Guatavita Lake, Province of Bogotá


This watercolor by Manuel María Paz (1820–1902) shows Guatavita Lake in the province of Bogotá (present-day Cundinamarca Department), Colombia. The caption on the painting states that the lake, situated at an altitude of 3,139 meters, was a “notorious place of worship of the aboriginal people.” The lake was a sacred place to the local Chibcha Muisca people, who revered its water deity. The initiation rites of their chiefs, in which the new chief, covered in gold dust, would dive into the lake and other gold offerings would be thrown in, gave rise to the myth of El Dorado. The Spanish repeatedly tried to drain the lake to search for the gold. The watercolor is typical of Paz’s work, which captured the diversity of the population of Colombia and depicted the daily activities and traditional customs of the country’s different ethnic, racial, and social groups. Paz was born in Almaguer in the province of Cauca. He joined the Colombian army at a young age and showed exceptional skills as a cartographer and painter. In 1853 he took over the role of draftsman of the Comisión Corográfica (Chorographic Commission) formerly held by Henry Price (1819–63). The commission, which began work in 1850, was tasked with studying the geography, cartography, natural resources, natural history, regional culture, and agriculture of the Republic of New Granada (present-day Colombia and Panama). Paz worked under Agustín Codazzi (1793–1859), the Italian-born geographer and engineer who co-founded and directed the commission. In 1859, at Codazzi’s death, Paz was among the collaborators who took on the task of reviewing, completing, and publishing the work that the Comisión Corográfica had undertaken since 1850. As a draftsman, Paz executed watercolors and drawings that were very exact and strove to represent the places and people of Colombia in a naturalistic and objective style. These pictures constitute invaluable documentary records for the history and culture of Colombia. They also provided information pertinent to drawing up the maps that were one of the main objectives of the Comisión Corográfica. More than 90 paintings by Paz are preserved at the National Library of Colombia.

Last updated: February 18, 2015