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HOME > Classical Novels > The Boy Travellers in Mexico > CHAPTER XIV.
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From laundries to the fine arts is a step from the practical to the æsthetic. After finishing their account of Mexican domestic service, Frank and Fred accompanied Doctor Bronson in a visit to the National School of Fine Arts, which is commonly spoken of as the Academy of San Carlos. It must not be understood that this was their first visit to this
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 excellent institution; they had been there several times, and it was their intention to continue to look at the paintings in the Academy whenever they had an hour or two to spare.
Within ten years after the arrival of Cortez a college was founded in the city of Mexico by one of the Franciscan brothers, and to this college departments of music and drawing were attached. This may be considered the parent art school of Mexico, and from it is descended the Academy of Fine Arts as we see it to-day. No great progress was made in art matters until near the end of the sixteenth century, when a Spanish artist, Sebastian Arteaga, came to Mexico, and was shortly followed by Vasquez and Echave, the last-named being accompanied by his wife, who was an accomplished painter, and is traditionally said to have been Echave's teacher.
The seventeenth century brought several artists from Spain, and they did some good work; at the same time native talent began to assert itself, and several artists and sculptors of Indian blood made for themselves lasting names. In the eighteenth century the most noted artist, who was also sculptor and architect, was Tresguerras, a native of Zelaya, in the State of Guanajuato, on the line of the Mexican Central Railway, and he deserves more than passing mention.
The Church of Our Lady of Carmen, at Zelaya, was designed by Tresguerras, and is famous throughout Mexico for its beauty and artistic proportions. The tower and dome are especially the admiration of architects and artists, and the whole effect of the structure, whether in a near or a distant view, is most agreeable. The interior is adorned with frescoes and paintings in oil by Tresguerras, and he has been, not inappropriately, styled "the Michael Angelo of Mexico."
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Frank and Fred gleaned the foregoing information from Mr. Janvier's "Mexican Guide," during their first visit to the Academy, and they also learned from the same excellent authority that the present Academy had its actual beginning in 1779 through a school of engraving established in the mint. The success of the engraving school and the general interest in it caused the director of the mint to seek the permission of the viceroy to establish schools of painting, sculpture, and architecture; and the permission was readily granted. Later the matter was referred to the King, who issued, in December, 1783, an order for the foundation of the Academy. On the 4th of November, 1785, the formal opening of the Academia de las Nobles Artes de San Carlos de la Nueva España took place, and this is the institution which the youths visited on repeated occasions whenever they had any spare time on their hands. It is proper to say that the school was originally opened in the mint, but in 1791 it was removed to the building where it now is.
Like most other institutions of Mexico, it has had many ups and downs, consequent upon the political changes through which the country has passed. At present it has an allowance of about $35,000 annually from the Government, and is regularly a Government affair, its name having been changed in 1868 to the National School of the Fine Arts. Prizes are given for meritorious work by the students, all tuition is free, and there is an average attendance of about one hundred throughout the year. One prize which is specially sought is an allowance of $600 a year for six years to enable the recipient to study art in Italy. Within the last few years night classes have been established for working-people, and have been well attended.
"We will not undertake to give you a list of all the paintings we saw," wrote Frank, "nor even a part of them, as in any event it would be tedious to anybody at a distance. The pictures are arranged in three large galleries and two small ones, and they are grouped together according to their age and the nativity of their painters. One gallery contains paintings by the old masters of Europe, another is devoted to old Mexican masters, and another to pupils of the Academy.
"The finest picture in the last-named collection, that of the pupils of the Academy, is by Felix Parra, and is entitled 'Las Casas protecting the Aztecs.' Parra painted it before he had seen any country except Mexico, and he received the first prize at the Academy of Rome on account of the merit displayed in this work. I will not attempt to describe the painting, but send a photograph by which you may judge of it. The coloring is, of course, lost in the photograph, but you can get an idea of the drawing and
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 the sentiment of the picture. Las Casas is represented standing on the steps of a teocalli, and at his feet is the dead body of a Mexican chief, who has been slain by the Spaniards; while an Aztec woman clings imploringly to the robe of the priest.
