06 March 2011

José María Velasco

Serendipity can be a wonderful thing.  While doing research in Mexico City last September, I spent a day in the historic center of the city, and one of the places I visited was the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso; tourists like me flock there because it was the birthplace of the Mexican muralist movement, but while I was there it was also hosting an exhibit celebrating the centennial of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.  You can imagine how pleasantly surprised I was to round a corner in the geology section of the exhibit to see these:

The paintings above, as well as a third of cave bears that I couldn't find an imagine for online, are by the artist José María Velasco, who I have to admit I'd never heard of before my trip.  He lived and worked in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries and is best remembered for his landscapes of the Valley of Mexico, which have served as a touchstone of Mexican national identity.  He was also a scientist, with a particular interest in natural history (a running theme in his profession, it so transpires, as Mexico's greatest landscape artist, Dr. Atl, was also an amateur volcanologist and advocate for science); he even described a species of salamander, that has since been renamed in his honor.  This may explain why he was commissioned to decorate UNAM's Instituto de Geologia.  Velasco's paintings have adorned the palatial building (itself as glorious an example of early 20th Century museum architecture and design as you'll find anywhere in the world) near central Mexico City since the 1910s, and had been brought over to the UNAM exhibit during some renovations (you can get a sense of how they look in situ in this picture).  Information on the paintings is scarce, but it appears that Velasco painted two series: one tracing the history of marine life and one depicting terrestrial animals and landscapes through time.  These would have been painted at roughly the same time as some of the greatest works of Charles R. Knight and his European counterpart, Heinrich Harder, and I would argue that not only are Velasco's reconstructions in the same league as those of his more famous contemporaries (though it must be said that no one before or since can compete with the vibrancy of Knight's animals), but he in fact surpasses them in many ways; his paleo-landscapes are especially impressive (though sadly underrepresented online).  This should come as no surprise, as Velasco was, after all, a classically trained painter and one of his country's greatest artists of the pre-modern era.  It seems a shame that his contributions to scientific illustration and paleoart should have lapsed into obscurity, and I thought I'd do my humble best to try to share some of those contributions with the world.

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