José Gil de Castro, Artist of the Libertadores

Dudes, this is one impressive guy. Gil de Castro’s Simón Bolívar, c. 1823. Museo de Arte de Lima (MALI). Image from Wikimedia Commons and Google Art.

You might remember José Gil de Castro from my discussion of the many historical inaccuracies of The Liberator, the Venezuelan film about the Venezuelan hero Simón Bolívar that strayed rather wide of Bolívar’s actual life. Gil de Castro was the guy who painted that particularly impressive image of big-nosed, red-coated, shiny-buttoned, blue-medaled Bolívar, looking most impressive (and somewhat pleased with himself, though he had, I think, the right to self-importance). Because I like to citation-chain, and because I will gladly extend citation-chaining to artist-chaining, I discovered fairly quickly that this guy Gil de Castro had painted a lot of the libertadores. Even better, he’d painted them in a style I recognized, thanks to my Spanish advisor, as coming from the Cuzco School, or Escuela cusqueña. My advisor always brought art into class: maybe because of my art history background, I will never forget the day we discussed, and analyzed, the great Aztec Piedra del Sol, or Sun Calendar. I learned more from her about historic Latin American art than I learned in my art history courses–which is both a pity (it should be in art history) and a wonderful thing, another example of her genius. So I “read” Gil de Castro, and was interested, and went hunting more information. I love the hunt.

Home of Gil de Castro, today: the Plaza Mulato Gil de Castro, as seen in this 2011 photo by Wikipedia user Carlos yo. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

My initial foraging expedition brought back what is likely the lowest-hanging fruit about José Gil de Castro: he was a limeño (man from Lima) born and bred, but also a libertador…and a prolific artist. He was also a free man of color. I was able to find some scraps of information about him on the great wide webs: there is a plaza named for him (it’s actually called Plaza Mulato Gil de Castro, and here are Wikipedia articles in English and Spanish). There was an awesome exhibition organized by the Chilean Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes that I wish I could have seen–and, most tantalizing (and frustrating) of all, a book (Más allá de la imagen: Los estudios técnicos en el proyecto Gil de Castro) that (oh me!) I have yet to find. (At least the exhibition catalog, in Spanish with many pretty pictures, is available as a pdf from the museum’s website.)

Stiff kid, interesting depth perception: Gil de Castro’s 1834 Mariano Alejo Álvarez and his Son, at the Museo de Arte de Lima. Image from Wikimedia Commons/Google Art.

Through other peoples’ blood, sweat, and tears–aka their dissertations and theses–I’ve been able to pull together the rudiments of Gil de Castro’s life. His name was José Gil de Castro y Morelos–one of those magnificent long names that I, as the bearer of a hyphenated piece, have always loved. According to Emily Anne Engel’s dissertation Facing Boundaries, his mother (Morelos) was a “‘parda libre,'” while his father (Castro) was “an español,”1 which, from what I know of Spanish American racial categories, likely means he was a peninsular (Spanish immigrant) but may just mean he was a white guy of Spanish descent. I’m embarrassed to admit I’m not all that familiar with parda, or its male equivalent, pardo–I feel as though the hours I’ve spent studying casta paintings in minute detail ought to have taught me all the various words out there, but clearly I’ve missed a few. It appears that a pardo, like a coyote, likely had indigenous, African, and European ancestry–but I’m not sure. José Gil de Castro y Morelos, then, was a free man of color, with a white father who evidently didn’t buy him a certificate of whiteness (I can’t remember if this was still being done in the first place). He hied himself off to join the fight for independence quite early in that fight.2

Gil de Castro’s 1820 portrait of Bernardo O’Higgins, with some liberating going on in the background, along with some Andes. Museo Histórico Nacional de Chile. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

He also learned how to paint, somewhere and possibly from someone–or possibly not: Nenita Ponce de Leon Elphick surmises that he probably actually taught himself, pointing to his rather flat style as partial evidence.3 On the other hand, she uses nearly identical words to describe the style employed by painters of the Cuzco School, describing their “flat, linear style”4–so perhaps Gil de Castro hung out in a Cuzco School artist’s workshop, or learned art from their works. Since they were patronized heavily by people of color,5 it seems quite possible that he would have had access, somewhere, to Cuzco School art. It’s worth noting that what Ananda Cohen considers hallmarks of Cuzco School works–“a bright color palette, flattened forms, indigenous symbolism, and a profusion of gold ornament”6–largely show up in Gil de Castro’s works as well (I can’t speak for the indigenous symbolism, of course, but the colors, flat perspectives, odd depth, and lots of gold are all definitely there).

A wee little bit of gold: Gil de Castro’s Don Ramón Martinez de Luco y su hijo Fabian. Museo Histórico Nacional de Chile. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

That visual link, of course, was one of the first things in Gil de Castro’s work to catch my eye. I’ve recently seen the Art Institute’s A Voyage to South America: Andean Art in the Spanish Empire, which meant that the Cuzco School’s very decided stylistic traits were fresh in my mind when I sat staring at Gil de Castro’s Bolívars, O’Higginses, and Oyala (only one of those). He was also apparently the first painter of a whole new country he’d helped to liberate, appointed by José de San Martín himself.7 He became the favoritest favorite painter of the local bigwigs,8 no doubt assisted by the patronage of guys like San Martín, Bolívar, and O’Higgins. And, as he painted these biggest of the bigwigs, the richest of the rich, he blended traditional Cuzco School stylistic choices with raw new works, setting the tone for his new country. He got to help liberate it, and then he got to paint it–altogether, Gil de Castro has left us a pretty incredible legacy.

José Gil de Castro y Morelos, limeño, free man of color, probable student of the Escuela Cusqueña/Cuzco School–and first official painter of the new country. Now there’s a libertador for you.

Gil de Castro’s postmortem painting of the Afro-Peruvian patriot and martyr, fisherman José Oyala. Museo Fortaleza San Felipe. Image from Wikimedia Commons.
Liberator’s mummy: Gil de Castro’s painting of Isabel Riquelme Meza, mother of Bernardo O’Higgins (and former lover of the ex-viceroy Ambrosio O’Higgins). Museo Histórico Nacional, Chile.


  • 1 Engel, Facing Boundaries, 388.
  • 2 According to Engel (388), he joined up with something in 1805, prior to the great revolutionary juntas. I’m not totally sure what army this was and haven’t yet pulled out my notes to try to figure it out.
  • 3 Elphick, Memory, Presence, and Power, 201-202.
  • 4 Elphick, Memory, Presence, and Power, 81.
  • 5 Ibid
  • 6 Cohen, Mural Painting and Social Change in the Colonial Andes, 179.
  • 7 Engel, Facing Boundaries, 388.
  • 8 Elphick, Memory, Presence, and Power, 201; Engel, Facing Boundaries, 388; Álvarez, 60.



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