Teobert Maler was a German/Austrian who in 1864, at the age of 22, went to Mexico as a soldier to support the Austrian Emperor Maximilian I (Maximiliano), who had recently been installed as the ruler of Mexico. Maler would spend most of the rest of his life in Mexico, long after Maximiliano had been executed and Maler’s military career was over. Maler would become a pioneering photographer and archaeologist in the passionate pursuit of locating, documenting and photographing pre-Columbian ruins not only on the Yucatán peninsula, but in other parts of Mexico as well.
As is often the case, Maler’s contribution to recording and preserving the Mayan cultural heritage was not adequately appreciated during his lifetime. In 1917, 53 years after he first arrived in the New World, Maler died in relative obscurity in his adopted homeland. It is hard to believe he died almost forgotten when one views the marvelous photographs he created at a time when photography was still in its infancy and required enormous effort and bulky equipment.
Part of the problem was Teoberto Maler himself. (He added an “o” to his first name after arriving in Mexico.) He was a loner who was rather demanding and not very easy to work with, a fact that is somewhat more understandable when we look at his background.
Teobert Maler was born in Rome to German parents. His father, Friedrich Maler, was from the Grand Duchy of Baden (1806-1918), which is today part of the German state of Baden-Württemberg. When his son was born on January 12, 1842, the senior Maler was serving as the chargé d’affaires representing Baden at the Vatican. When Teobert was about two years old, his mother, Wilhelmine Schwarz, died suddenly as the family was returning to Baden.
Father and son had a strained relationship – on into Teobert’s adolescent years and later. The young man thus developed a resentment that resulted in certain problems and character defects that carried into his adulthod. However, in his teens Maler made the best of his adverse situation, developing confidence and channeling his energy into accomplishing something. His noble background also offered him opportunities that others did not have.
After completing his basic education in Baden-Baden, at the age of 17 Maler began his studies in engineering and architecture at the university in Karlsruhe. Three years later he went to Vienna, Austria to work in the offices of the noted architect Heinrich von Ferstel, the man behind Vienna’s famous Votive Church on the Ringstraße.
By the time Maler turned 21, he and his father had grown even further apart. Friedrich Maler cut off all financial support for his son, but thanks to the laws of Baden, Teobert was entitled to some of his mother’s inheritance, and he used that money to go to Paris to study art. It was at this time he also embarked on a life of frequent travel, this time to London for a brief period.
“Maler had an extraordinary, enigmatic, fascinating and eccentric personality; he was a maverick with vision and great discipline, a soldier, adventurer, linguist, photographer, architect, researcher, discoverer and archaeologist. His professional procedures equaled those of archaeologists, at a time when archaeology did not yet exist as a modern science in Mesoamerica.” – Karl Herbert Mayer, in “Nachwort” in Teobert Maler. Soldat, Abenteurer, Gelehrter auf den Spuren der Maya (Bonaccorsi-Hild, Doris (ed.); Wien: Ibera, p. 237)
After returning to Austria, Maler was ready for more adventure. In August 1864, he enlisted as a cadet in the Austro-Belgian expeditionary forces being sent to Mexico to support France’s attempt to rule that nation. On a ship named La Boliviana, Maler and 1,200 of his fellow volunteers sailed from the Austrian port of Trieste (now in Italy), arriving in Veracruz, Mexico on the first day of 1865. Rising through the ranks from cadet to captain, Maler participated in several battles against Mexican republican forces – including the famous battle at Puebla in which the Austrian-French forces were defeated.
Following the failure of the European attempt to rule Mexico, and the execution of Maximilian I in Querétaro on June 19, 1867, Maler could have returned to Europe, along with most of his fellow soldiers, but he chose to remain in Mexico. At first he had to move around to avoid potential problems caused by his previous military duties, but soon he was able to settle into a fairly normal life in central Mexico. He developed an interest in the pre-Columbian ruins of Mexico and photography. His first photographic work, views of Indians, ruins, and Mexican villages and artifacts, dates from 1874.
