabel la CatolicaIt is generally accepted that Spain's imperial decline from the 16th century onwards coincided with an artistic Golden Age, exemplified by writers such as Cervantes and Góngora, and painters like Velázquez and Goya. Taking into account the Spanish state's commissioning of historical depictions in the 19th century, we can undoubtedly contemplate Spain's political strife, divisions, and struggle to assert a strong national identity through the period's artistic production.

We should begin with Juan de Toledo and Mateo Gilarte's La Batalla de Lepanto (1660, which presented a display of Spanish naval might totally inseparable from religious faith in an era when Spain's empire was at its apogee, and, as J.H Eliot writes, "the Spaniards were conscious of achieving something that surpassed even the feats of the Romans."

Another specifically Christian vision was offered in Luis Madrazo y Kuntz's Pelayo (1856), with the founder of the kingdom of Asturias depicted leaning against a large cross. As the century progressed, the construction of a more modern Spanish identity and culture continued, but it still relied on the marriage of religious fervour and heroism. Manuel Domínguez y Sanchez (1871) adopts these concepts in painting Seneca's suicide, given the myth of the Cordoban philosopher's rumoured late conversion to Christianity.

Therefore, certain national traditions-bravery protecting an identity, religious faith-were being firmly established. Alejo Vera y Estaca's Los últimos días de Numancia (1881) retold the desperate yet valiant act of suicide by the town's inhabitants, seen as the "first Spanish", burning their city rather than surrender it to the Roman siege.

The qualities of nobility, pride, courage and love of freedom of was one which Spanish historians could connect to their country's fight against the French in the early 19th century, but could also, of course, be viewed as a reaction to the simultaneous achievement of independence by Spain's principal colonies and the move towards the liberation of the last ones. While, however, the 19th century glorification of Fernando and Isabel also, naturally, played a large part in nation-building, an alternative, more negative strand was also present, both before and after the Glorious Revolution of 1868, which deviated from these more traditional motifs. Antonio Gisbert's Los Comuneros, Padilla, Bravo y Maldonado en el Patíbulo (1860) portrayed the Comuneros uprising against Carlos V, anticipating by a few years the coup against Isabel II instigated by Generals Prim and Serrano.

There was further expression of post-Restauración anti-absolutist sentiment in José Casado del Alisal's Campana de Huesca (1880), which shows tyranny its most gruesome, and Antonio Gisbert's defence of liberty, El fusilamiento de Torrijos y sus compañeros en la playa de Málaga (1888), showing the eponymous general's execution at the hands of Fernando VII.

In other words, mythology regarding Spain's past provided a complex visual template which mirrored the political currents of the 19th century. The promotion of bravery, warfare and political freedom are themes which would, ironically, appear again in paintings showing the colonial struggle for independence for Spanish dominion in the 19th century.

It hardly needs saying, of course, that all these paintings focus on the heroic actions of men. The burgeoning liberal ideology of the 19th century meant that the previous age's "proceso de liberalización de la mujer llegó a su fin", according to Celia Martín Pérez. The depoliticized and austere, quasi-religious representations of Mariana Pineda by Isidoro Lozano and Juan Antonio Vera y Calvo (1862) "se debilitan la imagen de Mariana como heroina política", since they make no attempt to represent her campaign against Fernando VII. Calvo's painting shows Mariana enclosed in a room surrounded by men, meekly waiting to be sacrificed to the Liberal cause. The Liberal creed generally reduced women to inactive roles, and the dichotomy between male energy and valour and female resignation to fate is demonstrated in Antonio Gisbert's aforementioned depiction of General Torrijos.

In these contexts, then, Isabel la Católica's re-emergence as a political inspiration in the public consciousness is illustrative on many levels. 19th century portrayals of Isabel la Católica, mark, I would say, a small but extremely significant change in showing Spanish artists offering a wider view of womanhood, reminding the public that women and political protagonism were not incompatible. 16th century Flamenco paintings had shown the Queen as family-raiser and educator, but Francisco Pradilla's painting La rendición de Granada (1882) takes Isabel outside the usual confined indoor space reserved for women, and puts her in an elevated position, placed on a white horse as if prepared to engage in battle, surrounded by Christian iconography, capturing the Reyes Católicos in their ultimate moment of greatness. Isabel's dignified, stately demeanour is a striking contrast with the previous images of doomed historical female Spanish characters.

