Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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by Larry Silver

Aaron Hyman, Rubens in Repeat. The Logic of the Copy in Colonial Latin America (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2021). ISBN 978-1-60606-686-7, 312 pp. $70.

[1] Cover image of Rubes In RepeatWith the ‘global turn’ in today’s art history, the importance of early modern colonial cultures, and particularly Spain’s Latin America, has assumed new significance. Many Mesoamerican specialists have sought to recover traces of indigenous people’s practices as ‘hybrid’ or ‘mestizo’ within new, Christianized art and architecture;[1] however, recent attention by scholars of European traditions has begun to indicate how the adopted religion’s imagery percolated into the Spanish colonies. For example, Stephanie Porras has shown how late sixteenth-century Catholic prints by Maarten de Vos in Antwerp served as ‘viral’ sources for works in multiple media. (Porras, 2016)

[2] Picking up the same issue of image transmission across the seventeenth century, Aaron Hyman turns his analytical gaze to major church painting commissions produced in the principal viceroyalty centers of Peru and New Spain: Cuzco and Mexico City. Peter Paul Rubens, also from Antwerp, provided sources for these works celebrating the Catholic Church, conveyed through the painter’s carefully supervised engravings after his images (Van Hout 2004, esp. 76-91). If the term ‘propaganda’ arose from Jesuit calls for both words and images to serve the propagation of the faith, then the Antwerp presses of both de Vos and Rubens brought Counter Reformation Catholic Europe to New Spain. Of course, the process of imposing colour on black-and-white prints while also enlarging them on canvases for major church interiors was a process not of mere copying but of translation, and Hyman appropriately celebrates pictorial accomplishments by several colonial painters—increasingly familiar names—Cristóbal de Villalpando, Juan Correa, and Juan Rodríguez Juárez (Alcalá and Brown 2014). Their artistic agency emerges clearly from adjustments and alterations that they made to the Rubens model.  But unknown artists also figure here, and Hyman is after much more: ‘to rethink the roles of difference and sameness within a pictorial field—“the colonial”–that is dominated by copies, and [to] suggest ways that recalibrate these terms.’ (p. 8). In that ambition, he succeeds brilliantly, reversing the stigma of mechanical reproduction or, here, ‘the copy’ in contrast to the primal ‘aura’ of an original, as laid out, influentially, by Walter Benjamin.[2]

[3] If anything, Hyman’s colonials reverse the usual art historical poles, already set by Rubens himself, whose prints themselves were meant as faithful copies, distributed widely but also fully attending to the fame of the designer rather than the printmaker. Here ‘conformity’ with, not some creative difference from, the graphic model becomes the defining ambition of both patrons and artists alike (pp. 13-16), while still including all necessary accommodations to scale, format, or location. The ‘colonial artist’, often anonymous, becomes a new critical category for application in an increasingly global early modern art history, particularly in linkage to Europe.

[4] Particularly important in this study is physical space: where an image was viewed, but also its place, situated within a larger network of related objects across varying distances, together with other works, sometimes in different media, that shared the same derivation. These transmitted works could constitute a connection across empire and oceans but also located firmly within particular localities. Consequently, the six chapters of this book provide three separate spatially defined studies.

