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Constructing the Pre-Columbian Past: Legitimacy, Tradition, and Dynastic Paintings of the Inka in Colonial Peru

Janet Stephens, University of California, Los Angeles, Summer Fellow 2010/11

During my stay at Dumbarton Oaks, I completed one chapter of my doctoral dissertation and used the library's collections to conduct research for subsequent chapters. My dissertation examines a genre of Peru's colonial art, series of paintings purporting to depict the likenesses of the pre-Columbian rulers of the Inka Empire. I investigate how Spaniards, indigenous elites and criollos (American-born Spaniards) used the paintings as part of a larger manipulation of the Inka as a historical subject in order to provide a basis for their claims to legitimacy throughout the colonial period.

While the scope of my project is broad, the two months I spent at Dumbarton Oaks gave me valuable time to finish a chapter entitled Becoming Colonial: Paintings of the Inka Dynasty in Sixteenth-Century Peru. The paintings use the formal language of portraiture, which was derived from European representational practices. This has led to the assumption that the paintings are an imposed foreign art form in which indigenous participants played little role. I challenge that position and instead argue that the paintings emerged from a process of cultural negotiation between Spanish and indigenous populations who were trying to understand each other while also maneuvering to assert their own interests. Specifically, I investigated the context surrounding the creation and reception of the first documented painting, commissioned by Viceroy Francisco de Toledo in 1572. This involved reading the transcriptions of his informaciones, along with other early sources written by both Spaniards and Andeans, to understand their attempts to make meaning in a new colonial setting through techniques of analogy and mimesis.

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