Pintores Eclesiásticos de la Región del Bajío / 
Ecclesiastical Painters from the Bajío Region

May 14 - July 20, 2024

Los Anónimos Identificados is the first exhibition of its kind in that it endeavors to present a series of identified comparisons between Retablos Santos by the artists that painted them. The Retablos Santos, painted on tin (lamina), depict images and episodes of saints from the Catholic faith. With a few exceptions, these painters were active in the lowlands of the Bajío of Mexico including the states of Querétaro, Guanajuato, Jalisco, Aguascalientes, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí and Michoacán from the 1840’s through to the 1930’s. Although the format still exists today, the medium as it is commonly represented, faded out due to the rise of  mechanically printed images and the demise of the specific generation of painters. 

For decades these paintings have been seen as parochial folk art made by artisans in rural towns, accentuating outdated ideas of primitivism and naivety, but over the past 25 years, several scholars and enthusiasts began finding signed or initialed paintings or even finding stylistic or aesthetic attributes as ways to identify specific artists or workshops.  

In 1974, Gloria Fraser Giffords published Mexican Folk Retablos; Masterpieces on Tin which expanded on her Arizona University thesis on the subject of religious iconography. In the sections describing saints, artist attributions begin to appear for the first time such as The red bole group. Giffords went on to name several others including The Bee-Stung Lip Painter, Ball-Beard Painter and The Calligraphic Line Painter

Some collectors focused on specific artists from the period. Nancy Hamilton of El Paso became intrigued with a painter from Leon, Guanajuato who signed his retablos D.A.. She began collecting them and soon after, another prominent collector, Fran Tolland, discovered a complete signature on a retablo that bore all the hallmarks of the D.A. Painter. Hamilton’s D.A. Painter was discovered to be Donaciano Aguilar

Veteran collector and dealer of Mexican ecclesiastical art in Southern California, James Caswell collated previous artist discoveries and added several new attributions while devising a way to identify specific artists. At his passing in 2015, the list of discovered artist signatures, initials and stylistic attributions stood at 55. Of course, this is a small number when faced with the proliferation of paintings produced during the aforementioned period.  

From these discoveries (along with many more by  Fernando Juárez Frías, Oscar Ibarra Corona, James Eddy, Sidsie Davis
-Wilensky and George Andrews) it can be surmised that the painters of these saints on tin saw themselves as having artistic license with the ability to develop unique styles. Many produced paintings in workshops much like the artists of the Trecento and High Renaissance in Italy. 

Couper Russ Studios began collecting retablos and ex-votos in 2007 while based in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Matthew Couper met James Caswell in 2008 and began a relationship relating to Mexican art until Caswell’s death in 2015. Caswell generously entrusted attribution techniques and provided photographic files of recognizable artists to Couper while also collecting examples of attributed artists and signed retablos. Couper has gone on to add to Caswell’s list, growing it to over 70 artist attributions as well as discovering signed retablos. 

Los Anónimos Identificados presents 23 recognizable artists from a wide collection of Mexican ecclesiastical paintings from the Couper Russ collection. As more examples of recognizable artists are collected, more exhibitions could be developed to further scholarship on the subject of artist attribution. 

The Artists (attributors in parentheses after title)

The End Date Ex-voto Painter  (attr: Matthew Couper) and The Snr. de la Clemencia Ex-voto Painter  (Matthew Couper). Both these artists’ works are similar in style and writing, but there are enough stylistic differences to separate them out as two artists, perhaps sharing a workshop. The Snr. de la Clemencia Ex-Voto Painter was once attributed as Tadeucio Basquez, but due to dating of the ex-votos and location of commissions, they had to be two different artists. This painter always ends his text in the legend with the year of the commission.  

The Calligraphic Line Painter  (Gloria Fraser Giffords). A painter of small 7” x 5” images, recognisable from their technique of paint modeling at all the joints of the body, outlined with a confident, sinewy line. 

The Cherub Face 'F' Painter  (Matthew Couper). A prolific painter of both retablos and ex-votos who worked in a shorthand way with short figures with cherub-like faces. A retablo was discovered, signed with an ‘F’ on the verso.

Geronimo de Leon (c.1854 - 1917), previously known as The Chronological Painter  (Fernando Juarez Frias). One of the most popular retablo and ex-voto painters, known for depicting El Señor de los Rayos in Totatiche, Mexico. Two Books have been produced on his paintings - a 1996 publication on his ex-votos in and more recently, a biographical study by Patricia Arias and Jorge Durand in 2014. Signed examples of his ex-votos were discovered and stylistic connections were made to his retablos, often copied from European lithographs. He was a very accomplished painter, often writing the name of the depicted saint and dating the artwork in yellow paint.  

The Red Bole Group  (Gloria Fraser Giffords). A loosely-grouped set of retablo painters that are recognizable from the surface wear exposing the priming of the tin surface - a technique borrowed from academic preparation of Spanish Colonial period paintings. The main artist in this group depicts the figures slightly distorted with deep-set eyes and very identifiable cartoon-like clouds. 

The Big Chin Painter  (Fernando Juarez Frias). A painter who competently rendered the bodies or drapery of their subject, yet painted the faces with an isometric perspective, giving each saint a small cranium and enlarged jaw. 

The Under Painter, possibly Bruno Sanchez (James Caswell). Most probably an academically-trained painter who layered the paint in his paintings, giving a very fine, soft finish. The artist painted both retablos and ex-votos, although only two ex-votos have been found that can be confidently  attributed to the artist. The New Mexico State University Museum has a dated and signed retablo in their collection that could be attributed to this artist.  

