Latin American Art and Architecture

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON-DEMAND > Cultures and Civilizations    

The art of Latin America is remarkably varied. That is because its main regions—Mexico and Central America, the Caribbean, and South America—have many different kinds of populations and traditions. In fact, Latin America consists of more than thirty countries. Each has its own historical and cultural experiences.

This diversity makes Latin American art difficult to define. But one common trait can be identified. It is the presence of three distinct cultural heritages: Indian, European, and African. Before colonization, Mexico, Central America, and the Andean region of South America were home to many native Indian peoples. Their sophisticated cultures later blended with the traditions brought by the Europeans. On the other hand, in the Caribbean and eastern South America, native populations were small or destroyed by the invaders and colonizers. Europeans imposed their traditions with little resistance in these areas. Africans, brought there as slaves by the Europeans, also greatly affected the culture.

This blending of cultures is an important characteristic of Latin American art. To the initial mix of Indian, African, and European traditions, other elements were added during the 1800's and 1900's. European immigrants and Latin American artists studying abroad brought in newer international artistic trends. These were combined with the arts of the various nations. They were transformed at the local level into something new and original. Difficult economic and political conditions have often limited the work of Latin American artists. Nevertheless, they have continuously made significant contributions to world art.

Colonial Art and Architecture

The Spanish and Portuguese began to occupy parts of the Americas at the end of the 1400's. After the Spanish subdued the native peoples, they divided the conquered lands into four colonies, or viceroyalties. These were New Spain (present-day Mexico and Central America) and the viceroyalties of New Granada, Peru, and Río de la Plata (Spanish territories south of Panama). At the same time, the Portuguese founded the viceroyalty of Brazil. All the Spanish and Portuguese colonies became independent during the 1800's.

The Spanish set out to control the native populations and convert them to Christianity. They destroyed many of the Indians' cultural landmarks. Churches were built on the ruins of native temples, taking advantage of the spiritual importance of these sites for the Indians. This led to associations between Christian saints and native gods. Churches were often decorated with figures that combine pagan and Christian characteristics.

The Plateresque Style
The Spanish forced large numbers of native peoples to convert. This led to a need for bigger churches. A solution was found in a Latin American version of the Spanish Renaissance style called plateresque. This style has elegant exterior decoration that looks like the work of silversmiths (plateros). Plateresque forms were combined with Gothic vaults—high arched ceilings suitable for large buildings. The new churches also had open chapels facing on spacious courtyards, from which large congregations could hear mass.

One of the best examples of this style is the Church of San Augustín in Acolman, Mexico, built about 1560. The inside walls are decorated with a series of magnificent frescoes (paintings done on wet plaster) of religious subjects. The themes and styles of the frescoes followed European models.

Baroque Architecture
During the 1600's and 1700's, the baroque, a new style, arrived from Europe. It spread throughout Latin America. The baroque style featured lavish decoration and dramatic effects. It inspired new ways of expressing the blend of the native and European heritages.

Latin American builders modified the baroque style to suit the environment of the New World. Areas plagued by earthquakes needed thicker walls. Tropical regions required wood ceilings to provide better ventilation. Other regional traits were painted plaster and tile work, as well as lavishly decorated facades (fronts) and interiors. Builders in coastal areas followed European baroque models closely. Indian and local influences grew stronger in the more isolated inland cities. Similarly, cathedrals and parish churches tended to be plain. Churches built by religious orders reflected in their splendor the monks' efforts to capture the imagination of the native peoples.

In New Spain, the somber European style of the Cathedral of Mexico City was abandoned in smaller urban centers. In these places, more expressive styles took hold. For example, brightly colored plasterwork covers the interior of the magnificent Rosary Chapel in the Monastery Church of Santo Domingo in Puebla, Mexico. In New Granada, native influence was weaker. Baroque building styles were more closely linked with those of Europe. The Church of the Jesuits in Quito, Ecuador, was built following Italian models for the plan and facade. But the interior shows a strong Arabic influence in the geometric patterns of its stucco decoration. This decoration is also an example of the use of gold ornamentation on red background, characteristic of Quito artists.