"The painting is a historic one, and the story it illustrates is this:
"Las Casas was a Spanish prelate who accompanied Columbus to the West Indies and afterwards came to Mexico. He was horrified at the treatment of the natives by their conquerors, and he crossed the ocean no less than twelve times to intercede with the King of Spain in their behalf. He was unsuccessful in nearly all his efforts, though he finally persuaded the Emperor Charles V. to make some effort to redress the wrongs which the Indians were suffering at the hands of the Spaniards. He risked his life on many occasions on behalf of the natives, as we read in Prescott's histories, and when the Emperor offered him the bishopric of Cuzco, one of the richest appointments in the Spanish colonies, he declined it and accepted that of Chiapas, one of the poorest and most ignorant. He died in Madrid in 1566, at the age of ninety-two years.
"Every time we visit the gallery we linger in front of this picture, and are never weary of admiring and studying it. Many good critics pronounce it not only the best painting in the gallery where it hangs, but the best in the entire collection of the Academy. This is high praise, indeed, when we remember that the Academy has works by Leonardo da Vinci, Murillo, Rubens, Correggio, and Velasquez.
"Another fine painting of the modern Mexican school is the 'Death of Atala.' Felix Parra is represented by other works in addition to the Las Casas; one of these is 'The Massacre in the Temple,' which also has historic value. It illustrates the butchery of the natives in the temple by Alvarado, whom Cortez had left at the capital city while he personally went to the coast to meet the ships and troops that had been sent from Cuba to reinforce the invading army. As the history of Mexico was closely identified with the Church down to within twenty years or so, it naturally occurs that nearly all the paintings of former days are of a religious character, just as we find the paintings in the galleries of Europe."
One day in their visit to the Academy the youths met a gentleman to whom they had been previously introduced, and one of them asked if the wealthy people of Mexico gave much encouragement to native art.
"I'm sorry to say they do not," was the reply. "It has not yet become the fashion to buy modern paintings, but some of our rich men are setting the example, and as the country becomes developed and more
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 wealthy, the example may be followed. But just at present the best patrons of art are the pulque shops, and as their patrons are not very critical, it does not require a high talent to meet their wants. In private houses there is a greater demand for huge mirrors than for fine paintings, and the value of the plate-glass mirrors in the city of Mexico is far beyond that of the modern works of art to be found here. Many an artist of fair promise has been obliged to abandon the dream of his life, and obtain a living by painting for the pulquerias, or selling silk and woollens behind the counter of a shop."
The gentleman then told a story of a native artist who had painted a canvas some eight feet by six, representing "The Landing of Columbus." Months and months passed and he could not find a purchaser though he lowered his price to half its original figure; then at the advice of a friend he made a few changes in the ships, costumes, coloring, and scenery, and entitled the picture "Evacuation of Mexico by the French." In less than a week he found a customer who made not the least objection to the price which was set upon the work.
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The mention of pulquerias naturally drew attention to those establishments, which abound in Mexico as do beer shops in New York. Fred undertook an essay concerning them and the substance in which they deal.
"Pulque is the product of the Agave Mexicana, or maguey plant," wrote the youth, "and a description of Mexico without a reference to it would be like 'Hamlet' without Hamlet. It is the beverage of Mexico as beer is that of Germany and wine the drink of France. Along the line of the railway, as we were coming southward, we passed many fields of maguey, and several times we saw the collectors gathering the juice of the plant for conversion into pulque.
"Nobody knows when pulque was invented, as it was in use here centuries before Cortez was born. There are many fables concerning it, and like most fables of the kind, the discovery of the use which could be made of the juice of the maguey is generally attributed to the gods. One more practicable fable is that a Toltec noble discovered it and sent some of the pulque to the King, by the hand of his daughter, Xochitl. The King was so delighted with the drink and the maiden that he swallowed the former and married the latter, and their son succeeded him as king. This was the beginning of the downfall of the Toltecs and their extinction as a nation,
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 but the art of making pulque was not lost; the name of the lovely Xochitl has been preserved in the Aztec name of the beverage, ochtl. During our war with Mexico the soldiers under Generals Taylor and Scott drank the liquid, and in attempting to pronounce its Aztec name they generally got no nearer to it than 'cocktail.' They carried the word back to the States, and Doctor Bronson tells us that it is occasionally heard there at this day in clubs and hotels, where it is applied to beverages in which spirits, bitters, and other ingredients are mingled.
"The maguey belongs to the cactus family of plants, and there are said to be forty varieties of it. Twent............
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