[5] The first section looks more broadly at Cuzco in Peru, whose range of churches utilised Rubens-derived images to engage jointly in an interactive kind of consistent local religious visual culture, an ‘aesthetic of sameness’ (p. 59) established across the city by mostly unknown artists. In the process, Hyman also sensitively raises the local if perennial concern in religious artworks about the dangers of idolatry towards the image rather than its own divine prototype (pp. 102-111). A next section closely examines a single interior space: the cathedral at the very centre of Mexico City. There a network of the most celebrated, named artists engaged actively in visual dialogue over time and on a massive scale, still conforming with Rubens sources at varying high levels of accomplishment. Even on the tall, narrow, eighteenth-century altarpiece by Juan Rodríguez Juárez, Rubens still models a canonical standard in their common setting, although these successive painters creatively combine motifs, sometimes from several prints. Hyman also considers these trends in relation to a contemporary 1722 movement by Mexican painters for an academy (pp. 191-200). Finally, across the full colonial territory, a third study examines a single Rubens source, a devotional allegory of the Immaculate Conception, a thesis print called Austroseraphic Heavens, with a kneeling figure of St Francis bearing three orbs like Atlas (oil sketch, Philadelphia Museum of Art, well analysed pp. 220-21; Berger 2017: 59-66, 75-109). Various Franciscan institutions used this imagery to foster a common theology, but as a counterpoint drawn from the model’s wider diffusion, private as well as public, its emphasis on the central Virgin above Francis prompted locally miracle-working images, including both icons and sculptures, based, respectively, on the Virgins of El Pueblito and Tepepan.

[6] Instead of seeking indigenous survivals or interpolations, such as the notorious guinea pig inserted as a substitute for the sacrificial lamb into an eighteenth-century Last Supper image in Cuzco Cathedral, Aaron Hyman inverts the usual search for local colonial distinctiveness through his examination of its very sameness and common sources.  When available, he uses surviving contracts in his thorough research, but since they remain scarce, he uses commonalities drawn from shared Rubens images to consider what ambitions could produce such consistent use of revered models, even reaching a point in Cuzco of proud local self-reference.  In the process, he overturns the habitual attention that has privileged originality and invention by an individual artist-genius ever since Vasari invented art history in Renaissance Florence. Here distinctions collapse between auratic devotional objects and signed authorship, confounding the teleology and distinction between icon and artwork in Belting’s Likeness and Presence (1994). Hyman’s incisive new book not only relocates neglected works by Latin American colonial artists, but it also challenges wider art-historical methodology for a new generation of globally-minded scholars. This well-illustrated product of the Getty Research Institute revises ingrained concepts.  It provides a provocative new ‘logic of the copy’, whether conforming or transforming or both, within regional artistic networks and viewing communities.

University of Pennsylvania, December 2022


​[1] For the concept, see Gruzinski 2002. For the art historiography, see Bailey 2010; and Dean & Leibsohn 2010. ​[back to text]​

​[2] Newly retranslated from the second version; Benjamin 2008. For another rethinking of the notion of copying but across time rather than space, see Wood 2008. ​[back to text]​


Alcalá, Luisa Elena and Jonathan Brown (eds). Painting in Latin America, 1500-1820: From Conquest to Independence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).

Bailey, Gauvin Alexander. The Andean Hybrid Baroque: Convergent Cultures in the Churches of Colonial Peru (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 2010).

Belting, Hans. Likeness and Presence. A History of the Image before the Era of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

Benjamin, Walter. ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility: Second Version’ in Michael Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Levin (eds), Walter Benjamin. The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2008), pp. 19-55.

Berger, Susanna. Art and Philosophy. Visual Thinking in Europe from the Late Renaissance to the Early Enlightenment (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).

Dean, Carolyn and Dana Leibsohn. ‘Hybridity and its Discontents: Considering Visual Culture in Colonial Spanish America’, Colonial Latin American Review 12, no. 1 (2010), pp. 5-35.

Gruzinski, Serge. The Mestizo Mind: The Intellectual Dynamics of Colonization and Globalization (New York: Routledge, 2002).

Porras, Stephanie. ‘St Michael the Archangel: Spiritual, Visual and Material Translations from Antwerp to Lima,’ in Suzanna Karr Schmidt and Edward Wouk (eds), Prints in Translation, 1450-1750. Image, Materiality, Space. (London: Routledge, 2016), pp. 183-202.

Van Hout, Nico (ed.). Copyright Rubens. Rubens en de grafiek, exh. cat. (Antwerp: Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, 2004).

Wood, Christopher. Forgery Replica Fiction. Temporalities of German Renaissance Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

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