The pairing of Isabel and Fernando denotes the political unity of Spain, and also, I would suggest, the extension of a Christian empire to Latin America. The conquest of Granada cannot be separated from Columbus's journey and subsequent colonialism. The motive behind the conquest of South American land, according to Benedict Anderson, "wasn't "hispanization", it was simply conversion of heathens and savages". Eduardo Galeano has written that "Spain achieved unity and reality as a nation wielding swords with the Sign of the Cross on their hilts. The feat of discovering America can only be understood in the context of the tradition of crusading wars that prevailed in medieval Castile".  This brings us to our first contradiction regarding woman's secondary status in liberalism. Unlike Cleopatra, known principally for her beauty, and other females who had also been portrayed with the stress on their physical attributes, Isabel la Católica's achievements and contribution to Spanish history could not be completely played down in the 19th century, or made secondary to her gender.

Therefore, Eduardo Rosales's painting Doña Isabel la Católica dictando su testamento (1864) can be interpreted from a number of different perspectives. In contrast to the aforementioned representations of Lucrecia and Cleopatra, Isabel here is at least, alive, and is passing on her final wishes, her political legacy. Her death is a natural one, not the result of madness, intrigue or suicide, and her youthful appearance takes us back to the key period around 1492. The painting also acts, I would say, as a meditation on the dying of a period of national unity and glory, and of religious faith as political guide, additionally serving as a reflection of the fragility of the political state and disintegration of the empire that Isabel had initiated.

Containing many contradictions, and all the prevalent themes of the 19th century and it's relation with the past, it is particularly interesting in view of the fact that, as Benedict Anderson maintains, the rise of liberal ideology was a by-product of the decline of religion. The painting manages to suggest, at the same time, the fragility and temporary nature of religious and political power and values, but also the opposite, the importance of a legacy and the need for its preservation. In my judgement, it accurately reflects the split in society inherent in Spain revealed in and after the Carlist Wars, one which would come to decimate Spain in the 20th century. The painting could even be seen as immediately foreseeing the floundering project of the union of religion and politics, as the uneasy reconciliation between religious beliefs and the liberal state, after such intense conflict in the first half of the 19th century, would only be held together temporarily. It is crucial to note the presence of Cisneros, who organised several Franciscan missions to the new colonies and therefore represents both religious and geo-political concerns. While some historians described Isabel as a home-making female paragon, artists, in an age where their work had far more access to the public, offered a more complex vision, chiefly for political reasons but valid nonetheless. Isabel, in her 19th century reinvention, shows, as Linda Nochlin says, that not all women could be reduced "to some simple essence."  Rosales's painting shows that Isabel was a 19th century anomaly, the first female figure significant and recognisable enough to evoke valid political parallels with the past in a present marked by political instability, and could be employed as support to an unpopular queen over three hundred years after her death. Yet the choosing of Isabel as an icon also damaged the Liberal cause, since her association with the Catholic faith and Church contradicted the pleas for progressive ideas. Fox claims that "la preocupación por la identidad nacional que venimos asociando con el desacredito del Estado liberal isabelino, el fracaso de la Revolucion de 68 y el final del imperio colonial también se manifiesta en la pintura."

