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José Rafael Aragón

(1796 - 1862)
José Rafael Aragón is considered to be one of the most prolific and highly regarded classic santeros in early New Mexico. Aragón produced miniature carvings, massive altar screens for area churches, and retablos depicting the popular saints of the era; all were strongly and sensitively rendered, with careful attention paid to detail. His works embody a more individual style than those of other santeros, who were often heavily influenced by orthodox religious iconography.

He was a wood carver who used local woods such as ponderosa pine or cottonwood roots and also a painter who used watercolor and tempera. For his woodcarvings, his method was to cover the carved object with gesso or plaster and then apply color with watercolor paints. He was especially noted for his creative decorative motifs, color contrasts, boldness of line and abstract forms. Much of his work was creating monumental altar screens, and he also supervised church-decoration projects and carved retablos. Evidence shows that he was active for nearly fifty years, from 1815 to 1862.

The first record found of him is in Santa Fe on July 19, 1815 when he married Maria Josefa Lucero. Three years later, he made a pledge to the church, but he never paid, which likely indicates he had financial problems early in his career. By 1823, he and his wife and children lived in the Bario de San Francisco, which was the woodworkers' district of Santa Fe.

One of his first commissions, between 1818 and 1826, was the altar screen in the church of San Lorenzo at Picuris Pueblo near Santa Fe, where he used tempera paint. Around 1835, he moved to a new home in the village of Quemado, later named Cordova, New Mexico. He went there to be with his second wife, Josefa Cordova, whom he married after the death of his first wife. There he carved and painted in folk-art style the main altar of the Quemado Church of San Antonio, and this became one of many projects that built his reputation throughout the Santa Cruz Valley. He did work on most of the churches in the area including at Santa Cruz, El Valle, Truchas, Chimayo, Hernandez, and Pojoaque. He also worked in the Taos area.

Biographical source material includes Christine Mather, essay, American Folk Painters of Three Centuries, edited by Jean Lipman and Tom Armstrong