This post is part of the series Excavating Archaeology, which features selections from, and research on, the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology & History of the Early Americas and related collections, housed in the Geography and Map Division and in the Rare Book & Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress.
Dr. Stephanie Stillo, Curator of the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress, co-authored this post.
Every canvas is a journey all its own. —Helen Frankenthaler
Amongst the most significant and beautiful pieces found in the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology and History of the Early Americas, at the Library of Congress, are a series of eight paintings, dating from the late seventeenth century, which depict the encounter between the conquistadors of Spain, led by Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro Altamirano, and the Aztec leader Moctezuma Xocoyotzin, known in European writings as Moctezuma II.
The Conquest of Mexico paintings follow the traditional formula for seventeenth-century Spanish battle paintings in which large figures, often on horseback, are highlighted in the foreground, with the actual conflict occurring in the middle and backgrounds.
In the paintings, a series of events which take place over time are compressed onto a single canvas. Painted about 150 years after the events they depict, these canvases are a remarkable record not only of the events of 1521 but the way in which people in the late seventeenth century regarded the Spanish conquest of Mexico.
Upon first glance, the visual narration is simple and digestible: a handful of Spaniards defeated the mighty Aztec empire and paved the way for the most lucrative and established viceroyalty in the empire. While it is easy to ascribe a simple narrative to the paintings, their visual language is, in fact, much more complicated. Although the paintings represent the years leading up to the fall of Tenochtitlan through a dizzying amount of visual detail, the viewer is directed to watch the drama unfold through precious few characters: Cortes, Malintzin, Cristobol de Olid, Montezuma II, and a few others.
One of the most interesting questions regarding the history of the paintings, besides the complex story they tell, surrounds their provenance, and how they traveled from Mexico, to the coast of Africa, on to the United Kingdom, and finally back to the Americas. Why it was that the paintings left Mexico remains a mystery, but they were almost certainly acquired, under unknown circumstances, in Tangier by Sir Hugh Cholmley (1632 – 1688) sometime in the late seventeenth century, and moved to Whitby House, in North Yorkshire, after he left North Africa, in the early 1680s.
Hugh’s father, Sir Richard Cholmley acquired the Whitby estate, along with the Abbey House, near the ruins of medieval Whitby Abbey, in the late sixteenth century.
When Tangier passed to King Charles II as part of the dowry of Queen Catherine of Braganza, its development became a significant priority of the crown. Cholmley, an engineer who had previously built a new harbor at Whitby, took on the task of the construction of a modern harbor in Tangier between March 1663 and August 1676. At the time, the new harbor was thought crucial to the trading prospects of England with North Africa, but it was completely demolished when Tangier was given up by the English in 1683.
Upon Sir Hugh Cholmley’s death, the paintings became the property of his only daughter, Mary Cholmley (1667 – 1748), who later married her third cousin, Nathaniel Cholmley. Their son Hugh Cholmley III, married Catherine Wentworth, heiress to the grand house and property of Howsham Hall, located in North Yorkshire, to which the paintings were moved in the middle of the eighteenth century.
The first specific reference to the paintings being at Howsham was an inventory of the house from 1852, prepared by Henrietta Strickland. In 1875 Henrietta writes,
These Spanish pictures have been in the possession of the Cholmley family for several generations. As far as is known, there are no documents relating to them but they are supposed to have been brought to Whitby Abbey by Sir Hugh Cholmley on his return from his Government of Tangier in the reign of Charles II together with a collection of pictures purchased by him – that they had been painted in Mexico for the King of Spain and were on their passage to Europe when the ship they were on board of was captured.
The display of the paintings in Howsham Hall was, amazingly enough, illustrated in a series of magazine articles in the magazine Country Life, which documented the elegant country homes, halls, and estates from across the English countryside. Two of the Kislak paintings appear in a photograph in the August, 31, 1935 issue. The paintings can be seen hanging, in the frames in which they still reside, on the top floor of the grand staircase which also features a model of a “50 gun ship”.
The contents of Howsham Hall were sold in 1948, and the pictures loaned shortly after in 1954 to the British Embassy in Mexico City, where they remained until 1999, before being purchased by the collector Jay I. Kislak and donated to the Library of Congress where they now reside and remain on display in the Thomas Jefferson Building.
The mystery of the creation of the paintings in Mexico and their subsequent arrival in Tangier will most certainly remain unsolved. Another early reference to the paintings is however, important to understanding why they might have interested Sir Hugh Cholmley, even though it unfortunately sheds little light on how he obtained a series of paintings about the history of the early Americas in seventeenth century Tangier. In his diary, Cholmley writes about an event at Whitby that seems to imply an interest in the history of the Americas. The brief note simple says, “Prologue to the Conquest of Mexico, acted at Whitby, on Shrove Monday and Tuesday, the 10th and 11th of February, 1683.”
What a scene it must have been in 1683, in a North Yorkshire English country house, surrounded by these incredible works of art, watching a play about the conquest of Mexico. What spurred Sir Hugh Cholmley’s interest in the Americas, we will most likely never know. But as we look at them hanging on the walls of the Library of Congress, we can marvel at their survival and wonder how they traveled so far.