Finding a Madonna – A Rare Drawing by Martín Ramírez

December 11, 2013 by Barbara Orbach Natanson

Source: Library of Congress

The following is a guest post by Katherine Blood, Curator of Fine Prints, Prints and Photographs Division.

One of the joys of working with the Library’s vast and varied collections is the potential for making extraordinary discoveries. This is one of those stories. Please help us welcome a new treasure to the Prints & Photographs Division.

A previously unknown drawing of the Madonna by self-taught, Mexican artist Martín Ramírez was recently identified in a manuscript collection by my colleague Tracey Barton. Only about fifteen of this celebrated artist’s drawings depict the Madonna, and this image is also believed to be one of the earliest surviving examples of his work. Now beautifully conserved by Susan Peckham, the drawing will be unveiled to the public for the first time on December 12th at noon as part of the Library’s Celebration of Mexico conference.

The New York Times has described Ramírez (1895-1963) as “simply one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century.” He is also called an “outsider artist” because he created his extraordinary drawings without formal schooling and outside of mainstream society. His life story is both tragic and inspiring.

Ramírez came to the United States from Jalisco,Mexico, in 1925, seeking work to support himself and his family in Mexico. After working in railroad and mining jobs in Northern California, he was hospitalized during the early 1930s and diagnosed with catatonic schizophrenia. He spent the rest of his life, until 1963, inCaliforniamental institutions. While there, he made hundreds of drawings, often working with readily available supplies. In fact, his use of “found materials” was among the clues that helped Tracey identify Ramírez as the artist when the drawing was first discovered in a recent addition to the papers of Charles and Ray Eames.

Ramírez’s Madonna engages the viewer quickly with her bright gaze and gentle smile. The artist’s handling of bright colors and repeating lines brings a sense of energy and rhythm to the composition, punctuated by the upward gesture of her arms, the downward drape of the cloth over her arms, and beetle-like cars moving southward. Ramírez was likely inspired in part by depictions of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in his home parish church in Mexico. The symbolic globe and serpent under her feet are features that appear in centuries of images of the Virgin Mary in both Europe and Mexico. The serpent, representing original sin, sometimes has an apple in its mouth, but here is shown with a small animal. He further personalized this Madonna by giving her clothing that suggests traditional Mexican dress. Ramírez’s unique, devotional image speaks eloquently of his drive to create and communicate despite enormous hardship.

The Kislak Collection curator, John Hessler, points out: “Like many of the artists, potters, scribes, writers, and painters displayed in the Exploring the Early Americas exhibition, Martín Ramírez, represents the iconography and folk traditions of the times in which he worked and follows in a long line of depictions of the Virgin Mary in the New World, beginning with the Aztec Huejotzingo Codex from 1531, also on display in the exhibition.” (View a detail of the Heujotzingo Codex in the online exhibit.)

Preserving Ramírez’s Madonna

The Library’s skilled paper conservators summarized the drawing’s physical characteristics: Eyewitness accounts of Ramirez’s creative process report that a homemade adhesive of saliva and potatoes, bread, or oatmeal was used to glue pieces of junk mail together to create a single support on which he employed conventional media such as crayons, watercolor paint, and inks, and unconventional materials such as pink matchstick heads and shoe polish to create the design. Later analysis performed by the Library’s Preservation Research and Testing Division corroborated some of these anecdotal accounts.

Stabilizing the drawing has deterred further deterioration by mending tears with nearly transparent but strong Japanese tissue adhered with wheat starch paste, filling losses with a sympathetic paper and colors to match the surrounding design, and local and overall flattening through controlled introduction of moisture. The support, now 26.5 x 41 inches, retains distortions because of the original construction and variety of papers employed.

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