Exhibition | Behind Closed Doors: Art in the Spanish American Home

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on September 23, 2013

Now on view at the Brooklyn Museum:

Behind Closed Doors: Art in the Spanish American Home, 1492–1898
Brooklyn Museum, New York, 10 September 2013 — 12 January 2014
Albuquerque Museum of Art and History, New Mexico, 16 February — 18 May 2014
New Orleans Museum of Art, 20 June — 21 September 2014
The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida, 17 October 2014 — 11 January 2015

Curated by Richard Aste


Screen with the Siege of Belgrade (front) and Hunting Scene (reverse,
as shown above). Mexico, ca. 1697–1701. Oil on wood, inlaid
with mother-of-pearl, 90 x 108 inches (Brooklyn Museum)

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The first major exhibition in the United States to explore the private lives, power struggles, and collecting practices of Spain’s New World elite brings together approximately 160 exceptional works in a wide range of media that illuminate conspicuous consumption and domestic display in the colonial era. Behind Closed Doors: Art in the Spanish American Home, 1492–1898 debuted at the Brooklyn Museum, where it will be on view through January 12, 2014, before traveling to three additional venues.

Included are paintings, manuscripts, prints, sculpture, decorative-arts objects, and textiles. The material demonstrates how colonial Spanish America’s new moneyed classes—including Spaniards, Creoles (Spaniards born in the New World), individuals of mixed race, and indigenous people—secured their social status through the spectacular private display of luxury goods from all over the world. The exhibition invites the visitor into an elite Spanish colonial home, beginning with more public reception rooms, hung with elaborately costumed family portraits and filled with fine imported and locally produced luxury goods, and ending with more private rooms, displaying objects that also spoke to the racial and social identity of their owners.


Agostino Brunias, Free Women of Color with Their Children
and Servants in a Landscape, ca. 1770–96. Oil on canvas,
20 x 26 inches (Brooklyn Museum)

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When the Spanish empire first expanded its borders into the Americas, the early conquistadors brought with them a rich artistic tradition, along with a monotheistic religion and an obsession with racial purity. Within a hundred years, fabulous fortunes had been amassed in the New World, thanks to the region’s abundant natural resources and robust market economy. Although Spanish America’s newly privileged class consisted of some of the wealthiest people in the world, the crown consistently favored those born in Spain for prominent local government and church positions, and political reforms in the eighteenth century further limited Creole power. In defiance, American-born elites responded by acquiring and ostentatiously displaying luxury goods from around the world in their dress and in their homes as pointed reminders of the crown’s reliance on New World resources. Their collections became more eclectic, including works by local artists and indigenous craftsmen as well as European masters.

Most of the objects in the exhibition are drawn from the Brooklyn Museum’s superb Spanish colonial holdings, supplemented by additional selections from the American, European, Asian, and Islamic collections as well as loans from public and private collections. For the first time in an exhibition in this country, Spanish colonial objects destined for the home will be paired with British American counterparts for purposes of comparison. The exhibition, which encompasses all of the New World under Spanish domination, calls attention to the Caribbean’s pivotal but, surprisingly, often overlooked role in Spanish American history.

 José Joaquín Bermejo (Peruvian, active circa 1760–92). Doña Mariana Belsunse y Salasar, circa 1780. Oil on canvas, 78⅛ x 50-1/16 in. (198.4 x 127.2 cm). Brooklyn Museum

José Joaquín Bermejo, Doña Mariana Belsunse y Salasar, ca. 1780 (Brooklyn Museum)

Among the exhibition highlights is a group of luxury objects from the viceroyalty of New Spain, which comprised present-day Mexico and Central America. One is a shell-inlaid and painted folding screen, or biombo enconchado, commissioned expressly for Mexico City’s viceregal palace about 1700 by Viceroy José Sarmiento de Valladares. This extremely rare, massive six-panel screen will be a focal point of the exhibition, along with a newly discovered late eighteenth-century neoclassical portrait by the mixed-race Puerto Rican painter José Campeche. Depicting twenty-one-year-old Doña Maria de los Dolores Gutiérrez del Mazo y Pérez, the painting commemorated her marriage to the future viceroy of New Granada.