Master of the Refugio, possibly Geraldo or Alfredo Coz (James Caswell). A prolific painter known for his Refugio Madonnas. Other saints are often depicted in bucolic landscapes. Naturalistic, highly saturated paintings, his style is reasonably identifiable, but sometimes can be confused with paintings by the Almond Eye Painter. A late signed work was found, giving him the name ‘Coz’. 

The Chunky Painter  (Gloria Fraser Giffords) possibly Romulo Ruiz (Matthew Couper). Known for his outlined, hefty forms and figures, The Chunky Painter is very identifiable. He often wrote the name of the saint in a thin box at the bottom of the painting. Only one ex-voto example has ever been found and it held the name ‘Romulo Ruiz’ in the legend. The same name appears on a Refugio de los Pecadores, leading to the assumption that it is the artist’s name or the name of a returning commissioner. 

The Cruz de Animas Querétaro Workshop (Matthew Couper) includes The Worried Painter  (Sidsie Davis-Wilensky) discovered to be Tadeucio Basquez (James Caswell); The Red Robe Painter  (James Caswell) and The Fair Skin Painter  (Matthew Couper). This group of artists proves the use of workshops to create commissioned artworks collaborating on the depiction of the cross by one artist and the lost souls figures by another on a single painting. Early ex-voto examples have been found by each of these artists, often petitioning the Virgen de Belen. Later, the workshop produced Otomi Cruz de Animas paintings and wooden crosses. The style of Tadeucio Basquez and The Fair Skinned Painter was very similar, but with one artist painting all their figures in white paint. A signed cruz de animas ‘Por Tadeucio Basquez’ was found by Caswell, before that he was known by the knitted eyebrows on the praying figures. The Red Robe Painter was painted in a very similar mode, but in a more solid style with a sinope-colored outline. 

The Bee-Stung Lip Painter  (Gloria Fraser Giffords), discovered to be Concepcion Avila (Oscar Ibarra Corona). A very prolific painter from San Jose de Los Otates in Guanajuato. He painted his figures in a stocky, cuboid way, with pursed lips with red highlights, leading to his attribution. A signed ex-voto was discovered and more information was pursued by Ibarra Corona, finding Avila’s  great granddaughter and getting information about her ancestor. He painted both retablos and ex-votos, taking the retablos to sell at the market and gathering ex-voto commissions while at the market. 

The Skimpy Painter  (Gloria Fraser Giffords) including The T.P. Painter  (Matthew Couper) and Agustin Barajas (Nancy Hamilton). Many of the paintings attributed to Barajas are perhaps part of a workshop or village group of artists. Stylistically similar works have been found with differing initials on the verso of the lamina. The painter(s) painted in a very economical fashion, often showing the initial pencil sketches that roughed out the composition of the painting. Recogni
zable by the lack of painterly opacity, this group was extremely prolific and worked within a close style. The saints often have a suspicious look on their faces. The T.P. Painter is well known for their depiction of the Virgin of Guadalupe. If the retablo is not initialed, the painter can be recognised by the distinctive way they painted the roses on the Guadalupe’s tilma. Several initialed and one signed painting by Barajas have been discovered. He also used an outlined cross as an identifying symbol. 

The Single-Footed Sacromonte Ex-voto Painter  (Matthew Couper). An ex-voto painter who often painted the Lord of Sacro-Monte with the kneeling petitioners often only depicted with one shoe or foot. There's a sophistication in the brushwork and paint handling as well as  grammar and handwriting. A good knowledge of the common diseases of the time is often a strong attribute of this artist. Giffords collected many examples by this artist. 

The Oblique Floor Large Candle Painter  (Matthew Couper). Several recogniz
able ex-votos have been discovered by this artist with the petitioners often kneeling on an orange-tiled floor, large candle in hand. A large ex-voto depicting an outdoor scene has been discovered by this artist, showing that they were willing to explore different painterly contexts in their ex-votos. The painter depicted the figures with large heads and detailed expressions similar to retrato painter Hermenegildo Bustos.

The Blue To White Sgraffito Black Legend Ex-voto Painter  (Matthew Couper). Many ex-votos have been found by this artist, primarily at the Sanctuary of San Miguel Arcángel in San Felipe, Guanajuato. Miguel Santos Salinas Ramos published a book with many examples (also including an End Date Ex-voto Painter  ex-voto).  

The Tolentino Ex-voto Painter  (Matthew Couper). A 20th century ex-voto painter primarily known from their economical depiction of St Nicholas. Frida Kahlo’s collection of ex-votos at Casa Azul in Coyoacán, Mexico City has many examples, both in monochrome and color.

Badillo. A monochrome ex-voto painter from Charcas, San Luis Potosi, Mexico. The St Francis of Assisi depicted in the painting wears a black cassock covered in small metal milagros. Six other examples by Badillo are published in ‘Dones Y Promesas: 500 Anos de arte ofrenda (ex votos mexicanos)', 1996.

The Multiple Saint Ex-voto Painter  (Matthew Couper). Only ex-votos have been found by this artist and the first several identifiable paintings depicted petitioners praying to a line up of 3 or more saints, prompting the attribution. Since then, more examples have been found with only a single saint, yet the faces, rooms and text in the legend are recognizable as the same artist. 

The Almond Eye Painter  (Fernando Juarez Frias) or The Ball-Beard Painter  (Gloria Fraser Giffords). Another highly-skilled prolific painter, recognizable by the ball bearing-like hair and beards on the male saints. The conflation of the two attributions sometimes leads to confusion in identifying the specific artist, as the eyes are somewhat menacing and slightly angry looking. The painter painted both retablos and ex-votos, some ex-votos are painted over cut down and recycled retablos of saints.   

Couper Russ Studios is interested in examining images of Retablos Santos and Ex-votos from private collections to add to a database of over 12,000 images, furthering the study of this fascinating period in Mexican painting. Please submit images to contact@couperruss.com