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Exhibition explores extravagant domestic collecting practices of Spanish Colonial elite opens
A Merry Company on the Banks of the Rímac River. Peru, Lima school, circa 1785–1800. Oil on canvas, 25 x 34 in. (63.5 x 86.4 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Lilla Brown in memory of her husband, John W. Brown, by exchange, 2012.41.
BROOKLYN, NY.- 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.

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.

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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