Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Mexico and Central America: Native Peoples, 1800–1900 A.D.

Central America
New Spain, 1535–1821
Republic of Mexico, 1823–present
New Spain, 1535–1821
United Provinces of Central America, 1824–38
Independent states, 1838/41–present
New Spain, 1535–1821
Republic of Colombia (part of), 1821–1903


Encompasses present-day Belize, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Hispaniola, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, and Puerto Rico

The Viceroyalty of New Spain comes under increasing pressure from opposing political factions pursuing different interests. Visions of independence and nation-building among criollo elites (Spaniards born in the Americas) and wealthy mestizos (people of mixed Spanish-Indian descent) are fostered by a strong interest in their own culture and history in the Americas. Insurgencies and revolts persist throughout the century. Many Indian groups join uprisings and fight for local goals. In 1821, independence from Spain leads eventually to the formation of separate nations: Mexico ends the monarchy and establishes a federal republic. Guatemala separates from Mexico, and Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador break away from Guatemala. Independence from Spain brings some improvements to Indian peoples, among them the abolition of mandatory labor for state and church, and the payment of tribute. Demands for political, cultural, and economic autonomy, however, are fruitless. Liberal regimes in Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador, in an effort to accelerate commercial growth in the second half of the century, increase the splitting-up and sale of Indian communal lands, which results in the rapid growth of an impoverished, increasingly rebellious rural proletariat.

Artistic production declines because the region is in a constant state of war. Neoclassicism, taught at the influential Academy of San Carlos in Mexico, is preferred in art and architecture. Countless richly decorated church facades and interiors of the previous centuries are now considered grotesquely ornate. They are destroyed and replaced in ambitious redecorating programs. In an emerging sense of Mexican culture and identity, the remains of earlier indigenous civilizations are investigated, recorded, and collected by explorers of many different nationalities. Painters and sculptors employ themes from ancient Mesoamerican cultures, particularly the Aztec, as well as other historic and contemporary events.

    • ca. 1805 King Charles IV of Spain (r. 1788–1808) orders a complete survey of ancient ruins in New Spain.

    • 1810 In the small town of Dolores in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico, the village priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla (1753–1811) calls for independence from Spain, racial equality, and redistribution of land. He exhorts his people to take up arms for Our Lady of Guadalupe, or the Mexican virgincita. The event, known as El Grito de Hidalgo, is celebrated as Independence Day.

    • 1821 The Mexican creole officer Agustín de Iturbide (1783–1824) declares New Spain independent from Spain. He is proclaimed emperor of Mexico, beginning the long struggle between empire and republic in Mexico.

    • 1821 Panama becomes part of the Republic of Colombia.

    • 1823 The peoples of Central America form the United Provinces of Central America, which encompasses the present-day countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica.

    • 1825 The Museo Nacional Mexicano (Mexican National Museum) is founded in Mexico City. Housed in the Real y Pontificia Universidad de México, its interests are natural history, archaeology, and documents of both the pre- and post-conquest periods.

    • 1831–48 In London, Antiquities of Mexico, a nine-volume compendium of works relating to ancient Mexico with facsimiles of paintings, hieroglyphs, and other antiquities, is printed under the auspices of Lord Kingsborough (1795–1837).

    • 1834 Antiquités Mexicaines, a two-volume work, is published in Paris with descriptions of expeditions in southern Mexico undertaken early in the century by Guillermo Dupaix (1748?–1817?), working on the royal survey of New Spain.

    • 1836 Texas breaks away from Mexico, declaring itself an independent republic.

    • 1841 Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, illustrated by Frederick Catherwood (1799–1854) and published in New York, details recent travels by explorer and author John Lloyd Stephens (1805–1852) through a number of overgrown Maya ruins.

    • 1846–48 At war with the United States, Mexico loses almost half its territory—the vast area stretching from Texas to California; the present-day border along the Río Grande between the two countries is established.

    • 1847–55 Maya peoples in Yucatan rebel against the loss of their land to henequen plantations. The so-called Caste War reduces the population by about half.

    • ca. 1856 Legislation is passed in Mexico that proves to be particularly damaging to Indian peoples, whose communal landholdings are split up and sold to the powerful and wealthy.

    • ca. 1858 Mexican president Benito Juárez (1806–1872), of Zapotec heritage, institutes radical changes. The new liberal constitution declares Mexico a representative, democratic, republican nation.

    • 1862 A great stone head, standing just under five feet tall, is discovered at Tres Zapotes in the state of Veracruz. The colossal head, a work of the Olmec people of the first millennium B.C., is the first Olmec head to come to light.

    • 1863–67 French troops invade Mexico. With the help of conservative Mexicans, Napoleon III of France names the Habsburg Maximilian emperor of Mexico. He is shot by firing squad at Querétaro three years later.

    • 1865 Mexico's Museo Nacional is relocated to the Casa Moneda near the Mexican National Palace as its collections grow.

    • 1867 Benito Juárez is reelected president of Mexico. The republic is restored and a new constitution written that, among other provisions, confiscates the landholdings of the Catholic church.

    • ca. 1870s Depictions of indigenous figures and themes from Mexico's ancient past, such as The Discovery of Pulque by José María Obregón (1832–1902), and The Deliberation of the Senate of Tlaxcala by Rodrigo Gutiérrez (1848–1903), are painted in Neoclassical style.

    • 1876 Porfirio Díaz (1830–1915), a Mixtec from Oaxaca, wins the presidential election. His liberal policies seek to bring Mexico into the industrial age. Indian communal landholdings continue to be broken up and sold.

    • 1887 A lifesize bronze statue of the last Aztec ruler Cuauhtemoc, by Miguel Noreña (1843–1894), is installed at an intersection on the Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City. It is one of a series of bronze sculptures set along the center of the boulevard that chronicles Mexican history from the Prehispanic period to independence from Spain.

    • 1889 The Mexican pavilion at the Exposition Universelle in Paris features atlantean figures modeled on architectural sculptures at the ancient Toltec site of Tula in the central highlands.

    • ca. 1890 Scientific excavations are undertaken by Mexico's Museo Nacional in the states of Oaxaca and Veracruz. They are the first of their kind in Mexico.

    • ca. 1900 The regime of Porfirio Díaz, grown repressive with the banning of political opposition, free elections, and a free press, leads to dissatisfaction among the growing middle class and the landless peasantry.