Conspicuous consumptions is nothing new, according to the Brooklyn Museum’s spectacular show, Behind Closed Doors: Art in the Spanish American Home 1492-1898, and they’ve gathered (mostly from their collection) four centuries of blindingly beautiful stuff to show how earlier generations of status-seekers showed off how special and rich they were. Catch it before January 12.
The Fourth-Floor show fills two huge galleries that have been partitioned by the curators into areas corresponding to rooms in a traditional Spanish-American home, where they’ve displayed the stuff that the colonial high and mighty would have put there. Although two-thirds of the United States was once under Spanish rule, the paintings, furniture, textiles, and other treasures you’ll see are from homes south of the border, including the Caribbean and south of the Isthmus. Check out our Flickr feed.
First, you’d dress to impress and make sure that everyone knew that you were somehow aligned with the upper classes back in Spain. The show puts English and Spanish-American portraits side-by-side in the first gallery to illustrate that the latter weren’t shy about applying ostentatious tiaras and pearls to themselves, slapping on the velvet faux-beauty marks, and shoving royal proclamations into the frame to convey your wealth, status, and privilege. Wealthy English colonials and their portrait painters took a more austere, understated approach.
Second, if you were of mixed race but possibly had some Incan royalty in your blood, you’d hang gold-flecked portrait series of Incan chieftains where everybody could see them in your home. The lady of the house might wrap herself in a locally woven textile sporting mixes of South American deities with that oh-so-familiar-to-Europeans Hapsburg double eagle. Then she’d bling it up with a giant oversize pin made out of solid silver.
Third, you’d emphasize your casual elegance by actually draping the rugs and tapestries all over the floor, stairs, and risers in the ladies’ sitting room. After gold, silver, and jewels, textiles were about the biggest luxury anyone could find, and Spanish Americans made and bought a lot. In British America, carpets were only used to cover tables, so the casual distribution of so much wealth below your feet was something only Spanish Americans could afford.
Because the Caribbean and coastal cities of South and Central America were right in the center of shipping and trade routes for centuries, wealthy people could buy pretty much anything they wanted and the curators show it to us – gorgeous Japanese screens, custom-printed Chinese porcelain, English-style sitting chairs, and Turkish rugs. No pennies were pinched in upwardly mobile, Spanish-speaking homes.
And let’s not forget what treasures were produced right inside the Spanish protectorates – silver shaving basins, polychromed statues of the saints, gigantic gold-framed “statue paintings”, gilded beds, embellished leather traveling trunks (to go to your country home), solid mahogany furniture, and custom-made books of your family’s geneaology. We won’t even get started on the private chapel décor.
This show throws open a window on the first wave of high-status interior design and decoration – a story that is normally confined to the castles in Europe or the palace at Versailles, and one that is perfectly suited to be told by Brooklyn’s extensive Latin American holdings with a couple of key pieces from the sumptuous collections uptown at the Hispanic Society of America.
If you want to do a deep dive into upscale living of past centuries, visit the exhibition archive on the Museum’s website and click on the Objects tab. Or, see it all in person when it goes on the road: it opens at the Albuquerque Museum on February 16, the New Orleans Museum of Art on June 20, and the Ringling Museum in Sarasota on October 17.
And congratulations to Brooklyn for making it onto the cover of the winter edition of Humanties, the NEH magazine.