Therefore, the pictorial rebirth of Isabel la Católica in recalling Spain's expansion and emergence as a global force, and the development of the very concept of art "al servicio de un nacionalismo politico", also, I would suggest, offers firm evidence of the gravity of 19th century Spain's divided nature and waning domestic and imperial fortunes.  John Berger suggests that, "fear of the present leads to a mystification of the past".  By the mid-19th century, Spain was, to quote Anderson, "a second-rate European power."  The depictions of Isabel la Católica present many contradictions in the political context of the First Republic in justifying the rule of Isabela II, particularly when, as Anderson adds, "after 1789, the principle of legitimacy of had to be loudly and self-consciously defended."  Pierre Nora states that "history binds itself strictly to temporal continuities, to progressions and to relations between things", yet the sanctification of Isabel la Católica sat uneasily with her namesake successor's character.  The fact that Spain required such a glorification of the Isabel period is evidence of the decline of the prestige of the monarchy and the nation in the 19th century. This found a counterpart with the appearance, in 1854, of Canovas del Castillo's Historia de la decadencia de Espana desde el advenimiento de Felipe III al trono hasta la muerte de Carlos II. Canovas offered a perspective on the past very much at odds with the prevailing artistic portrayals and historical consensus.

Fox summarises the argument; "la tesis principal de Canovas es que la unificación de Espana bajo los Reyes Católicos fue hecho un mito."  The historian argued that 19th century Spain was still in the grip of provincialism, and that "la decadencia de Espana se debía precisamente al hecho de que los Reyes Católicos nunca lograron la unificación y centralización de Espana."  Religious devotion and unity were used to legitimise the liberal project, but the plurality of Spain remained vibrant, as is illustrated in Claudio Lorenzale's picture, Muerte de Wilfredo el Velloso (1843), and its focus on the Catalan shield, prefiguring another Carlist uprising, the Matiners' War, in 1846 in Catalonia.

The representations of Isabel's daughter, Juana la Loca, confirm our understanding of an immediate decline in the female place in politics, and the end of the Castillian royal line. In contrast to portrayals of her mother, Juana was employed to drive home the idea of female fragility and inability to show strong leadership, and used as an attack on Isabel II. Pradilla, in Juana La Loca (1877), depicts a forlorn woman in mourning for her husband. A humble fire features as a smouldering symbol, a metaphor for the fading remains of a dynasty, contrasting with the blazing Numancia in Estaca's picture, particularly apposite in view of the fact that Isabel II, had been removed from power by then. This time the Christian symbol, the chapel, is distant and tiny in the background. Juana betrays her gender's weakness as she is engulfed by the flames and the wind threatens to extinguish the candles.

Whilst, under Juana's heir Carlos V, Spain's empire expanded both in Europe and in South America, it also lost any remaining elements of Christian morality, best summed up by Bernal Diaz's comment, "we came to serve God and our Majesty.and to get rich."  Isabel II had inaugurated a National Exhibition in 1856 to promote the nation's young artists, but Fox posits, "surge la cuestion de si entre algunos pintores españoles canonizados existe la predilección por buscar lo trágico y lo triste de la patria, como manifestaciones de la decadencia de Espana que se debe pensar en superar."  Ultimately, the artistic project to create a unified, modern national identity proved as unsuccessful as the Glorious Revolution, and the repercussions of Spain's instability would resonate in the colonies. Liberal distaste for colonial exploitation had been evident from the moment Spain celebrated her independence from French rule, and in 1844 Isabel II had attempted, and failed, to reassert Spain's influence in its former South American empire by occupying the Chincha Islands in the Hispano-Sudamericana War with Peru and Chile.

As the century progressed, we can see a clear shift in attitude towards the remaining colonies. If Pradilla's La rendición de Granada stressed the glory of monarchical and religious unity and strength as representative of a powerful nation, then José María Casado del Alisal's Rendicion de Bailen (1864), in showing a battle which led to Joseph Bonaparte's leaving Madrid, sent a message that oppressors could be defeated by an organized, united and courageous people, a different, modern glory.

There is an unmissable irony in history and art being used to form an identity in Spain while the nation was losing prestige and territory, and "the close of the era of successful national liberation movements in the Americas coincided rather closely with the onset of the age of nationalism in Europe."  Contempt for social injustice and ideals of freedom and democracy were enshrined in the Guerra de los Comunidades de Castilla between 1520 and 1522, protesting the colonial ambitions of Carlos V, as depicted by Antonio Gisbert, showing Juan de Padilla stoically contemplating his colleague Juan Bravo's corpse. The movement would inspire comparable Comunero risings in Paraguay in 1537 and in the early 18th century, and in Nueva Granada in 1781. Interestingly, the themes of rebellion and the persisting secondary importance of women, after the interruptus of Isabel la Católica, were combined in Vicente Borrás Mompó's María Pacheco de Padilla después de Villalar (1881), which shows Padilla's widow typically enclosed inside her house, distraught on receiving news of the defeat of her husband's troops.

