South American artist Gregorio Vázquez de Arce y Ceballos (1638-1711) was the most important painter of the Spanish Colonial era in Columbia. He worked during an era dominated by the Hispano-American Baroque style that flourished from 1650 to 1750. Vázquez has come to be regarded as the greatest painter to come from Colombia. Most of his paintings are religious in nature, with subjects that include the life of Christ and of the Virgin, the saints, and scenes of the New Testament.
Gregorio Vázquez de Arce y Ceballos was born May 9, 1638, in Bogota, Columbia. Raised in that city, he grew up in the Creole society that first settled there in 1630. He was descended from a family of Andalusian ancestry, his family emigrating from Seville, Spain, settling in South America in the late 16th century.
The area where Vázquez grew up possessed a vibrant and artistic culture. This greatly influenced the young artist, providing him with an environment that fostered his artistic ambition. Still, Vázquez had to work long and hard to develop his artistic talents. To accomplish this, he often copied the styles and techniques of famous European artists.
Vázquez received his early education in a Jesuit seminary. When he was 15 years old, his father, Bartholomew Vázquez, recognized in his son an artistic talent that needed nurturing, and he encouraged the boy to paint. Through his father's efforts, Vázquez was able to study under Balthasar de Figueroa, one of the most famous artists of the day and a member of an artistic family. Even though his education with Figueroa did not last long, Vázquez learned a great deal and was inspired to begin producing works on linen cloth. One of his first works was painted for the convent of Santa Clara de Tunja in 1657, when the artist was only 19 years old.
In addition to his studies as a disciple of Figueroa, Vázquez was inspired by European drawings and engravings as well as by the major works of art produced by European masters. His main inspirations included the Spanish artist Juan de Valdés Leal (1622-1690), who painted in the baroque style. Other influences included Italian Painters Sassoferrato (1609-1685) and Guido Reni (1575-1642), Flemish Painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), and Bartoleme Murillo (1617-1682), another Spanish painter, all of whose works found their way to Columbia. It is believed that Vázquez met Murillo's oldest son, who lived in Bogota from 1678 to 1700, and was able to see up close the works of the Spanish master.
Because of his technique and his use of color, Vázquez is considered a baroque painter. The baroque painting style emerged as a movement in Europe around the beginning of the 17th century as a reaction against the Mannerist style which dominated the late Renaissance period with its intricate and formulaic technique. The baroque style developed in Italy and then spread throughout Europe and into the Latin-American colonies. Baroque artists strove for a simpler, more realistic approach that would be emotionally engaging, and the movement was encouraged by the Catholic Church, then a major patron of the arts. Members of the Church regarded the baroque style as more traditional and spiritual. In this way, baroque painting demonstrates an influence of the ancient Greek and Roman art through its use of idealized human figures. The greatest artists of the baroque movement were Caravaggio, Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and Jan Vermeer.
More specifically, Vázquez belonged to the School of Colonial Painting, which combined Spanish baroque with the influence of the Italian, Flemish, and French schools and which is sometimes called "Creole art." What drove the development of colonial painting was the encouragement of the ecclesiastical powers, such as the Catholic Church, who saw art as a way to interpret religious beliefs for natives. In general, Spanish colonial art is very ornate, rich in color, and features strong delineation. The earliest of the Creole painters were Gaspar, de Figueroa, and Vázquez himself. The style flourished in the 1600s before declining in the early 18th century.
Even though Vázquez is generally regarded as the most outstanding Creole painter of his generation, his work has often drawn criticism. His style was said to lack a "dynamic impulse," though his forms were elegant, and he personalized his paintings with a series of signature gestures that identified his work. His work is viewed as lacking originality of composition, as he often copied European masters, but he remains a painter of note due to his skillful and compelling use colors.
