Not only is “From the Andes to the Caribbean: American Art from the Spanish Empire” the first major exhibit curated by Horace D. Ballard, the Theodore E. Stebbins Jr. Associate Curator of American Art: The exhibit’s Mar. 3 debut also marked The Harvard Art Museums’ first dual exploration of religious and secular art of the Spanish Americas.
“From the Andes to the Caribbean” presents 50 objects ranging from paintings from Bolivia, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Peru, Ecuador, and Venezuela, to materials like Mexican cochineal, Peruvian silver, and Honduran mahogany. 26 of the displayed paintings are shared from the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Foundation collection, while the others are drawn from Harvard Art Museums’ own collections, exhibiting an expansive view of the art and artists of the Spanish Americas.
Gallery materials are presented in multiple languages, with the language of the maker offered before its English translation, giving proper voice to the artists and narratives historically muted.
The exhibit opens first with its oldest work — a resplendent portrait of the Virgin Mary attributed to Mateo Pérez de Alesio (1589-1616), the High Renaissance influence palpable in the composition. The work points not only to European influence, but to the African diasporic histories the exhibit works to amplify: After Pérez de Alesio completed his assistance in the painting of the Sistine Chapel, he began instructing Afro-Indigenous workers in the Americas on the painting of icons. The painted icon’s beauty — Ballard notes — is complex and deeply political. In fact, Mary takes on further political significance and new skin tones in her subsequent appearances across the gallery.
The newest piece in the gallery, a vivid oil depiction of Saint Isidore the Farmer dressed as a 19th century gentleman, is deliberately placed along a nearby sight line from the oldest. The paintings invite the viewer into a curated conversation which dives into the first theme of the exhibition: the political and spiritual impact of Catholic icons.
Visible from both bays of the gallery, the exhibit’s next theme set along the back wall gives voice to syncretic identities. A key piece comes in the form of Diego Antonio de Landaeta’s 1763 small-scale portrait of Petronila Méndez, which holds significance as being his only extant work, as well as the only known portrait of a child in colonial Venezuela. In the midst of complex visual discussions of hybrid identities, the portrait brings this idea to an accessible human scale in its depiction of the young girl’s playful spirit.
The adjacent bay explores traded materials like copper, silver, gold, mahogany, and cochineal, as well as their uses in domestic objects and art, providing a poignant commentary on the triangulation between wealth, luxury, and labor. An imposing posthumous portrait of Nicholas Boylston, which previously hung in Harvard’s University Hall, points to colonial Boston and the Boylston family’s role in the trade and processing of the materials on display.
For Ballard, it was deeply important that the colors featured on the walls of the gallery align with the themes each section represents. For example, the first bay, featuring works with notes of religious politics, is swathed in a cochineal red color. Not only do the works displayed beg to be set against vibrantly colored walls as they would have in their original settings, the red connotes the pain and spilt blood resultant from the complexities of religion to which the works attest.
The second section, in contrast, antagonizes the construction of white supremacy by placing works on hybrid and syncretic identities against a stark white wall. By mixing Venezuelan, Peruvian, Bolivian, and Ecuadorian works in a stand against deeply embedded constructs of white supremacy, Ballard hopes to deconstruct post-colonial suppositions and emphasize that ethnicity and race as distinct concepts.
A cooler, more intimate teal tone was selected for the domestically-oriented displays of the second bay, which is home to the third theme of wealth, luxury, and labor. The sloping curves of fine mahogany works, glint of Potosí silver coins, and portrait gazes of major American players in trade systems reflect both the intimate notes of domesticity and the somber tones of colonialism and enslaved labor.
In addition to the exhibit’s striking color-coding, visitors are confronted with a recurring theme of syncopated arches which punctuate individual moments in the gallery for each work. The arches manifest exhibit designer Madelyn Albright’s desire to evoke Romanesque and Rococo architecture in the Americas while simultaneously paying homage to the architectural themes of the museums’ own courtyard. According to Ballard, the connection invoked by the arches is intentional. While adding texture to the gallery’s composition, the arches leverage the connection between Spanish colonial architectural forms and those in Harvard’s existing museum space to prompt questions and critiques of Harvard’s own history.
It’s these thoughtfully curated critiques which powerfully reset the table of American art and artists. Ballard’s first exhibition provokes a compelling reframing of the understanding of American art history, steering its origins away from the pilgrims and toward the Spanish Empire.
“From the Andes to the Caribbean: American Art from the Spanish Empire” is on view through Jul. 30 in the Special Exhibitions Gallery.
—Staff writer Marin E. Gray can be reached at email@example.com.