Baroque architecture of the viceroyalty of Peru had special modifications designed to withstand earthquakes. These included cane-and-wood roofing known as quincha and the use of thick old Inca walls for the foundations of buildings. In the Church of the Jesuits in Cuzco, two flanking bell towers protect the facade from tremors. Their massiveness is balanced by elegant decoration.

Unlike Peru, Brazil is not threatened by earthquakes. Baroque architects there did not have to design quake-proof buildings. Thus they were free to experiment with more inventive forms. An interesting regional style developed in Minas Gerais, a wealthy gold-mining area. Several churches were built in Ouro Prêto, a city in the region. One, the church of Nossa Senhora do Rosário (1785), shows the typical tendency of that region toward curving forms. In Bahia, the capital of the viceroyalty of Brazil, facades were patterned after Portuguese models. But interiors, such as that of Bahia's cathedral, exploded in dazzling displays of gold decoration.

Baroque Painting and Sculpture
With the exception of the School of Cuzco in Peru, which developed a unique style, colonial painters of the baroque era closely followed European models. Portraits were popular among wealthy members of the colonial nobility. They posed for formal likenesses dressed in their best finery. Important painters included Cristóbal de Villalpando of Mexico, Miguel de Santiago of Ecuador, and Melchor Pérez de Holguín of Peru.

Sculptors, on the other hand, worked in more independent styles. Most of them carved images in wood and either gilded them (coated them with a layer of gold) or covered them with plaster, which was later painted. Often, the figures were designed to be dressed in rich cloth costumes. Among the most important baroque sculptors were Jerónimo Balbás, Alonso de la Paz, and Manuel Chili (called Capiscara). Balbás created many monumental altarpieces in Mexico. De la Paz, a Guatemalan, made high-quality painted sculptures. Capiscara, of the School of Quito, based his sculptural groups on Spanish and Italian models. Sculptors in inland regions, rather than imitating European works, emphasized flattened forms. A notable example is the Virgin of Guadalupe in the Cathedral of Sucre, Bolivia.

An outstanding colonial sculptor was Brazil's Antonio Francisco Lisboa, known as O Aleijadinho ("The Little Cripple"). He created painted-wood figures (1797-99) in the church of Bom Jesus, Congonhas do Campo, and dramatic stone statues of the twelve prophets (1800-1805) outside the same church. These works mark the peak of Brazilian baroque sculpture.


During the first half of the 1800's, most Spanish-American colonies gained independence. They formed into separate republics. Brazil became independent from Portugal in 1822. But it was ruled by the Portuguese royal family until the late 1800's. With independence came a rejection of Spanish and Portuguese traditions in favor of French cultural models.

The most important trend in architecture of the early 1800's was neoclassicism. This style originated in France. It used columned facades and other forms inspired by the classical architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. In Brazil, the French architect Grandjean de Montigny designed the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts and other official buildings in the neoclassic style.

The 1800's produced few sculptors in Latin America. Painting was the most important of the arts. Many young republics defined their national identities through images of heroes and battles, landscapes, and portraits. Most of these were painted in the styles of French artists. The Mexican landscape painter José Maria Velasco specialized in views of the Valley of Mexico. The Venezuelan Arturo Michelena portrayed the national heroes of his country's war of independence. Juan Manuel Blanes of Uruguay and Prilidiano Pueyrredón of Argentina worked on portraits of important people as well as of gauchos (cowboys).

Many European and North American artists traveled through Latin America painting scenes of everyday life. Local artists learned styles and techniques from them. They also learned from foreign artists and architects hired to teach at newly founded academies and schools of fine arts. Soon, local artists began to travel to European cities for training. By the turn of the century, Latin America had a wealthy cultural elite. Its members showed a strong preference for French styles in art and architecture.


The first two decades of the 1900's saw the rise of three important modern art movements in Latin America. These were muralism, modernism, and martinfierrism. The muralists were centered in Mexico. They included Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco. Brazil's modernists included Anita Malfatti, Lasar Segal, and Tarsila do Amaral. The martinfierrists were based in Argentina. These artists took their name from the famous Argentine epic poem Martín Fierro. They included Norah Borges, Emilio Pettoruti, and Xul Solar. All these artists, except Orozco, had been active in various European modern art movements. When they returned to their native countries, they rejected the styles of the late 1800's, still popular in Latin America. Instead, they favored modern trends.