It has been said of Vázquez that, like many other artists of his era, he largely ignored the world around him. For one thing, there seemed to be no recognition of the rich racial mosaic that surrounded him in Bogota, as his works mainly depicted Caucasians and Creoles. Also, his works display no great interest in the surrounding landscape, either in urban or rural settings, and reveal very little about Bogota in the 17th century. Even though he lived in a tropical landscape with lush foliage, he rarely depicted the local vegetation. When he painted fruits or flowers he usually used those that existed in Europe and America. Little, if anything, is seen of indigent tropical fruits such as mangoes or pineapples.
Vázquez was said to have been a prolific artist and, unlike other artists of his era, he left behind a great number of drawings. He operated a studio located in the Candelmas district, where he trained many of his students. Here he kept busy completing commissioned works. Working with him at the studio were his wife Bernal, who often served as his model, his brother Juan Baptist, his son Bartholomew Luis, and his beloved daughter Feliciano. At this studio, he produced a great many works of varying subjects and sizes which he painted on linen canvases. His works were later displayed in temples and convents as well as in houses around Bogota.
At his studio Vázquez also taught students, among whom it is believed were Camargo and Francisco de Sandoval, two other artists who became well known. As a result of Vázquez's teaching and commissions, a great output of work came from this studio. Unfortunately, it has often been hard to distinguish his original paintings from the works of his students, who copied his style. However, there are a number of his works whose titles and dates of origin are known. One of the oldest, signed in 1657 is "Huida a Egipto," or "Escape from Egypt."
During the mid-1600s the painter spent almost 20 years producing little original work, instead copying the works of other artists. Around 1669 he copied the work of Murillo in "Vision de S. Antonio" and the work of Sassoferrato in "Virgen Modestissima." His "Virgen de los Angeles" is dated to 1670 and follows the style of Reni, though Vázquez only employed the vaguest of associations. The next year he created "La Anunsacion" for the Convent of Mongui. Ten paintings produced by Vázquez can be found at this famous Franciscan convent, and it is believed that he spent a good deal of time there. In 1674 he produced his highly regarded "Jucio Final" for the Church of Saint Francisco in Bogota. For this work he was most likely inspired by the anatomical drawings of Juan Valverde and Hamusco. When he was 32, he painted his first-large scale work on linen, "Purgatorio," for the parochial temple of Funza.
In 1680 Vázquez entered a very significant period in his career and was at his most prolific, producing many works for the convents in Bogota. This also was the period when he produced his "Self Portrait" (1685), which appeared in the cathedral of Bogota. During this time Vázquez was also commissioned to produce a series of works for the Church of the Shrine in Bogota. In this major project he was once again influenced by European models, after the founder of this church, his friend and patron Gomez de Sandoval, brought back from a trip to Spain a series of stamps by Rubens.
During this period also he painted "S. Ingacio" for the Jesuits, completing this work in 1686. In 1698 he completed "Calvario" and "Predicacion de S. Francisco Javier," two more of his best-known works. Many of the paintings produced during this period of intense activity are now at the Museum of Colonial Art in Bogota, which contains 76 oils and 106 drawings by the artist. The museum was originally constructed by Jesuits who arrived in Colombia in the 17th century.
The start of the 18th century marked the beginning of what would be a very difficult period in Vázquez's life. In the a short span of time his wife died and his daughter was seduced away from her father's home and went on to lead a life of hardship. Friend and patron Gomez de Sandoval also passed away. In addition to personal troubles, the painter endured financial difficulties and was briefly confined in prison. Still, Vázquez found the inspiration to paint even in confinement and produced six large works on linen cloth that eventually decorated the arches of the Chapel of the Shrine. Toward the end of 1710, only months before his death, Vázquez produced his final work, "Concepcion." Vázquez died in 1711 in Bogato, Colombia.
"Art of the Americas," New Orleans Museum of Art Web site, http://www.noma.org/html_docs/amer_la.html (March 15, 2003).
"Gregorio Vázquez de Arce y Ceballos," CanalSocial.com, http://www.canalsocial.com/biografia/pintura/ceballos.htm (March 15, 2003). □