18 Jun

A Victorian Artist Amid Mexico’s Ruins

In her biography, Adela Breton: A Victorian Artist Amid Mexico’s Ruins, Mary F. McVicker traces Breton’s life from her birth in 1849 to affluent, upper-class parents in Bath, England, to her death from dysentery, at the age of seventy-four, in Rio de Janeiro. However, it is primarily the last thirty years of her subject’s life that concerns McVicker. During these years, Breton left her comfortable home in England for extended periods while she pursued a difficult, and often dangerous, career as a Mesoamerican archeologist. It is an engaging story, and McVicker tells it lucidly in a readable style.


As McVicker states at the outset of her book, Breton was not educated to pursue a career. Rather, she mastered the accomplishments deemed suitable for a Victorian lady–singing, dancing and piano, modern languages, riding, drawing, and painting–all intended to increase her desirability as a wife. She did not marry, however, but lived a quiet life caring for her aging parents until first her mother, then her father died, leaving her wealthy and at loose ends at the age of thirty-eight. Almost immediately, she began to travel. She journeyed extensively through Canada, the United States, and Mexico before embarking on a two-year Mexican “grand tour” in 1893, accompanied only by her Mexican guide, Pablo Solorio.

Breton probably began traveling for pleasure, and to escape what she considered to be the stultifying atmosphere of English society. However, as the letters and diary entries McVicker cites in her studiously researched book reveal, Breton had a sharp and restless intellect and a deep-seated desire to be productive. She described the long years of her father’s retirement in Bath as useless. She had no intention of being similarly unoccupied herself. Struck by the Pre-Columbian ruins she encountered and painted during her tour, she approached the English archeologist Alfred P. Maudsley and offered her services as a copyist which similar to famous art reproductions. Maudsley sent her to the ruined Mayan city of Chichen Itza, in the Yucatan jungle, to make copies in color of the murals in the Temple of Jaguars. This was the first of many copying projects Breton carried out in Mexico over the course of the next ten years. While Chichen Itza absorbed most of her attention, she also worked in Acanceh and Teotihuacan.

In the days before reliable color film, Breton’s carefully measured and painted copies provided invaluable records of rapidly deteriorating ancient artworks. However, her engagement with Mesoamerican archeology was not confined to copying. As McVicker notes, Breton found a niche and she exploited it. Realizing that she possessed a useful skill, she used it as a point of entry into a male-dominated discipline that she had long found fascinating. While working in the field, Breton threw herself into the study of Pre-Columbian languages and cultures. Fascinatingly, McVicker reveals that she also served as an informal mentor to the American archeologist Alfred Tozzer, who came to Chichen Itza in 1902 at the outset of his career. In that same year, Breton made her “professional debut” at the Thirteenth International Congress of Americanists in New York City. She was active in this organization for the rest of her life, delivering papers regularly and serving periodically as an officer. She organized the 1912 Congress of Americanists in London and edited its proceedings. Breton also published articles on Mayan art in several scientific journals, including Nature and MAN.

Despite her successes, Breton’s career as an archeologist was limited in many ways. Her commitment to making herself useful as a copyist–the very skill that won her acceptance among her Americanist peers–ultimately curtailed her own scholarly interests. For instance, although she was keenly interested in the unexcavated mounds at Ake, she had neither the personal nor the institutional resources at her disposal to dig there herself, and her attempts to stir up interest among her colleagues fell largely on deaf ears. Without projects of her own, she was left to assist others in their research. Even after the Revolution in Mexico and the First World War put an end to her fieldwork, her time was taken up with copying Mayan codices in European libraries–copies she made as favors for other scholars. Finally, as McVicker notes sadly in her conclusion, Breton’s contributions to the field of Mesoamerican archeology were quickly forgotten after her death in 1923. Her career had unfolded during a period when the line between amateur and professional was still fluid–particularly in the relatively neglected field of Mesoamerican archeology. By the 1920s, this was changing. In their struggle to promote their own professionalism, a new generation of Mesoamerican archeologists shied away from anything that smacked of amateurism. As a woman without a university education or an institutional affiliation, Breton seemed too much like a dilettante for her work to be publicly acknowledged, even though her copies were, in many cases, the only accurate records of artworks whose colors had faded away completely.

Breton’s career has many parallels to those of American and English women artists who were similarly struggling for professional status around the turn of the last century. Like these women, she had to find a balance between the freedom and mobility she needed to do her work, and the restraints of decorum. She also had to fight to establish herself as a respected peer among (sometimes resentful) male colleagues, and she used her friendships with other women in her field to strengthen both her own position and theirs. Playing up this point, McVicker makes much of the fact that Breton knew and liked the so-called Red Rose Girls of Philadelphia. This group included Jessie Willcox Smith, Elizabeth Shippen Green, and Violet Oakley, who met at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and went on to study together with the American illustrator Howard Pyle. In 1900, they established an unconventional household in which a fourth female friend kept house while the three artists pursued highly successful careers. Breton knew the Red Rose Girls through her cousin, who lived in Philadelphia. It is very likely that she admired their courage and creativity, and that she respected them as fellow professionals. It is unlikely, however, that she considered herself their colleague. An obvious criticism of McVicker’s worthy project is that, by working so hard to frame Breton as a fine artist, the author is simply mis-categorizing her. Breton was a technical artist. Her paintings, though beautifully made, were not intended as fine art, nor were they exhibited as such during her lifetime. Rather, they are precisely measured and colored renderings of Mayan art, which Breton considered part of her scientific research.


Breton’s paintings, a number of which are illustrated in color by McVicker, can be instructively compared to the prints of Frederick Catherwood, the British illustrator who accompanied the American explorer John Lloyd Stephens on his travels through Mexico in the late 1830s and early 1840s. His pictures of Mayan art and architecture, while accurate, are imbued with a thoroughly romantic sensibility. In them, ruins and figures often emerge from jungle foliage, half-shrouded in .dramatic shadows that add to their aura of mystery and sublimity. Breton’s goals were quite different. She sought to document her subjects scientifically rather than to interpret them artistically. Even when landscape features appear in her paintings, these elements are kept to a minimum, and the light falls evenly, elucidating rather than obscuring her subjects. Breton’s paintings, like her scholarly articles, are essentially descriptive. Clearly, she had a sense of herself as a pioneer in a burgeoning field, and she was aware that her work–both written and painted–could serve as the groundwork for later studies.

McVicker might have fruitfully compared Breton’s career to those of other late-nineteenth-century women who worked as scientific illustrators, most notably the English botanical painter Marianne North. Although McVicker does mention North, it is only in passing. In fact, the parallels between North’s career and Breton’s are striking. Like Breton, North was a wealthy, unmarried woman who found her vocation after the death of her parents, when she was forty years old. Also like Breton, she offered her services as a copyist to prominent scientists, including Sir Joseph Hooker and Charles Darwin. Over the course of thirteen years, North traveled to every continent as well as several Caribbean and Pacific islands, making precise and beautiful paintings of local flora. In the process, she discovered several new species. In the early 1880s, North installed more than eight hundred of her paintings in a special gallery at Kew Gardens in London. Breton may have seen them there. It is even more likely that she read North’s autobiography, which was published posthumously in 1892. Significantly, this was just two years before Breton embarked on her own career as a copyist.

Despite minor flaws, McVicker has written a thorough and very interesting study. The importance of her book lies in what it has to say, not only about Adela Breton, but about women’s place in the historiography of both Mesoamerican archeology and scientific illustration. Like Breton herself, McVicker offers her readers a beautifully crafted, descriptive work. It will no doubt serve as a basis for more extensive studies that explore the foundational roles women played in these fields.