Female Eyes on Latin America: Adela Breton (1849–1923)
Yucatan Traveler & Recorder of the Mayan RuinsMonday, March 15, 2021
In July 2016 a commemorative plaque was unveiled on a house at 15 Camden Crescent, Bath, England. It read “Adventurer, Archaeologist, Artist: Adela Breton Lived Here, 1852–1923.” Although small in scale, it is a significant tribute to the London-born Adela Catherine Breton (1849–1923), who grew up in Bath and often returned there between travels throughout her adult life. It is possible that she found a model for the independent, creative life choices she made in her later years in two women who had earlier called that city home. Between 1801 and 1806 Jane Austen resided in Bath and drew upon it as a setting for two of her novels: Persuasion and Northanger Abbey (both published 1818). Mary Shelley— then Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin— is believed to have written Frankenstein while living in Bath’s Abbey Churchyard between 1816 and 1817. Certainly, the Roman ruins that surrounded Breton in this ancient city would have inspired her future interest in archaeology, an interest nurtured by her father. But while he focused on the Old World ruins, her passion was for the less studied ruins of the Americas. Adela gained her skill at draughtsmanship and watercolor technique as an art student in Bath, apparently at the private atelier William Harbutt’s Paragon Art Studio. She lived a comfortable, privileged life at home, caring for her mother and then her ailing father. But when he passed away in 1887, he left her the financial means to become independent. So, she struck off for Mexico, where she spent many years making meticulous records of the architecture and murals created by the Mayans, especially those at Chichén Itzá. Watercolor was her preferred medium: associated both with amateur lady painters and traveler artists who valued it for its portability. The hand-painted replicas she rendered provide vital records, yet for many years her name was barely acknowledged, even by those archaeologists who subsequently used her pictures as the only known colored records of wall paintings and structures; that have since been badly damaged. Fortunately, her remarkable work at the intersection of art and archaeology is now being recognized and appreciated.
Breton made at least thirteen visits to Mexico between 1894 and 1908 under difficult travel conditions. On the initial trip in 1894 she made a broad sweep of the country, sketching and photographing archaeological ruins and landscapes as she encountered them. This watercolor is one of many she made on her travels: a petroglyph carved in the rock near Tula, State of Hidalgo, depicts the God Centeocihuatl, the god of maize. Subsequently she selected three sites to study in depth, recording the mural paintings in color: Teotihuacán, Acancéh and most spectacularly at Chichén Itzá. Everywhere she went she was assisted by Pablo Solorio (d. 1904), a native Mexican from Churumuco, Michoacán (whom she always referred to as “my servant”).
Why did she choose to study the pre-Columbian world? Questions about her motivation remain unsatisfactorily answered. We do know that she was painfully aware of the paintings’ rapid deterioration and painstakingly replicated them, convinced that their every detail must be preserved. This is especially noteworthy, given that the lack of knowledge about Maya art would have made it difficult to appreciate its conventions, so different from Western art, compounded by nineteenth century racial and colonial prejudices. Breton recognized the cultural and artistic significance of the Maya murals and was able to engage with them in meaningful ways.
The Adela Breton Collection at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery comprises about 300 paintings, drawings and photographs of archaeological sites, individual buildings, surrounding landscapes, and detailed copies of frescoes. Her large watercolors were made on the same scale as the originals, supplemented by additional images contained in thirteen sketchbooks and photograph albums. Other museums and libraries, including those in Bath, also have holdings of her work and collected objects. Written documents include letters and transcripts of papers she delivered at conferences. The fact that there is no written journal or narrative account raises the issue of her intended audience, but she seems to have produced the images primarily for academic use. Following her travels into still remote areas and highlighting a sampling of her amazing artistic legacy helps insert her into the context of both Mexican archeology ca. 1900 and adds another dimension to this survey of female eyes on Latin America.
