The 1920s saw dramatic cultural and political shifts in Mexico and the United States. After the 1918 victory in World War I, the United States was just about to complete its first transatlantic flight. Charles Lindbergh would do this with the support of the St. Louis business community. Mexico was still undergoing a revolution, but it was moving into the modern age.
The relations between the two neighboring countries were not good. Relations were strained by the revolution in Mexico and the war in Europe. The Zimmerman Telegram was a small issue. It was when the German Empire promised Mexico that it would return the American Southwest, which had been lost in the 1840s if Mexico joined the war against America. The Pancho Villa raids had contributed to the deterioration of relations.
It seemed natural that Lindbergh, America’s new hero in 1927, would fly from Paris to Mexico City to help bridge the gap. Dwight Morrow was the American ambassador at that time. While he understood the obligation of welcoming Lindbergh into the embassy, Anne, Lindbergh’s daughter, was not too happy. She told her diary. She didn’t know that the quiet Christmas she hoped for would turn into a marriage with the handsome pilot two years later.
The 9-by-12-foot Flores Mexicanas, by Alfredo Ramos Martinez, was given to the couple by Emil Portes Gil, Mexico’s president. Since Nettie Beauregard, the legendary curator began courting Charles Lindbergh to donate his medals, mementos, and other artifacts, the painting has been part of the Missouri History Museum’s collection for decades. Sam Moore, a former employee of Mohist, just taught a class at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where he and his students explored the Lindberghs’ relationship. Adam Kloppe, the Museum’s public historian took over to design Flores Mexicanas, a Lindbergh Love Story.
Ramos Martinez is not as well-known as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo but his impact on art in Mexico, as well as the U.S. where he settled, deserves greater attention. He was born into a middle-class Mexican family and began painting at an early age. He traveled all over Europe during the Post-Impressionist era when art was being revolutionized by Paul Gauguin. Ramos Martinez returned to Mexico and became director of an art academy. This academy introduced new European techniques such as Plein air painting.
Flores Mexicanas was not created as a wedding gift to the Lindberghs but rather as Ramos Martinez’s display about the various cultural or racial communities that make up Mexican society. His European travels were evident in his oil-on-canvas painting, which he worked on for seven to fifteen years. To the left are a Spanish woman and a Mestiza woman. Then comes an Indian woman and then an “American” woman from the quartet Ramos selected to represent Mexico. It is easy to recall Sandro Botticelli’s famous painting Primavera which Ramos could have easily seen during his journeys in Italy. The Italian Renaissance story of springtime is told by Flora, Venus, and the Three Graces as they parade through a forest adorned with what botanists believe are many recognizable flowers. In Flores Mexicanas, we can see the Mexican rich natural environment flowering out before us, both literally on the carpet of blooms and metaphorically in the figures of four women. Ramos Martinez’s Mestiza woman seems to evoke Botticelli’s Flora.
Ramos Martinez would be familiar with Edouard Mannet’s seminal works from the 1860s, Olympia, and Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe. These are reimaginings of two works by Titian, the Italian Renaissance master. Ramos Martinez updates Botticelli’s 15th-century work for modern Mexico. Botticelli isn’t his only European-American influence. Botticelli’s vibrant mountains appear to be straight from Paul Gauguin’s Tahiti. The Spanish woman reminds me of Francisco Goya’s work, and the tall figure of the American woman reminds me of John Singer Sargent’s portraits of East Coast upper-class society.
Thanks to a 2016 grant by Bank of America, Flores Mexicanas is still in its original glory. Katie Fischer, the bank’s market manager was present when we visited the exhibit last Friday. Although the bank has supported 130 conservation projects in 30 different countries, Katie Fischer said that this exhibit was the first in St. Louis. Flores Mexicanas has impressive classmates, including Cosmatesque stonework at Westminster Abbey.