Miguel Covarrubias also known as Jose Miguel Covarrubias Duclaud (November 22, 1904 — February 4, 1957) was a Mexican painter, caricaturist, illustrator, ethnologist and art historian.
Young Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias appeared on the New York art scene in the 1920s, and his skill as a portrait artist and celebrity caricaturist quickly made him a favorite of magazines. His work was so vogue, in fact, that he would be published regularly in Vanity Fair beginning early in his New York experience, as well as the New Yorker, and the most vogue publication of them all—if in name only—Vogue.
Harlem was a first cousin to Mexico City’s Bohemian section, where Miguel had grown up. Both were gathering places for intellectuals, artists, and personalities of the day, and during the period in which Miguel knew them, both were centers for a renaissance of spirit that had to do with cultural rediscovery, with a search for the elemental self. And in both cases, rediscovery was assisted through a renaissance of creative art, in particular folk art. For blacks in the 1920s, folk art communicated as blues, jazz, spiritual song, and dance, and Miguel was there to record it.
Covarrubias mixed with all the personalities of the Harlem Renaissance, and they all knew him and his work. Adriana Williams further notes that among his friends were, “Ethel Waters and Florence Mills, writers James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes… Miguel also became a good friend of W. C. Handy, who was the first black blues anthologist to be published in the United States.”
As a portrait artist/caricaturist of the Harlem Renaissance, Covarrubias was appreciated in some circles, and disdained in others. A visual analysis of his work brings into question his method of rendering some attributes of his subjects, per Wendy Wick Reaves:
With a consuming interest in folk and ethnic traditions that would ultimately lead to a career as an anthropologist, Covarrubias sought to convey the vibrant, distinctive Harlem culture that so fascinated him. His drawings were therefore emphatically racial. Rather than individual portraits, his figures were more often types—the dancing waiter, the gambling man . . . The emphasis on racial features and characteristics in his comic drawings offended some black leaders for their stereotypical exaggerations.
As always with caricature and humor, there is a risk of offending the sitter (subject), a group of people, or, in some cases, almost everyone. As Reaves notes, W. E. B. Du Bois was highly offended with Covarrubias’ portrayal of African Americans, while “James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes . . . admired the vitality of the images and the artist’s admiration for black jazz, blues, and dance.”
However, Covarrubias was not to spend his remaining days executing works in parodic styles. Caricature was his training ground, and even though he continued work in caricature throughout the 1930s, a more serious notion settled upon him as he began to see more of the world. Covarrubias transitioned from caricaturist to curator over the next many years of his life, and while his caricatures will always be treasures, his work as an anthropologist laid the foundation for modern studies of the Balinese—his work on Bali is still considered one of the primary texts of the island’s culture—and for studies of the ancient Olmec and Mexican world.
—Excerpts of Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery
On Saturday, February 16, 2019 at 3 p.m., Curator and radio host Savona Bailey-McClain will talk on Miguel Covarrubias at Throckmorton Fine Arts. The gallery is located at 45 E 57th St, New York, NY 10022 and the phone number is (212) 223-1059. This talk is FREE to the public.