A visual establishment of the parallel and ongoing fight for independence in South America towards the last decades of the century was provided by a number of paintings by Filipino artist Juan Luna Y Novicio, which suggest the artists in the colonies had been aware of the mother country's fight for independence from the French earlier in the century, and are almost a map in themselves of Spain's diminishing presence there. In 1881, Luna painted La Muerte de Cleopatra, the eponymous subject having committed suicide after the defeat at Actium in 31 BC.

This time Cleopatra is covered up, and the centrepiece of the painting is the attendant woman's reaction and her unmistakeable skin tone and dynamic presence, which denote perfectly the changing perspective from the diminishing colonies, that power, or perhaps the Mother Country, was ephemeral, and could therefore be defeated. Indigenous symbols predominate in the painting, a testament to the end of imperial authority. Anderson argues that, in the colonies, "the growth of creole communities.led inevitably to the appearance of Eurasians, Eurafricans, as well as Euramericans.as visible social groups."  The motif of smoke billowing through the room reminds us again somewhat of the Spanish sacrifice at Numantia. Very revealing in Luna's work is the arrangement of women as both moribund and active characters, victims still, but here used, we can suppose, as a justified emotional response to horror. There are no men in the composition, and this time female hysteria is not the result of doomed or inappropriate love, but a metaphor, the consequence of a wider political scenario being delineated.

We witness, then, from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the decadence and the theme of empire's end, supplanting the previous images of conquest and expansion. The growing rebellion leading to the final loss of Philippines is evidenced in another Juan Luna painting. The title alone of Spolarium (1886) is redolent of ruination, and the slain bodies and horrified expressions in the painting belie the brutality of the Roman Empire. The Phillipine journalist Graciano Lopez Jaena described as the work as "the living image of the Filipino people sighing its misfortune. Because the Philippines is nothing more than a real Spoliarium with all its horrors."

The echoes of the break up of ancient Rome are unavoidable, and the dissolution of empires is surely what Luna sought to suggest, inverting the premise that, in J H Eliot's words, "the Roman Empire became a model and a point of reference for the 16th century Castillian." This is the perfect example of domestic instability being taken advantage of overseas. Simultaneously, back in Spain the fight for the liberal cause through recourse to depiction of individual (male) heroism through art persisted, as evidenced in the celebration of a Liberal General Fusilamiento de Torrijos, following the return of the absolutist monarchy after the First Republic. Whereas Juan de Toledo and Mateo Gilarte's had shown Lepanto as a glorious triumph in their painting, Luna, in 1887, painted the same battle as total destruction and disorder, validating Raymond Carr's comment that "it was Spain's weakness as a naval power which was to expose the Restoration to the Disaster of 98." Benedict Anderson argues that "the nation is limited because even the largest of them has finite boundaries."  It would be interesting to explore the notion that only with the complete loss of overseas territories could a fully modern "Spanish" identity finally be imposed, militarily, by generals such as Franco who, of course employed more modern visual means of propaganda, most obviously in Raza.

Norman Bryson has written that "art is the place in which historical developments culminate and are given their highest cultural form."  In 19th century Spain, art was crucial in attempting to build the Spanish state, and, more interestingly, in revealing and comprehending its fragility, and the resultant domestic instability and loss of overseas territory. Within the parameters of art produced in the 19th century we can trace a clear line of historical and gender decline, taking on board several disparities and important contradictions in liberal ideology, in a time when Isabel was needed as an avatar for the Spanish state.  The changing face of Spain as colonial power, and the perception of women in Spanish society are all evident in Spain's 19th century art, far beyond the official state presentation of the nation's past.

Written by: Neil Davies

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