From his Flemish roots, 17th-century artist Diego de Borgraf would travel across the Atlantic and become one of the leading artists in the establishment of colonial art in the ‘New World.’ From his base in Puebla, Mexico, his vivid, dramatic biblical scenes are indicative of the growth of European art over the seas.
Borgraf was born in the Flemish capital of painting, Antwerp. However, it seems likely that he may have received his training in Brussels under the mannerist artist Hendrick de Clerck (1560-1630). It has been suggested that his time in Brussels may have facilitated his move to the Spanish capital of Madrid, and his eventual journey across the Atlantic to Mexico.
Spain had been imposing a conquest on Mexico and the Aztec Empire since the 16th century. By the time Borgraf arrived in Puebla, the city had become one of the most prominent settlements of Spanish power, including that of the Catholic church. Borgraf had accompanied Bishop Juan de Palafox y Mendoza (1600-1659) to Puebla, as had another artist, Pedro García Ferrer (1583–1660). Although there is no historical certainty, it seems possible that Borgraf worked in Ferrer’s studio for a number of years.
It was with Ferrer’s return to Spain in 1649 that Borgraf claimed artistic dominance and became one of the leading artists in colonial art. Art historians have emphasised the uncertainties in tracing developments in Borgraf’s style, however, it seems clear he derived inspiration both from his time in Spain and the Flemish roots from which he had begun.
The Spanish influence is most predominantly seen in the subject matter. Religious subjects dominate Borgraf’s work and were the backbone of his popularity and influence. Saints and biblical icons are captured in moments of religious contemplation and devotion. Borgraf represents the Virgin Mary at the time of her Immaculate Conception when she was freed of sin at the conception of Jesus, in the Spanish style. She is swathed in a white robe with a deep, azure cloak overtop, as was typical. Many historians have noted Borgraf as taking inspiration from the growing baroque styles of Francisco Rizi (1614-1685) and Diego Velázquez (1599-1660).
The potential teachings he had received from Hendrick de Clerck become evident in the luminous colours with which he treats his art. The glory of his biblical scenes transcends into vibrant blues and green and sparkling bursts of divine, yellow light. This is all done in a manner very much in tune with the mannerist teachings of de Clerck, as is the sharp attention to detail Borgraf lends to his subjects, their clothing and expressions. He also takes care to define their surroundings with a careful hand, trees and foliage alike executed with a thoughtful hand to their natural beauty.
There is a clash, so to speak, of the different inspirations, in the development of Borgraf’s style. At times the effusive use of colour he manages seems to dominate all other aspects of his pieces. In others, the more Spanish, baroque-influenced manner sees him draw on shadows and shade with much more dominance. Whatever the case, and whatever style seemed more appealing, what is clear is that Borgraf’s style began to define colonial art within Puebla.
He took on commissions for numerous clients. For the Brother Hospitallers of the convent of Our Lady of Bethlehem, Borgraf completed 13 paintings of different hermits and saints. He had his own workshop where he trained and employed artists, building a burgeoning art scene within the city.
Borgraf settled himself in Puebla for the rest of his life. He married three times, although never fostered a family nor an heir to continue his craft. Nonetheless, his influence had spread to so many others that he is now perceived as one of the main colonial artists of the 17th century, spreading European tastes across the ‘New World.’
Born in Antwerp, Belgium.
Travelled to America.
Married Ana Jiménez.
Died in Puebla, Mexico. Buried in the Church of San Agustin, Puebla, Mexico.