Close & Extended Observation of Chichén Itzá
Between 1900 and 1904, for four months out of each year Breton lived and worked at Chichén Itzá. Now a World Heritage Site and one of the most magnificent man-made wonders of the Americas, Chichén Itzá is set amidst a dense rainforest on the Yucatán peninsula, extremely isolated from the rest of the country. Travel in the region was challenging— especially for a woman— and as Breton explained, one had to allow at least four weeks each way for the journey. To arrive there, she disembarked from ships at Progreso, a port on the Yucatán coast, then probably boarded a steam train to the capital of Mérida. To arrive at the ancient sites, Breton would have had to transfer from railroad to traditional horse-drawn carriages called calesas and, in places where the carriages could not travel, she mounted mules, always riding side-saddle. Once she arrived at her destination she lived under spare conditions, often in a tent. On one occasion she even took shelter in a ruined temple, as she wrote from Mérida on March 3, 1904: “I shall have to camp in my Painted Chamber, which will be very hot + uncomfortable.”
At Chichén Itzá, Breton produced her most complete record of any Mexican site both in detail and quantity. She was undoubtedly familiar with Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán (1841) and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843) by her predecessors John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, who had explored the Maya ruins in the area in 1839–40 and 1841–42. She would have drawn inspiration from the detailed illustrations by Catherwood contained in their publications and especially that of the Nunnery. In her rendering of that remarkable building, she was careful to delineate the distinctive decorative work featuring the hook-nosed masks of the rain god Chac.
Surveying Chichén Itzá Stephens described “perhaps the greatest gem of aboriginal art which on the whole Continent of America now survives,” referencing what is now called the Upper Temple of the Jaguars. Consisting of two structures— Upper and Lower—built one on top of the other, the structure takes its name from a sequence of jaguars located on the front of the structure. But he had to acknowledge that even then they were in a sad state of preservation and the few drawings that Catherwood made of the Upper Temple convey little of what prompted the words of his traveling companion. (Stephens, 1843, 310-11) Breton, by contrast, made full-size copies of the murals found at the Upper Temple and wrote a paper about them (Breton, 1906), discussing the methods used in the original paintings and the identification of discrete styles which she argued may correspond to the hands of different artists.
Although scholars had traditionally understudied and undervalued Breton’s paintings, more recently they have begun to recognize their importance for understanding life in ancient Yucatan. As William M. Ringle argued, close scrutiny of this rendering of the South Walls reveals various weapons and technology of combat, thus providing rare insight into Maya warfare. The South Wall depicts a pitched battle against an enemy who must reside behind some sort of fortification or natural advantage, because the attack demands siege towers and scaling ladders. The poses of the warriors indicate they are ascending or descending sloping terrain. Compared to the Southwest panel, the South panel shows a different opponent: the majority wear a blue or blue-and-white headband crowned by long red feathers, a red belt or loincloth and sometimes a red tunic. They appear to be throwing spears or darts. The three scaffolds, shown in yellow are manned by higher-rank warriors marked by feathered serpents. By analyzing Breton’s detailed renderings of costume and setting, scholars are now suggesting that these murals illustrate actual military encounters between the Chichén and its enemies rather than— as previously assumed— depicting a mythic or symbolic episode.
This watercolor of Caryatid II is an example of the close-up studies Breton made of individual pictorial elements, in this case the Caryatid II of the outer chamber of the Upper Temple of the Jaguars (so-called Temple A), Chichén Itzá, Mexico. She focuses on the stone figure with arms upraised, meant to hold up a tabletop. In order to maximize the amount of information conveyed, she provides three views: back, front and side. The back view shows the cloak of yellow feathers in three tiers, with two to five curved green feathers in each tier and neck edge of short red feathers. The front view, by contrast, depicts the jade armlets, ear spools, nose stud, and necklace with a jaguar pendant. The headdress is of jade mosaic with red and yellow feathers. Also featured are the pink triangular loincloth and leg bands, with white strap sandals. The third view from the side provides another perspective on the pink sandals with a white heel piece as well as the jewelry, clothing, and feather cloak. Taken together, these three perspectives provide an extraordinary amount of visual information about this one figure.
Breton undertook work at this site at the suggestion of the British archaeologist Alfred Percival Maudslay, as she explained to the Congress of Americanists in 1901:
It was at Mr. Maudslay’s suggestion that I attempted the great task of copying the whole series… It is only when copying them that one can appreciate the art with which each colour is added to enhance the brilliance and harmony of the whole, as one does in copying Turner’s best watercolours. (Sparrow-Niang, p. 32).
