"Escenas de Martirio": Notes on The
Destruction of Mission San Sabi
SAM D. RATCLIFFE*
AMERICAN ART HISTORIANS TRADITIONALLY HAVE POINTED TO BEN-
jamin West's Death of General Wolfe (fig. 1) as having begun the
popularization of historical painting. In composing this work, the
young American painter utilized historical detail to create a "news pic-
ture" with a patriotic appeal to all of the disparate social elements of an
emergent, modern nation-state.' By portraying individuals in a histori-
cal scene clad in contemporary instead of classical dress, and by treat-
ing the scene realistically rather than as an event from Biblical or classi-
cal history, West was violating "an inflexible tradition [accepted] all over
the western world," according to American art historian James Flex-
ner.2 But at approximately the same time that West was painting in
London, an artist in Mexico City, working in an already well-estab-
lished European tradition, was portraying another contemporary inci-
dent in North American history in a realistic fashion. This work, exe-
cuted in the tradition of Spanish historical painting, is far less known,
due in part to its uncertain authorship as well as to the fact that it was in
private hands until recently and rarely on public display.
*Sam DeShong Ratcliffe is Head of Special Collections, Hamon Arts Library, Southern
Methodist University. He is the author of Painting Texas History to 19oo, to be published next
year by the University of Texas Press
'James Thomas Flexner, The Light of Distant Skies, 1760-1835 (New York: Harcourt, Brace,
and Co., 1954), 38 (quotation). For further discussion of the significance of West's painting, see
Flexner, The Light of Distant Skies, 34-37; James Thomas Flexner, America's Old Masters: First
Artists of the New World (New York: Viking Press, 1939), 52-67, Roy Strong, Recreating the Past
British History and the Victorian Painter (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1978), 26; and Williham
H. Truettner, "The Art of History. American Exploration and Discovery Scenes, 184o0-1860,"
American Art Journal, XIV (Winter, 1982), 6-9, 23-25.
2 Flexner, America's Old Masters, 65.
sFor over two centuries following the painting's execution in the early 1760s, it remained the
private property of the Romero de Terreros family, who had commissioned it, and hung in the
family's residences in Mexico. In 1980, a family member, Juan Romero de Terreros y de Garay,
sold the painting to art dealer Eduardo Uhart of Barcelona, Spain. In 1981, Mr. Peter Wray, a
private collector in Arizona, purchased the painting from Uhart. On November 17, 1989, U.S.
Customs agents confiscated the painting at the Austin residence of Dorothy Sloan, a rare book
dealer who had been asked to sell the painting in Texas. The author is grateful to Dorothy
Sloan for sharing documentation concerning the provenance of the painting, as well as for fur-
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 94, July 1990 - April, 1991. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101214/. Accessed March 3, 2015.