Behind Closed Doors: Art in the Spanish American Home 1492–1898

Miguel Cabrera, Don Juan Xavier Joachin, Gutierrez Velasco, Count of Santiago de Calimaya, c. 1752, Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York

“Behind Closed Doors: Art in the Spanish American Home 1492–1898,” organized by the Brooklyn Museum and now traveling, focuses on the collecting habits and private styles of a New World elite. The Spanish Americans garnered massive amounts of wealth and political power to equal their counterparts in Spain. Living at the center of the Pacific and Atlantic trade routes provided the nouveaux riches of Spanish America access to the finest of European, Asian and American-made luxury goods. The exhibition presents 160 objects, the majority from the Brooklyn Museum’s vast Spanish colonial collection. A map placed at the beginning of the exhibition gives the viewer a clear grasp of the region’s vast natural resources.

The artifacts on display vary from textiles and furnishings to portraits. Elaborate gold or silver-plated wood frames set off paintings of saints, the Virgin Mary, nuns and friars. Finely crafted wood tables (bufetes) draped in plush velvet serve as a base for the amassing and displaying of coveted objects. Gilt-wood bedroom furnishings, intricate jewelry boxes of silver, tortoiseshell and pearl, imported porcelain from Asia, lacquered large trays (bateas) depicting religious motifs or a Creole family’s coat of arms, the impressive travelling gear needed to go, in eye-catching style, from city dwellings to the luxurious country living of the magnificent haciendas—all are beautifully presented through a series of rooms evoking a typical home of a wealthy Creole. The New Spain home was designed to showcase the family’s extreme wealth, purity of bloodlines and titles. The Salón de Dosel (baldachin room) featured a raised platform where a baldachin served as a shrine to the portrait of the king of Spain. In the grand reception room, viceroys, foreign dignitaries and priests were received, and the mostradores, flights of steps, were draped with opulent textiles as lavish backdrops for the display of even more of the household’s most prized objects The most private rooms, such as the alcoba, the bedroom with the adjacent estrado, an intimate room for sewing, playing cards or writing letters, were brought to life through exquisite leather-covered caskets and chests that would contain a lady’s needlework. In front of small tables in the estrado, called bufetillos, elegant Creole women sat cross-legged on cushions. In a final room, the oratorio or the private chapel, a family would pray in front of a retablo, a portable altarpiece, for the blessings of the household’s saints.

By the eighteenth century, Spanish America was home to some of the world’s richest people, and portrait commissions came from Mexico City and Peruvian high society. The exhibition highlights fascinating stylistic similarities and differences between British colonial portraiture and its Spanish American counterpart. The British artist William Williams’s portrait of a Philadelphia socialite, Deborah Hall (1766), is placed next to the Peruvian Pedro José Diaz’s portrait Doña Mariana Belsunse y Salasar (c. 1780). The Spanish American lady wears the same eighteenth-century style of dress, with a stomacher cinching the waistline and large pagoda sleeves with two layers of lace. The difference is in the length of the outer dress and the petticoat underneath it. Miss Hall’s floor-length dress is entirely of soft peach-colored satin with a few appliqués in the front. Wearing no jewelry and delicately holding a rose in her hand, she appears serene and stands with simple elegance in an allegorical landscape. The more severe Doña Mariana wears an elaborate ankle-length gown called a tobajilla, intricately embroidered with patterns in silver and gold over a blue and white striped satin or silk fabric. She wears matching bracelets, a choker and a necklace, and hanging from one ear, a long and large earring of silver and pearls. A tiara of seemingly the same precious materials completes her extravagant parure. Standing next to an imposing dark wood table, she holds up, for the viewer to notice, a small watch with an intricate silver and pearl pendant. At the bottom right of the image is a rocaille frame with a partial inscription indicating her high social standing as the wife of Lima’s wealthy mayor. If Deborah Hall’s portrait implies the British colonial pursuit of understated, ethereal elegance, then Doña Mariana’s portrait is the epitome of New Spain’s ostentatious show of wealth and influence. In another remarkable portrait, by the Mexican painter Miguel Cabrera, Don Juan Xavier Joachín Gutiérrez Altamirano Velasco, Count of Santiago de Calimaya (c. 1752), the wealthy Don Velasco stands framed on one side by deep red velvet drapery, on the other side by a heraldic escutcheon. At his feet, an ornately framed scroll emphasizes his noble lineage. His suit is typical of European mid-eighteenth-century men’s style: tricorn hat, knee-length coat with wide folded-back cuffs, underneath it a long waistcoat, breeches, hose and buckled black shoes. The entire ensemble, except for the red silk hose, is made of a magenta-colored silk fabric with floral motifs, celebrating fashion at the crossroads with Asia, Europe and the Americas.

Pedro José Díaz, Doña Mariana Belsunse y Salasar, c.1780, Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New YorkThis exhibit underscores the fact that the quest for social status and the assurance of bloodlines was not only a white or Creole preoccupation. In Peru, members of the Inca elite often legitimized their claims to nobility by displaying in their homes Europeanized portraits of their ancestors, as exemplified by a series of mid-eighteenth-century oval paintings depicting twelve Inca kings wearing gold arm bracelets, large concentric gold earrings and various gold headdresses with vivid feathers. From Spaniard and Indian, Mestizo is an eighteenth-century family portrait called a casta painting. Such paintings were designed to counter the idea that the mixing of pure Spanish blood with Indian blood, producing a racially mixed progeny, the mestizos, was undesirable. The richly clad Indian woman, with her intricate white huipil and European-style undershirt and elaborate headdress, calls to mind other racial portraits, newly acquired by the Brooklyn Museum, focusing on the often-overlooked Caribbean, where hybrid colonial styles also began to blur traditional European social hierarchies.

The exhibition is accompanied by a richly illustrated catalogue with informative essays, edited by R. Aste (The Monicelli Press and the Brooklyn Museum, 2013). Topics include the decisive role of women in the decoration of their households, the mastery of Peruvian and Mexican portraitists acting as chroniclers of the New World’s economic boom, the self-representations of indigenous peoples, the pre-Colombian roots of some European furnishings, as well as samples of contemporary European accounts of the social rituals in the Spanish American home. 

The exhibition travels to the New Orleans Museum of Art (June 20–September 21, 2014) and the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida (October 17, 2014–January 11, 2015).

 —Cristina La Porta

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2014, Volume 31, Number 2