La Calavera Catrina
José Guadalupe Posada produced illustrations for many different purposes including: children's stories, plays, play bills, instructional books, songbooks, histories, almanacs, card games, game boards, recipes, love letters, commercial advertisements, business letters and religious publications. Most of his illustrations were in black and white but some, probably fewer than two hundred were in color.
Posada was an artist for hire and accordingly is known to have produced illustrations specifically to order. Art historian Dr. Helia Bonilla, during her research discovered the records of a lawsuit filed by Posada against a publisher/creditor for whom he made a political cartoon. The records gave a description of what was ordered, how much was paid and ultimately the cartoon itself. Clearly Posada showed artistic license but it was clear, at least in this instance, that Posada produced what was ordered.
Sometimes Posada would produce images using photographs of current events or people to illustrate a particular story. This may have been done to save the cost of sending a photographer into the field but also it allowed Posada to emphasize certain points of a story’s illustration. The versatility and quality of his illustrations are just two elements that helped earn him his reputation as a great artist, although sadly not in his lifetime.
Arsacio Vanegas Arroyo (the grandson of Antonio) estimated that over the roughly forty-five years of Posada’s career that he may have made 20,000 images (although this author estimates less than 1,000 images show Posada’s signature).
The majority of Posada’s illustrations that are seen in exhibitions and books to this day are from those that he produced while working for the printing house of Antonio Vanegas Arroyo. There are also many newspapers illustrated by him, posters, commercial advertisements and some books. We know that Posada worked in the states of Aguascalientes, Guanajuato and Mexico City. The majority of the publications made for Vanegas Arroyo have no dates. In addition, many of the images Posada created were reused for different stories so determining when they were published is not so easy. Many of Posada’s images for Vanegas Arroyo publications are unsigned. His illustrations were used mainly in broadsides, (sometimes published as bulletins, gazettes) and chapbooks. Broadsides are divided into three typical sizes: Fullsheets (about 30x40cm), Halfsheets (approximately 17x24cm) and Double Fullsheets (measuring about 60x40cm).
Posada is known to have created images for over fifty Mexico City based periodicals, including: the dailies, Gil Blas, El Popular (1897-1907), El Amigo del Pueblo (1897), and El Argos (1903-04); the weeklies Gil Blas Cómico (1893-96), La Patria Ilustrada (1886-90), El Fandango (1890-92; 1895), La Risa del Popular (1897-98), Revista de México (1889-91), El Chisme (1899-1910), El Diablito Rojo (1900-1910), El Paladin (1901-10), La Guacamaya (1902-11), El Padre Padilla (1908), San Lunes (1909), and irregular issued publications such as La Gaceta Callejera (Street Gazette) (1892-94).
Posada also illustrated many small booklets, typically under 20 pages in length and measuring roughly 9x12cm in dimension. The little publications known in English as chapbooks and cuadernos, cuadernillos or cuentos in Spanish, contained a variety of popular subjects, collections of prayers, recipes, tales, songs, plays, verses and a general multitude of subjects. As with the broadsides the images that appeared in chapbooks were printed on a variety of newsprint quality paper stock. Sometimes the paper was colored, sometimes images were hand colored and many images were used over again for different stories. Front covers usually were illustrated with an image related to the content of the chapbook. Sometimes there were illustrations on the inside and often there was an advertisement on the backside.
Between 1899 and 1901, Posada illustrated for the series called the Biblioteca del Niño Mexicano, written by Heriberto Frías and published by the Maucci Hermanos, empresa editorial y librera de origen italiano fundada por Alessandro y Carlo Maucci, pero impresa por Emanuele Maucci en Barcelona, Spain. The series comprised 110 little chapbook sized booklets each measuring about 12.5 x 8 cm. Every “Maucci book” had a color illustration on the front and three black and white illustrations inside. Posada signed only five of the Maucci books.
During his lifetime the calavera images created by Posada were perhaps the most popular items he produced and accordingly, he is generally credited with popularizing the calavera images commonly seen today. The most famous of which was dubbed “la Calavera Catrina” by Diego Rivera is believed to have first appeared in 1912 just a few months before Posada’s death. But Posada produced many political cartoons, recorded a wide variety of Mexican cultural life including religious and sensational images.
While working for Vanegas Arroyo, Posada, Manuel Manilla and at least one other illustrator named Cortes, all created skeleton images called calaveras for Dia de Muertos, (Day of the Dead). The calaveras were issued along with corridos (songs) or verses usually satirizing some poignant issue of the day or showing living persons as though they were dead.
The religious imagery most often depicted saints, perspectives of Jesus Christ, various renderings of Our Lady of Guadalupe and many of the most popular saints of the time. The printing house of Antonio Vanegas Arroyo actually kept a schedule listing popular saints’ days and key religious holy days so it could go to press with publications relevant to specific dates and occasions.
Posada illustrated many political cartoons. Some of the earliest were made while in his hometown of Aguascalientes while working at the workshop of José Trinidad Pedroza. It was while at the workshop of Pedroza from approximately 1871 to 1872 that Posada illustrated his first political cartoons appearing in a publication by the name of El Jicote (The Wasp). When he moved to Leon, Guanajuato in 1872 the illustrations tended to be more for books and advertisements.
As may be seen in Posada’s work from his time in Aguascalientes and León he initially worked as a lithographer. Some of Posada’s finest images were lithographs made during his time in León.
Sensational images were also a part of Posada’s catalog raisonné. While working for publisher Antonio Vanegas Arroyo, Posada illustrated a number of highly sensational images such as the horrifying story of Antonio Sanchez who goes berserk killing his family and eating his infant son or the illustration of what may be the first depictions of men at a drag party.
These examples and many others may have been the main idea of the publisher Antonio Vanegas Arroyo and or some of the team of writers that he used. Since publishers generally have the ultimate word on what is published it may be that once a story was selected, that Posada or other illustrators were asked to create the image that would complement the story. It may be that Posada collaborated some of the illustrations but we do not know for certain. We only see the end result of his artistic talent.