In 1876 Maler lived in the city of Oaxaca for six months, where he had a photographic portrait studio. He finally settled in San Cristóbal de las Casas in the Central Highlands region of the state of Chiapas. For several years he explored the region between Mexico City and Chiapas. He extensively photographed the ruins at Mitla. In the summer of 1877 he made the trek to Palenque, a Mayan site that was known, but little explored. Maler needed the help of Indios with machetes to even reach the ruins.
In early March 1876 Maler had learned of the death of his father in Venice, Italy. After waiting almost two years for his inheritance, Maler found out that for some reason it was being blocked by the Prussian authorities. He was forced to return to Europe to fight for his rights to half of his father’s estate. He needed the money to be able to continue his Mayan explorations. He would spend the next seven years away from Mexico while his lawyers worked on the case. He also lectured in Paris and even ventured outside of Europe – to what is now Turkey and Armenia. He visited libraries and did research to prepare for the next stage of his Maya explorations. While in Vienna, Maler applied for Austrian citizenship, which he obtained in 1884. In Munich he studied under the photographer J.B. Obernetter, improving his already considerable camera skills.
The Yucatán Years
Finally Maler was able to obtain his inheritance and return to Mexico. In March 1885, on a ship named the Oaxaca, he sailed from Le Havre to Sisal or Progreso,* on Yucatán’s Gulf coast. For the second stage of his life in Mexico, Maler chose the Yucatán peninsula. He lived in Mérida, the capital of the state of Yucatán, for two years before settling in the tiny town of Ticul, about 50 miles southeast of Mérida. He now had a plan to explore and photograph the many Mayan sites scattered across the vast Yucatán jungle. Ticul goes back to the pre-Columbian Maya civilization. Even today, more than half the population is of Mayan ancestry.
In Ticul Maler set up a photo studio and learned the Mayan language. (Many of his photo portraits of Mayan women are strikingly artistic.) He also began to systematically visit and record Mayan sites, many known, but also others that he first discovered. Eventually he would also visit some 100 remote Mayan sites, including many sites that are well-known tourist attractions today: Chichén-Itzá, Cobá, Labná, Mitla, Palenque, Tulum, and Uxmal.
Between 1897 and 1905 Maler conducted three important expeditions in the Petén region of Guatemala, and along the Usumacinta River on the Mexico-Guatemala border – all financed by the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology at Harvard University. But in 1905, due to difficulties and disagreements, his cooperation with the museum and his archaeological work ended. The publishing of his photos and observations for the US museum was the only extensive publication of his work during his lifetime. The first of three volumes appeared in 1901: “Researches in the Central Portion of the Usumacintla [sic] Valley” in Memoirs of the Peabody Museum.
Some of his earlier photographic works had also been published in three different issues of the German periodical Globus: Illustrierte Zeitschrift für Länder- und Völkerkunde. (Braunschweig, 1862-1910) in October 1895 (Vol. 68, No. 16/18).
Except for a brief trip to Europe in 1912, Teobert Maler spent the last 12 years of his life in Mérida. Suffering from malaria attacks and digestive problems, Maler died on November 22, 1917, only a few months before his 76th birthday. His grave in Mérida’s Central Cemetery has disappeared. A bust in the Regional Museum of Anthropology in Mérida honors the Austrian architect and photographer.
Maler never married, but there has been some speculation that he may have fathered a daughter in Mexico. Isabel Galas (born in Valladolid) and her young daughters were the only people to receive anything in his will, and it is known that he gave her financial support for a time. However, there is no solid evidence to support the theory that Maler was Isabel’s father.
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*Some sources say his ship landed in Progreso, while others say Sisal. We are still trying to pin that down.
Maler Books (Biographies)
- Doris Bonaccorsi-Hild. Teobert Maler. Soldat, Abenteurer, Gelehrter auf den Spuren der Maya. Ibera, Vienna, 2001, 256 pages. [Teobert Maler: Soldier, adventurer, scholar on the trail of the Maya] A fictional account of Maler’s life, in German
- Ignacio Gutiérrez Ruvalcaba. Teoberto Maler: Historia de un fotógrafo vuelto arqueólogo. Testimenios del Archivo, Mexico City, 2008, 175 pages. [Teoberto Maler: The story of a photographer turned archaeologist] – A biography in Spanish
Note: To my knowledge, there are no Maler bios in English.
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