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Lettered Artists and the Languages of Empire

Lettered Artists and the Languages of Empire
Painters and the Profession in Early Colonial Quito

Using extensive and largely unpublished archival documentation, this major new work recovers the first century of artistic practice in colonial Quito, one of colonial South America’s most important artistic centers.

October 2017
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352 pages | 7 x 10 | 35 color and 54 b&w photos, 5 b&w illus., 1 b&w map |

Quito, Ecuador, was one of colonial South America’s most important artistic centers. Yet the literature on painting in colonial Quito largely ignores the first century of activity, reducing it to a “handful of names,” writes Susan Verdi Webster. In this major new work based on extensive and largely unpublished archival documentation, Webster identifies and traces the lives of more than fifty painters who plied their trade in the city between 1550 and 1650, revealing their mastery of languages and literacies and the circumstances in which they worked in early colonial Quito.

Overturning many traditional assumptions about early Quiteño artists, Webster establishes that these artists—most of whom were Andean—functioned as visual intermediaries and multifaceted cultural translators who harnessed a wealth of specialized knowledge to shape graphic, pictorial worlds for colonial audiences. Operating in an urban mediascape of layered languages and empires—a colonial Spanish realm of alphabetic script and mimetic imagery and a colonial Andean world of discursive graphic, material, and chromatic forms—Quiteño painters dominated both the pen and the brush. Webster demonstrates that the Quiteño artists enjoyed fluency in several areas, ranging from alphabetic literacy and sophisticated scribal conventions to specialized knowledge of pictorial languages: the materials, technologies, and chemistry of painting, in addition to perspective, proportion, and iconography. This mastery enabled artists to deploy languages and literacies—alphabetic, pictorial, graphic, chromatic, and material—to obtain power and status in early colonial Quito.


2019 Association for Latin American Art-Arvey Foundation Book Award

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Part I. Contexts
    • Chapter 1. Lettered Painters and the Languages of Empire
    • Chapter 2. Materials, Models, and the Market
    • Chapter 3. The Objects of Painting
    • Chapter 4. Painters and the Profession
  • Part II. Painters
    • Chapter 5. First Generations, ca. 1550–1615
    • Chapter 6. Pintar la figura de la letra: Andrés Sánchez Gallque and the Languages of Empire
    • Chapter 7. Later Generations, 1615–1650
    • Chapter 8. Mateo Mexía and the Languages of “Style”
    • Final Considerations
  • Appendix. Selected Transcriptions of Painting Contracts
    • A. Melchor de Alarcón, Choir Books, 1572
    • B. Diego de Robles and Luis de Ribera, Virgin of the Rosary, 1586
    • C. Andrés Sánchez Gallque, Chimbo Altarpiece, 1592
    • D. Lucas Vizuete, Easel Paintings, 1626
    • E. Miguel Ponce, Altarpiece and Paintings, 1633
  • Glossary
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Williamsburg, Virginia

Webster is the Jane Williams Mahoney Professor of Art History and American Studies at the College of William & Mary. She has published extensively in both English and Spanish on the history of painting, sculpture, architecture, and visual culture in Spain, Ecuador, and Mexico.


“Based on extensive archival research, [Webster's] study brings to light a veritable trove of new documents, in so doing radically altering understanding of the art profession in colonial Quito. . . . She challenges many assumptions about colonial Ecuadorian artists and makes a compelling argument for the vital role they played as cultural intermediaries who were masters of both the literary pen and the painterly brush. . . . Webster's prose is compelling and elegant.”

Lettered Artists and the Languages of Empire will richly challenge students' established points of reference, in which task it is helped by its lucid language and clear organization...promises to be a premier English-language resource, and likely the most thoroughly researched one, on the art of colonial Quito for years to come.”
Hispanic American Historical Review

“An extremely important contribution to viceregal scholarship…[Webster's] meticulous study…importantly demonstrates the integraton of artists, materials, and languages that flourished from the very beginning of Quito's colonial existence.”
Renaissance Quarterly

“[A] significant new study of painters in early colonial Quito…Verdi Webster does the important work of recognizing quiteño artists, many of whose names are unfamiliar, as learned makers, entrepreneurs, and landowners.”
Sixteenth Century Journal

“This magnificent book is directed at a specialist audience; however, its contents will also be relevant to Latin Americanist historians of the period and to students of literacy in general. It contains superb color plates and is written in fluid prose.”
The Americas

“[Lettered Artists and the Languages of Empire] offers a compelling and innovative insight on the work of painters in sixteenth and seventeenth century Quito…By reconsidering in depth and with attention the extensive presence of indigenous painters in Quito and the vitality of their style comparatively to Western canons, Webster invites her readers to reconsider the interactions between ethnic groups in colonial Ecuador, offering a more complex and nuanced portrait of the relationship between colonial subjects and Spanish rulers.”

“The painters of Quito were interpreters and intermediaries who communicated to multiple audiences and whom the languages of empires shaped in their creations and professional practices...Webster makes these lettered artists vital in their context, painting, and profession.”
Renaissance and Reformation

“It is an understatement to say that Susan Verdi Webster’s new book exponentially expands our knowledge of early colonial Quito artists, their working practices, and their socio-cultural milieu...Webster’s new book overturns previous notions about the anonymity of artists in early colonial Quito.”

“More than a Vasari-like gallery of greats, Webster reveals a whole hidden sector of colonial society, changing over time and venturing out to test new methods and forms, but also embedded within a Euro-Andean socio-cultural matrix. In more than just mining the archives for 'smoking gun' evidence of this or that interpretation of a puzzling piece, Webster deploys a lifetime’s worth of archival and other evidence to portray a dynamic city of diverse and versatile artists rather than the linear origins of a prosaic school...[a] benchmark book.”
Revista Hispánica Moderna

“This book will soon become a vital resource for scholars of colonial Ecuador and colonial Latin American art more widely…[Webster] provides a deep and well-founded analysis of painting in one colonial city that can now be compared with other areas and used to confirm or complicate prior assumptions.”
Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies

“A welcome and much-needed contribution to the field...In Lettered Artists and the Languages of Empire, Susan Verdi Webster rewrites the history of art in Quito during the early colonial period...The rich information collected in this volume not only corrects the art historical record, it also provides new and valuable material for scholars.”
The Art Bulletin

“An exhaustive and intensely illuminating excavation of Quito’s archives...Webster’s documentation of the artists active in Quito through the mid-seventeenth century will provide an enduring touchstone for future investigation...Illuminating the local intricacies of a global center, her study offers a nuanced story of early modern Andean mobilities, ambitions, and conceits.”
Latin American and Latinx Visual Culture

“A model of a type of historical study that requires tremendous time, skill, labor, and deep knowledge that only a dedicated, mature scholar could ever accomplish. This book is a gift to the scholarly community not just because of its interpretive narrative but because it is so rich in primary, difficult historical data that will be mined for generations to spark all kinds of studies.”
Thomas B. F. Cummins, Harvard University, coauthor of Beyond the Lettered City: Indigenous Literacies in the Andes and author of Toasts with the Inca: Andean Abstraction and Colonial Images on Quero Vessels

“Webster’s archival research has completely updated, corrected, and enhanced the picture of Mateo Mexía, Andrés Sánchez Gallque, and other Quiteño artists of this early period. Her perseverance in studying the documents and then organizing her finds enables her to reconstruct the art and artistic practice of the time despite the paucity of extant examples. I believe that this very scholarly work will reach a broad audience.”
Suzanne Stratton-Pruitt, editor of The Art of Painting in Colonial Quito and coauthor of Painting the Divine: Images of Mary in the New World