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(jazzy piano music) - [Steven] We're in the National Museum of Art in Mexico City and we're looking at an amazing, very large canvas by José María Velasco. It is this panoramic image of the Valley of Mexico. - [Lauren] The painting is about the land. - [Steven] And about the history of the land. In the center, and slightly to the right, we see Mexico City itself. It can be barely seen but it's clear enough so that we can just make out the towers of the Cathedral of Mexico City. - [Lauren] José María Velasco is using light and shadow to guide our eye in this wonderful zigzag motion so that we recede from the foreground all the way into the back to the city itself. - [Steven] So let's talk about how we get there. In the very foreground we have this incredible specificity, and this is an artist who's known to take real care with botanical and meteorological phenomena so he's studying plants, he's studying the geology, and he's studying cloud formations trying to get this right. But our eye first lands on this little vignette of a mother and two children who seem to be walking away from the city, walking back into nature. - [Lauren] There's this dramatic shadow that starts in the bottom right hand corner that arches its way across the foreground that helps lead our eye around the light so that we go around this foreground precipice and then we begin to find our way to the middle ground to where we first see structures that are associated with the Hill of Tepeyac where the Basilica to the Virgin of Guadalupe is where she miraculously appeared to Juan Diego in 1531. - [Steven] One of the great spiritual moments, and one of the great spiritual places in Mexico. So this painting is in some ways a celebration of great moments in Mexican history and its spiritual roots. - [Woman] And then beyond that we're seeing roads that are in part the ancient Aztec causeway that lead us to the heart of Mexico City, and we see some of the effects of industrialization but only hints of it. Dust, maybe, being kicked up by machinery or by carriages. All of this is set against the receding lake. - [Steven] A lake that had once surrounded the city that we see in the distance when it was the Aztec capitol but is now being pushed off by increasing development. And so we see this transitory moment not only in terms of human development but also in terms of the formations of the sky. We see clouds, we see a rainstorm off to the right, that beautifully balance the two volcanic peaks that we see on the left. - [Lauren] And those volcanic peaks are important to the history of Mexico. They are the volcanoes Popocatepatl and Iztaccihuatl, thought to have been related to two individuals, two lovers from the Aztec period, so they were important to the mythohistory of Mexico. - [Steven] So even as this is a celebration of Mexico, its present, its history, its mythology, it's also very much a painting of the 19th century. This is a painting that is deeply informed by the Romanticism of people like John Constable in England or Casper David Friedrich in Germany. This is an international movement that is looking back to nature in all of its grandeur, the way in which it can evoke a spiritual power but at an historical moment that is interested in the scientific. - [Lauren] And I think that's where it begins to depart more from those Romantic qualities of the landscape. José María Velasco was interested in the scientific observation of nature to try to make it as exact as possible. So he's painting this as a member of the Academy of San Carlos, this academic institution here in Mexico City, and his teacher is actually an Italian immigrant who is training and teaching landscape painting. - [Steven] One of the techniques that the artist uses is to paint this in a studio so that he can get the exact detail that he wants in a controlled circumstance, but to base the painting on numerous sketches that he does in the landscape. And we're fortunate to have some of the sketches that he produced while hiking in these mountains. - [Lauren] And this is one of numerous paintings that the artist completed that show the Valley of Mexico from this perspective, and in fact as we stand in the gallery, we can see some of these other paintings, including another from almost the same vantage point, but in this one from a slightly different angle, a bit higher up, but we don't have any human figures. - [Steven] Instead in the foreground we see an eagle that seems to have just flown off a cactus. In Mexico, this is potent imagery. - [Lauren] It could just be an eagle flying off a cactus, but for Mexican history this is related to the Aztec migration story where they ended up establishing their capital city of Tenochtitlan or modern day Mexico City on an island in the middle of the lake after they saw an eagle perched atop a cactus. - [Steven] And this symbol is a central emblem of the Mexican flag, can be found on Mexican currency, and remains an important way in which modern Mexico ties itself back to its Aztec origins. - [Lauren] And so how we can understand these paintings by José María Velasco is in part due to this increasing urgency for a Mexican national identity that has been ongoing since independence in 1821. (jazzy piano music)