Aims and Ideas

Vistas was first envisioned by its co-directors, Dr. Dana Leibsohn (Smith College) and Dr. Barbara Mundy (Fordham University) in 1998. As professors who research and teach about visual culture in Spanish America, we aimed to address the lack of material for our students and others interested in colonial history and culture. The gallery, which forms the heart of Vistas, displays high-quality images and interpretations. This unique collection includes paintings, sculptures, architectural monuments, and objects of daily life from Spanish America between 1520 and 1820, the period from Conquest to Independence.

Although we are trained as art historians, Vistas seeks to cross disciplinary boundaries by including material of historical and anthropological interest as well. Thus, we try to overcome what we see as the shortcomings of previous art histories, which privilege elite and public objects—namely painting, sculpture, and architecture—over the visual and material artifacts of daily life, such as coffee pots and reliquaries for personal devotion. We are also drawn to multi-media because of its extraordinary potential to offer visual imagery so it can be a resource and a tool for students and scholars both inside and outside of museums, galleries and art history classrooms.

Vistas has been designed to provide new perspectives onto the history and visual culture of Spanish America for both students and scholars, in the United States and in Latin America. It is a collaborative project—not only in that we both have authored it, but also in its design, its interdisciplinary focus, and its work with museums in many countries. Without support and collaboration from colleagues in the United States and Latin America, Vistas would have been an impossibility.

Images and Intellectual Ambitions

Intellectually, the Vistas project is driven by the recognition that colonial Spanish America was culturally diverse and transnational in character. Despite the attempts of its Spanish-run government to impose a standard language and religion, structure of government and unified economic model, Spanish America’s population was polyglot and culturally diverse. At the same time, people living in Spanish America were often closely connected to the international economy developing in the early modern world. One of our ambitions has been to consider visual traditions, tastes, and practices in a way that highlights how distinct cultures coexisted and developed in an increasingly global world.

At the heart of Vistas lies a gallery of images that includes architecture and objects such as a coffee pot, a casta painting, a bag for coca leaves and a nun’s cell. In creating this gallery, we sought works we found compelling—ones that evoked cultural practices that were at once broad in their reach and deep in their imprint. Our interpretations have also tried to emphasize that works had multiple, and at times competing, meanings to people in the past. Our goal became a gallery that would feature works that could be seen to intersect with history in a variety of ways. We have therefore chosen works

  • for their materials
  • for their connection to indigenous traditions
  • for their ability to evoke complex daily lives
  • for their ability to open 21st-century eyes to colonial perceptions of the world, be it a religious world, a political, or a social one.

As a result, Vistas has moved away from some of the traditional concerns of art history, like artistic biography, and the prime, exemplary object. Instead, this project privileges objects with complex stories that at the same time remain things of visual interest for modern-day viewers.

The Vistas gallery and related interpretive texts therefore feature works of extraordinary cultural currency, in the present, if not also in the past. Works such as a zemi or a casta painting—bespeaking ties to transatlantic travel in the early modern period and the persistence of indigenous traditions—are particularly potent objects. Their materials and forms evoke (or betray) colonial interactions that are today on the minds of many, not only scholars of Latin American history. Admittedly, these works do not always represent what a colonial viewer would have seen or thought most important in day-to-day life, but their potency for historical reflection in the present day leads us to give them pride of place in Vistas. Thus Vistas is enlivened by the tensions between 21st-century and colonial-era practices and concerns; such tensions are necessary to produce a serious conversation between past and present, which is, we believe, the aim of every ambitious history.

The preservation of colonial-era objects—in cities and collections in Latin America, the United States and Europe—favors both the 18th century and wealthy members of Spanish American society. Simply put, high-status objects, crafted of permanent materials, and those from the last century of the colony have outlasted others that were made earlier or of perishable materials. While Vistas has tried to balance its treatment, the dominance of elite and temporally late objects has been difficult to entirely overcome.

It is nevertheless our hope that the images and ideas in Vistas will challenge some familiar, and perhaps older modes of scholarship, especially in art history. Thus traditional art historical questions about style, influence, and artistic training receive less attention within Vistas than they do elsewhere. Instead, our interpretive writings, growing out of social art history, stress notions of social diversity, trade and travel, practice and function. Not accidentally, the history of ideas receives less attention than some might like. Ultimately, this should not be surprising because Vistas is a project focused upon material and visual culture, objects and the practices that adhered to them.

Another art historical issue is that of the canon, the group of works that have been deemed through time to be the most important. The works that deserved to be part of a canon—no less than the relevance of the canon itself—have been debated for years by scholars of the Renaissance, Western European art and literature, and even African art history. In colonial Latin America, a few churches, a handful of artists and their works have been considered “canonical,” by virtue of their inclusion in standard survey books on the subject. Vistas’ goal is not to develop or propose a canonical body of works. Rather we have sought to expand current knowledge of the works created and invested with meaning by people living in Spanish America—some of these works will be members of the accepted canon, some not. Through juxtaposition of canonical objects with non-canonical ones, we hope that the strongest sense of visual culture comes through. Towards this end, we have included materials from the wealthiest cities and homes known in Spanish America, as well as rural regions and indigenous communities. We have also tried to stretch as broadly as we could, with material not only from Mexico and Peru, but also from the southwestern United States, the Caribbean, Ecuador, and Paraguay. Admittedly, and for some, disappointingly, Brazilian materials surface nowhere. While we debated their inclusion, our research and permissions budgets could not do justice to Portugal’s colonies as well as Spain’s.


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