CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – This spring, the Harvard Art Museums invite visitors to discover a more expanded story of American art through an unparalleled collection of Spanish colonial paintings. From the Andes to the Caribbean: American Art from the Spanish Empire presents 26 works from the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Foundation — the premier U.S. private collection of 17th- to 19th-century paintings from South America and the Caribbean — together with works from the Harvard Art Museums and other Harvard University collections. The presentation marks the museums’ first-ever exhibition combining religious and secular art of the Spanish Americas. It will be on display March 3 through July 30 in the museums’ special exhibitions gallery on Level 3. All in-gallery materials will be presented bilingually, in Spanish and English.
The exhibition has been organized for the Harvard Art Museums by Horace D. Ballard, the Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr. associate curator of American art, and is Ballard’s first major exhibition at Harvard since joining the museums in 2021. Natalia Angeles Vieyra, associate curator of American art at the Worcester Art Museum, contributed to the early thinking of the show when she served as the 2019–22 Maher curatorial fellow of American art at the Harvard Art Museums.
The Spanish empire and its mercantile companies were the dominant colonial force in America from 1492 to 1832. Five years before Portugal established American settlements and nearly a century before Britain and France claimed land in the hemisphere, wealth from America’s colonial territories (viceroyalties) of New Spain and Peru made Spain the richest nation on Earth. Though Spain is no longer an empire, its colonial past continues to inform the art and culture of the Americas.
From the Andes to the Caribbean emphasizes three key themes related to culture and empire: the political and spiritual work of Catholic icons, the ways in which empire begets hybrid cultural identities, and the relationship between labor, wealth and luxury. Paintings from present-day Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Peru, Puerto Rico and Venezuela are presented alongside works on paper and design objects made with Cuban and Honduran mahogany, Mexican cochineal and Peruvian silver, underlining the great diversity of works of art broadly referred to as either “Viceregal,” “Spanish colonial,” or simply “American.”
“My hope for this exhibition is to begin to unravel decades-long assumptions and half-truths about the definitions and origins of American art,” said Ballard. “In exploring works of print and design, as well as painted icons and portraiture from the 17th and 18th centuries in the Viceroyalties of Peru and New Spain, I aim to expand the narratives that many North American collections, including the Harvard Art Museums, have told for generations.”
The 50 objects on view include 26 paintings on loan from the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Foundation, dating from roughly 1600 to the mid-19th century, including exquisitely rendered depictions of Christian saints, angels and the Holy Family, as well as portraits of those who had political and military influence within the royal court of Spain; 18th-century wood furniture and silver tableware from the Harvard Art Museums’ collections; samples of pigments and metals from the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies that show some of the materials mined by Indigenous laborers and used by Spanish colonial artists in their work; a 1729 volume of The English Pilot, a series of sea atlases produced in England that chart the major ports and cities in the Americas, on loan from the Harvard Map Collection; and on loan from Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum Library, a 1787 French text that explains the production of carmine, a highly prized pigment whose secrets of manufacture were closely guarded by the Spanish.
“The names of many of the artists of the works in the exhibition are unknown to scholars, as racism, market factors, customs of religious humility and the ethos of the guilds or workshops in which the works were created makes it difficult to assign authorship,” said Ballard.
However, key examples of paintings from three makers are on display: Juan Pedro Lopez (1724–1787), considered the finest artist active in 18th-century Venezuela; Jose Campeche y Jordan (1751–1809), arguably the greatest religious painter born in America during the centuries of colonial rule and occupation; and Diego Antonio de Landaeta (active 1749–1799), a member of a large family of artists working in 18th-century Caracas. Lopez’s Our Lady of Guidance (1765–70) depicts a statue that was installed in a niche within the Catholic church of San Mauricio in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1704. Tobias and the Angel (1787), by Campeche y Jordan, is based on a narrative from around 300–200 BCE, in which the archangel Raphael disguises himself and accompanies the blind Tobias on a long journey. Landaeta’s portrait of Petronila Mendez (1763), a wealthy child from colonial Venezuela, is the only extant work by the artist that has been identified.
Importantly, the exhibition also explores materials that artists used in their work and that were traded extensively across the world, including copper, silver, gold, cochineal and mahogany. Silver from the Viceroyalty of Peru (present-day Bolivia) was extremely significant in the world economy, including colonial-era Boston. It is estimated that 60 to 80 percent of the world’s silver during America’s colonial era came from Potosi, an Inkan settlement in the Andes. A majority of the eight silver works on display, including casters, sugar vessels and coins from the Harvard Art Museums’ collections, are believed to be molded from silver mined at Potosi. A tea chest, tea table, and bombe secretary desk of English design provide elegant examples of transatlantic furnishings crafted from mahogany, a prized shipbuilding material with a history inseparable from colonialism and the enslaved labor used to grow, fell, and process the wood for manufacture.
Visit the website of the Harvard Art Museums and see its dedicated page for From the Andes to the Caribbean: American Art from the Spanish Empire.