Other objects in the exhibition include a pair of painted leather Peruvian chests from about 1690 decorated with allegories of the four elements, symbols of the zodiac, and a scene of a merry company dining outdoors; eighteenth-century Chinese export porcelain bearing the coat of arms of one of colonial Mexico’s leading families; an early sixteenth-century medallion Ushak carpet from Turkey of the type recorded in South American women’s sitting rooms; a late eighteenth-century polychromed wood portable tabernacle, adorned with the Virgin Mary and mirrors to reflect candlelight; Free Women of Color with Their Children and Servants in a Landscape, a portrait from about 1764–96 of members of the mixed-race elite in the British colony of Dominica by Italian painter Agostino Brunias; and Francisco de Goya’s monumental portrait of Peruvian-born Don Tadeo Bravo de Rivero, painted in Madrid in 1806.

The Brooklyn Museum began acquiring domestic Spanish colonial art in earnest in 1941 when Herbert J. Spinden, Curator of American Indian Art and Primitive Cultures, purchased approximately fourteen hundred art works from eight Latin American countries. The collection, which now ranks among the country’s finest, has been augmented with important recent acquisitions that are included in the exhibition.

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Programming at the Brooklyn Museum includes an afternoon roundtable:

Roundtable Discussion: Behind Closed Doors
Brooklyn Museum, Saturday, 16 November 2013, 11:30 a.m.–4 p.m.

Water Heater (Pava). Bolivia, 18th century. Silver, 14-9/16 x 13 x 5½ in. (37 x 33 x 14 cm). Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, 1998.257

Water Heater (Pava). Bolivia, 18th century, silver (Brooklyn Museum)

Join us for a day-long, bilingual roundtable discussion about calculated collecting practices in the colonial Americas, in celebration of the exhibition Behind Closed Doors: Art in the Spanish American Home, 14921898. The program begins with a morning session, in Spanish, on collecting for the home, moderated by Jorge F. Rivas Pérez, Curator of Colonial Art at the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. The afternoon session, in English, explores adorning the colonial body and will be moderated by Richard Aste, Curator of European Art at the Brooklyn Museum.

Collecting and signaling status through dress also connect with our fall exhibition The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk.

Speakers include:

· Gustavo Curiel, Research Fellow, Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México
· Maria Del Pilar Lopez Perez de Bejarano, Associate Professor, Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, Universidad Nacional de Colombia
· Barbara E. Mundy, Associate Professor of Art History, Fordham University
· Linda Rodríguez, Postdoctoral Fellow, Art History Department, New York University
· Caroline Weber, Associate Professor of French, Barnard College
· Luis Eduardo Wuffarden, independent Lima scholar and curator

This event is co-sponsored by the Brooklyn Museum and the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. Additional support provided by PAMAR’s eighth annual Latin American Cultural Week.

A box lunch will be available on the day of the event for $15. Museum Members receive free admission; call the Membership Hotline at (718) 501-6326 or email us for reservations.

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From Monacelli Press:

Richard Aste, ed., Behind Closed Doors: Art in the Spanish American Home, 1492–1898 (Monacelli Press, 2013), 224 pages, ISBN: 978-1580933650, $50.

coverA critical contribution to the burgeoning field of Spanish colonial art, Behind Closed Doors reveals how art and luxury goods together signaled the identity and status of Spanish Americans struggling to claim their place in a fluid New World hierarchy.

By the early sixteenth century, the Spanish practice of defining status through conspicuous consumption and domestic display was established in the Americas by Spaniards who had made the transatlantic crossing in search of their fortunes. Within a hundred years, Spanish Americans of all heritages had amassed great wealth and had acquired luxury goods from around the globe. Nevertheless, the Spanish crown denied the region’s new moneyed class the same political and economic opportunities as their European-born counterparts. New World elites responded by asserting their social status through the display of spectacular objects at home as pointed reminders of the empire’s
dependence on silver and other New World resources.

The private residences of elite Spaniards, Creoles (American-born white Spaniards), mestizos, and indigenous people rivaled churches as principal repositories for the fine and decorative arts. Drawing principally on the Brooklyn Museum’s renowned colonial holdings, among the country’s finest, this book presents magnificent domestic works in a broad New World (Spanish and British) context. In the essays within, the authors lead the reader through the elite Spanish American home, illuminating along the way a dazzling array of both imported and domestic household goods. There, visitors would encounter European-inspired portraiture, religious paintings used for private devotion and also as signifiers of status, and objects that spoke to the owner’s social and racial identity.

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Karen Rosenberg reviewed the exhibition for The New York Times (19 September 2013)

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