This week readers can return to the Dahesh Museum of Art Gift Shop, located at 145 Sixth Avenue in New York for another edition of the Salon Thursdays series. Salon Thursdays is a free program where leading arts scholars provide illustrated lectures, and on November 1st at 6:30 P.M. the Dahesh presents Jean-Frederic Waldeck: A Nineteenth-Century Artist Painting Exotic Mexico, courtesy of Esther Pasztory, Professor of Pre-Columbian Art History at Columbia University. She will discuss the life and work of this quirky Orientalist who went to Mexico and made the ancient Mayans and Aztecs vivid in an entirely modern way. Professor Pasztory is the author of Jean-Frédéric Waldeck: Artist of Exotic Mexico, a fascinating look at this controversial figure. For further details, call the Dahesh at 212.759.0606.
The life of Jean-Frédéric Waldeck (1766-1875) is shrouded in mystery. He gave his birthplace as Paris, and Prague and Vienna, and alternated between claiming that he was English, Austrian or German. Depending on circumstances, he also claimed to be a Baron, a Duke or a Count.
What is certain is that he went to Mexico when he was 60 years old to copy the newly discovered Maya ruins of Palenque and other Mesoamerican centers. His representations of Mayan and Aztec art were the first produced by a European artist, and as such, were seen through a Neoclassic lens. Waldeck eventually went native, painting his Mayan mistress and scenes of everyday life.
Because of the many half-truths and sometimes outright falsehoods he told over his lifetime (including that he participated in major exploratory expeditions that have no record of his involvement), Waldeck’s reputation has now been of interest mainly to scholars and archivists. Professor Pasztory took some time from her busy schedule to talk about Waldeck and her upcoming lecture with The Jade Sphinx:
Can you please tell us a little about your talk at the Dahesh this Thursday?
I’m going to talk about Waldeck’s life and work; first about the inaccuracies people have perceived in the work and why they do not value him, and, also about my discovery that there are inaccuracies in his work because he was mainly more interested in art than he was in illustration. I will also provide insight on various paintings he made while he was in Mexico.
Waldeck tried to approach Mayan and Aztec art through a European artistic tradition – what were the values or pitfalls of such an approach?
Let’s put it this way: Waldeck tried to be everything. He tried to be an illustrator, he tried to be an artist, and he tried for anything in his era he could probably be in order to make fame and fortune. And by being a Neoclassic artist, he was able to see the naturalistic and beautiful aspects of Mayan art that his contemporaries would not see.
Waldeck has not been taken seriously by scholars, and his work, mostly hidden in archives, is unknown to most art historians. Is it time for a reassessment?
I definitely think so. I think he is an artist like the Orientalists of the 19th Century, but rather than go East, he went West. And he was interested in the exotic, and he gave us some fascinating images of the exotic in the Americas.
In my cursory look at Waldeck’s biography, I see that he sometimes said he was various different European nationalities. He often claimed royal titles. How were you able to get your arms around such an elusive figure?
It was not that difficult. We don’t know where he was born, but it’s probable that it was in Prague or Vienna. When he was a child (and we don’t know how old), he went to Paris, France, where he operated as a French artist. All of his journals are in French, there are no German or foreign language words in his notes. So though he was not of French birth, he was French by his upbringing.
He didn’t go into Mexico until his late middle age. The great mystery of Waldeck is that we don’t know a great deal about his early life. He made a lot of grand statements about the expeditions he was on, but they can’t be proven. The only part of his life that we can prove is that period in Mexico. He went to Mexico specifically to paint the Mayan ruins that he came across in a lithographer’s studio in England. (He was working in England at the time.)
Please tell us about your book, Jean-Frédéric Waldeck: Artist of Exotic Mexico.
What I tried to do was situate Waldeck in his time, and within the aesthetic ideas of his time. What would his background and training bring to the Mayan ruins? Actually, he brought a great many books with him, as he was an intelligent and learned person. So I was mainly interested in the context through which he saw these things. I also thought he was an interesting 19th Century artist – not a major one, but certainly an important minor one.
Do you have other books in the works?
Yes – Aliens and Fakes, which is about the crazy theories people have about the origins of Native Americans; things like extraterrestrials, and Lost Tribes of Israel and trans-Pacific travel. All of these strange theories people come up with to explain the existence and heritage of an entire people.
I’ve always found that pseudoscience both fascinating and a little ridiculous.
I think I don’t want to poke fun at it – that’s all too easy. I want to explain why people believe in these ideas, why it made sense to them, and why it still does, to some extent. It’s a phenomenon that does not want to go away.