Artists like Rivera and Amaral turned to the native and popular cultures of their own countries as a source of artistic inspiration. Pettoruti and Xul Solar used the modern styles of cubism and futurism. They sought to express the urban experience of the rapidly growing Latin American cities.

The Mexican muralists painted large-scale frescoes that commented on contemporary events. Their realistic style was well suited to their purpose of conveying the ideals of the Mexican Revolution. Muralism had a major impact in both North and South America. During the 1930's, it inspired the work of socially active artists such as Candido Portinari in Brazil and Antonio Berni in Argentina. The muralists' dignified representations of native peoples also influenced many artists in the Andean region.

During the 1930's and 1940's, the modern art movement known as surrealism became popular in many Latin American countries. Surrealist artists tried to portray the world of dreams and the unconscious by painting images from their imagination. The Chilean painter Roberto Matta developed a highly personal version of surrealism. His work had a significant influence on the art of the United States. In Mexico, artists such as Rufino Tamayo, Leonora Carrington, Juan O'Gorman, and Frida Kahlo favored themes that ranged from the dreamlike to the personal and autobiographical. Another surrealist was Wilfredo Lam. He successfully combined European styles with cultural elements from his Afro-Cuban background.

Abstract Movements
The abstract art movement began to grow in Latin America during the 1930's. Abstract art usually consists of lines, colors, and shapes that do not represent any real object. An early figure in the abstract movement was Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres-García. His paintings and sculptures were not completely abstract. They combined simplified figures with geometric shapes. His art and teachings were highly influential throughout Latin America, particularly in Uruguay and Argentina.

Torres-García paved the way for younger artists who developed purely geometric and abstract styles. In Argentina in the 1940's, artists such as Tomas Maldonado and Gyula Kosice formed the Concrete Invention and Madi groups. They made irregularly shaped paintings of basic geometric forms and color planes, as well as mobile abstract sculptures. In Brazil, the Neo-Concrete artists of São Paulo included Helio Oiticica and Lygia Clark. They transformed simple geometric shapes and color planes into playful sculptures and intensely colored installations.

Many Latin American artists worked in abstract styles after the 1950's. Among them were the painters Fernando de Szyszlo (Peru), María Luisa Pacheco (Bolivia), and Gunther Gerzso (Mexico). Abstract sculptors included Jesús Rafael Soto (Venezuela), Edgar Negret (Colombia), and Julio LeParc (Argentina).

Figure Painting
After the 1960's, many Latin American artists turned to the human figure. They saw figure painting as a way to express the widespread suffering of contemporary life. In the following decades, different styles of figure painting existed side by side. For example, Brazil's Antonio H. Amaral painted realistic images with hidden political commentaries. Colombia's Fernando Botero painted satirical works featuring comically plump figures. The paintings of Puerto Rico's Rafael Ferrer have an expressionistic quality.

Conceptual Art
Latin American artists such as Luis Camnitzer (Uruguay) and Catalina Parra (Chile) began to work with conceptual art in the 1960's. Conceptual artworks have two parts: an idea or concept, and a written or visual explanation of that concept. Photographs, texts, sound and video recordings, maps, and diagrams are among the techniques used to explain or document the concept.

Several large building projects were undertaken in different parts of Latin America during the 1900's. The University of Mexico was designed in 1950-53 by a group of more than 150 architects, including Juan O'Gorman and Félix Candela. It combines modern architecture with the work of Mexican muralists. Similarly, the University City in Caracas, Venezuela, integrates modern buildings with works by artists. It was built in 1950-57 by Carlos Raul Villanueva, perhaps the most daring large-scale architectural project in Latin America was that for Brasília. Lucio Costa planned the new capital of Brazil in 1957. Oscar Niemeyer designed most of its buildings after 1960. The city's spacious layout and graceful buildings were designed to bring the life of Brazil inland from the old coastal cities.

Florencia Bazzano Nelson
Rochester Institute of Technology

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