Murals like this one that are now largely destroyed can be known primarily through Breton’s meticulous representation. Her reproductive work was forged out of a desire to copy the murals and other artifacts as accurately as possible. In this watercolor she has depicted the stucco façade of the temple of the Pyramid at Acanceh, with the vividly colored figures at the right and the areas deliberately left uncolored at the left. Unlike most investigators, she refused to attempt reconstruction. If an area of a building or mural was so damaged that its appearance was not readable, then she left it blank in her watercolor, as she did here. Various notations on the drawings as well as passages in her writings chronicle nuances in the Maya color schema. Like most of her work, this one is done in transparent and opaque watercolor and graphite on medium cream wove paper.
Unaware of what color choices signified to artists at Chichén Itzá, Breton instinctively realized that those choices were signifiers of meaning— both aesthetic and symbolic— and strived to reproduce them accurately. She made every effort to replicate exact shades of the murals of the Upper Temple of the Jaguars, and noted how the colors changed with lighting. Given that Mesoamerican sites are undergoing constant deterioration from humidity, fungus, vegetation, and general weathering, Breton’s color copies— as opposed to black and white drawings or photographs used by her male peers—are invaluable.
This plaster cast and others in the British Museum were brightly painted in the later 20th century to approximate the original ancient Maya colors of the Sculptured Chamber, based on the watercolors of Adela Breton. This practice highlights the importance of the artist’s attention to color, for color was a central element of the Ancient Maya experience—not mere decoration.
Breton also traveled to the less familiar sites in western Mexico, and sketched the now famous but then little-known Circular Pyramids of Teuchitlán in Jalisco. She was able to reach this remote spot via a train line constructed only a few years before— part of the modernization project of President Porfirio Díaz. Her ever resourceful guide and assistant, Pablo Solorio, had somehow learned that a mound housing an untouched tomb had been discovered near the town of Etzatlán. She was therefore on hand for the unearthing of a burial site in western Mexico. But sadly, “there was no skilled supervision, no data were secured and most of the figures were broken.” She did manage to record some of the details including that “the mound was about 40 feet high and held a burial with pots, jewelry, clay ‘portrait’ figures ranging from 12 to 20 inches tall and other artifacts.” She made this map of the area, sketched a number of the figures and photographed the Mound of Guadalupe, now barely visible.
An educated, upper class woman of independent financial means, Breton could be said to be a participant in the British colonial enterprise. She carried with her a certain amount of cultural baggage associated with that class and position and tended to look upon the Mexican lands and peoples through an imperialist lens. This is evidenced in part by the fact that she—like many working at the archaeological sites in her day— seemed to feel no qualms about removing pottery and other local artifacts from the sites where they were found and send them back to Great Britain, in complete disregard of the antiquities laws. Approximately 1,000 artifacts were assembled and supplemented the visual records Breton made. She later credited the collecting of these objects to her assistant Pablo Solorio, although that activity was clearly carried out with her knowledge and sanction. Both drawings and artifacts were all bequeathed to the Bristol Museum as part of the Adela Breton Collection.
Adela Breton Collection, Bristol Art Gallery and Museum, contains several sketchbooks and photograph albums. This material is beginning to be digitized and made available online.
Breton, Adela. “The Wall Paintings at Chichen Itza,” (1906), in Giles, S. and Stewart, J. ed. The Art of Ruins: Adela Breton and the Temples of Mexico. Bristol: City of Bristol Art Museum and Art Gallery, 55–57.
Breton, Adela. “Some Obsidian Workings in Mexico,” Transactions of the 13th International Congress of Americanists. New York, 1902, pp. 265–268.
Deer, T. (Student no. 1419645), “Adela Breton and the Temple of the Jaguar. A Victorian Perspective on the art of Chichén Itzá,” Undergrad archaeology thesis, University of Bristol, 2017
McVicker, Mary French. Adela Breton: A Victorian Artist Amid Mexican Ruins. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005.
Ringle, William M. “The Art of War: Imagery at the Upper Temple of the Jaguars, Chichen-Itza,” Ancient Mesoamerica 20 (2009): 15–44.
Sparrow-Niang, Jane. The Remarkable Miss Breton: Artist, Archaeologist, Traveler. Bath, England: Bath Royal Literary & Scientific Institution, 2017.