The many who admire the art of modern Mexico from the printmaker Posada to the fiery Oroszco will greet the little show of the 19th-century Mexican painting now on view at Meridian House, 1630 Crescent Place NW, as an informative disappointment. These are timid pictures. Though most of them were made in a period of rebellion, they are not fiery at all.
The subjects may be Mexican, but their styles aren't. They show us cacti and volcanoes, serapes and sombreros, but they do so in a manner that calls to mind not Mexico, but the lesser art academies of London, Paris and Rome. These landscapes look Italian; these peasants strike the poses of Greek and Roman statues. The painters represented, both Mexican and foreign, ignored the native revolution boiling about them and pledged themselves, instead, to maintaining the conventions of European art.
The flirting soldiers, nodding peasants and costumed hanger-on in Augustin Arrieta's "Popular Market Scene With Soldier" look like actors in an opera. The maiden in the foreground of Francisco Javier Alvarez's "House of the Hidalga" is busy feeding pelicans, and the blossoms that surround her are painted with some verve. But this painting seems to be less a charming genre scene than an advertisement; the lavish mansion in the background is its real star.
These pictures are provincial in the true sense of that word. Those that best portray 19th-century Mexico were made by Europeans who eagerly explored the exotica of Mexico that Mexico's own painters gladly left behind. European visitors found Mexico enthralling, colorful and stange, and recorded what they saw. "The German painter Johann Moritz Rugendas," writes the late Joshua C. Taylor in his catalogue introduction, "saw drama everywhere: in the rugged shapes and storm-swept forms of the mountains, as in his 'Volcano of Colima'; in the glowing light and mysterious shadows of a sunset in the 'Valley of Mexico'; or in groups of horseman and country people gathered in the shade of trees, inhabitants of a strange Eden." Another foreign artist Egerton, who first visited Mexico in 1832 and was murdered there 10 years later. Conrad Wise Chapman, a second-generation painter from the United States whose landscapes are on view, was born in Rome "which possibly accounts for the fact," writes Taylor, "that his detailed panoramas . . . bear a curious resemblance to the Roman compagna, so often painted by his father."
Edouard Henri Theophile Pingret, a Frenchman, was more interested in Mexicans that in their country's landscape. He was a higly skilled observer who had, in Paris, studied with Jacques Louis David. His 30 little pictures dominate this show.
Pingret was a costumbrista. He traveled widely throughout Mexico in the 1830s making elegant small oils of the people and their clothes. He shows us nuns and horsemen, a Veracruz musican (who appears to be playing three guitars at once), a pulque harvester (who is carrying a huge pigskin full of water) and streetfolk who are vending peppers, fruit juice, grapes, water, charcoal, sieves. "In his way," writes Taylor, who loved to visit Mexico, "Pingret came closer than some of his academically trained Mexican colleagues in catching the nativecharacter."
The often charming, sometimes crude paintings in this 62-item show come from the collections of the National Bank of Mexico and Seguros America Banames. They will remain on view at Meridian House, off 16th Street by Meridian Hill, through June 30.