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Saturday volcano art – José María Velasco, ‘Volcán de Orizaba’ (1892) 14 February 2009

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José Maria Velasco, 'Volcán de Orizaba desde la hacienda de San Miguelito' (1892)
José María Velasco, ‘Volcán de Orizaba desde la hacienda de San Miguelito’ (1892). Oil on canvas.

José María Velasco (1840-1912) was the foremost Mexican landscape painter of the nineteenth century. He was an academically-trained artist who brought his own vision to bear on the classical European tradition of landscape painting, transforming it to give expression to the vast, dramatic, elemental landscapes of his native country. Velasco had strong scientific interests and sought to express an objective, naturalistic vision in his works, meticulously recording the details of foliage, atmospheric conditions and geology, but he also imbued his art with an intensity of vision that takes it beyond the realm of the purely objective, drawing on natural history, archaeology and topography to construct a monumental and harmonious vision of national space. He is probably best-known and most celebrated for his panoramic views of the Valley of Mexico, in which the volcanoes Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl feature many times.

The painting shown here, however, is of another volcano in another part of Mexico. Volcán de Orizaba desde la hacienda de San Miguelito, painted in 1892, shows the volcano Pico de Orizaba or Citlaltépetl in the south-eastern state of Veracruz, the highest peak in Mexico and the highest volcano in North America. At this time the volcano was regarded as active, having last erupted in the 1840s. In contrast to his sweeping panoramas of the Valley of Mexico, Velasco here selects a low viewpoint and a more enclosed composition. The canvas is divided into two sections: the lower is filled to overflowing with the lush vegetation typical of sub-tropical Veracruz, while the upper evokes the vast empty spaces of the arid uplands, dominated by the great sunlit peak of the volcano, soaring into the cold blue purity of the sky. The contrast between the two encapsulates the character of the Mexican landscape, both richly fertile and starkly barren, with the volcano, symbol of the eternal spirit of the nation, standing sentinel over both.

The Volcanism Blog