Frederick Catherwood

Artist, Architect and Early Yucatan Explorer

Frederick Catherwood 1799-1854

“Catherwood belongs to a species, the artist-archaeologist, which is all but extinct. Piranesi was the most celebrated specimen and Catherwood his not unworthy successor" - Aldous Huxley

Catherwood was an English artist and architect who is best remembered for his exquisitely detailed and hand tinted lithographs of the Mayan ruins. Traveling with American explorer and writer, John Lloyd Stephens, between 1839 and 1840, they are both credited for re-introducing western society to the forgotten Mayan civilization.

They first stepped onto the crumbling steps of Copan in 1839, the first westerners to do so, and immediately understood the significance of the discovery beneath and ahead of them. Overrun by jungle, ignored by the Spanish and almost forgotten by residents of the region, Copan was a lost city.

Catherwood’s lithographs depict ornately carved stelae--every inch rendered to depict Mayan gods and heroes, a broken column lying in a shallow pool, views of Copan as first seen by the explorers.

lithograph Stela D , Copan (1844) source:wikicommons

One lithograph, a departure from his usual romantic, even sentimental style, depicts a fearsome monster around the base of a sacrificial altar. Behind this was the stele of the 13th ruler of Copan, King Waxaklajun Ub’aah K’awiil or Lord 18 Rabbit, wearing a ceremonial mask of an ancient god. These ancient images spring to life through Catherwood's adroit manipulation of light. By highlighting the sacrificial altar and placing the stele almost in shadow, Catherwood seems to tap into the fearsome energy of the Mayan sacrificial rituals.

Later, Catherwood and Stephens would go onto discover Palenque, Uxmal, Chichén Itzá, Kabah and Sayil. One of his drawings of Palenque shows the two most famous temples, the Temple of Inscriptions and the Palace, almost completely hidden by the jungle. Catherwood writes that this was a particularly hard scene for him as the dense jungle foliage barred him from fully capturing the entire site on paper.

Frederick Catherwood’s illustrations and Stephen’s writings were published in two landmark books, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan released in 1841 and 1843 respectively.

The tremendous popularity of these two books encouraged Catherwood to release a larger collection of his lithographs titled Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan. Only 300 sets were printed in 1844 and portrayed the ruins at Copan, Palenque, Uxmal, Las Monjas, Chichen Itza, Tulum, and several more remote sites.If you are interested in a copy, check out rare book seller William Reese Company at

Catherwood used a method called camera lucida which can be described as an artist’s microscope. It was an optical device which superimposed an image of the physical object onto the drawing service, allowing him to meticulously capture the finest details.

Even before his travels to Mesoamerica, Catherwood had already built a reputation as an artist during his travels (also with Stephens) to Greece, Turkey, Egypt and Palestine. He made history as the first westerner to have conducted detailed surveys with elaborate drawings of the interior of the Islamic mosque, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. His engravings are found at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Frederick Catherwood subsequently became an American, moving to San Francisco to be part of the gold rush boom. However, he was lost at sea in an Atlantic crossing when his ship, the Arctic, collided with a French vessel, Vesta. Little else is known about this brilliant artist who has left an invaluable legacy behind.

As many as 25 of his lithographs are on permanent collection at the Casa Catherwood in Merida ( He is also the subject of several books by Victor W. von Hagan and Fabio Bourbon.

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