Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 13, 2014
Suzanne L. Stratton-Pruitt, ed. Journeys to New Worlds: Spanish and Portuguese Colonial Art in the Roberta and Richard Huber Collection Exh. cat. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2013. 224 pp.; 218 color ills.; 7 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (9780300191769)
Exhibition schedule: Philadelphia Museum of Art, February 16–May 19, 2013

Perhaps what one first notices about Journeys to New Worlds are its lavish production values. Art history books from Yale tend to be large format, but Journeys sets a new standard, with pages ten inches wide and twelve inches tall. It will tower over and project beyond the other books on the shelf. The interior illustrations are in glorious color, with catalogue photos taken especially for the volume and essay images a mix of new photos and scans from prior publications (the latter having a charming checkerboard moiré). The volume as an artifact, then, is testament to the golden age of image production, circulation, and reproduction in which we now live. It also provides an enduring monument to the Journeys to New Worlds exhibition, curated by Mark A. Castro and Joseph J. Rishel.

On reviewing the table of contents, we see a volume divided into two sections. The first provides introductory background and essays; the second is a catalogue. A foreword by Timothy Rub, director and CEO of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), asserts that the growing interest in Spanish and Portuguese colonial art “would not have been possible without the pioneering efforts of a number of dedicated collectors” like Roberta and Richard Huber, whose private treasures form the core of Journeys (vi). One of my favorite things about the PMA as an institution is that its galleries have long combined painting and sculpture with the so-called decorative arts. This creates a holistic perspective on visual-material culture in specific times and places, and makes the PMA an ideal site for displaying the Hubers’ collection, which joins paintings, ivory carvings, sculptures, silverwork, and furniture. Fortunately, as Rub reveals, the synergy between Journeys and the museum’s permanent collection will not be temporary. The Hubers have promised to donate a large portion of their paintings and decorative arts to the PMA for enjoyment by future generations of museumgoers. (Anthropologist that I am, this reminded me of Marcel Mauss’s classic essay of 1923–24, and its discussion of gifting as a reciprocal and mutually beneficial practice.) Appropriately, an introduction by Rishel places the Hubers’ promised gift within a larger history of Philadelphia philanthropy. Rishel traces the origins of the PMA’s Latin American collections to another exhibition-turned-gift a century ago (in 1888, a private collection of seventy-five paintings from New Spain was displayed at the museum; in 1903, these works were donated to the permanent collection). Following the introduction, “The Joy of Discovery” listens in on a conversation between the Hubers, Rishel, and Castro. Here we learn how Richard Huber’s successful career in corporate banking took the family from Buenos Aires, to São Paulo, to Rio, to Tokyo—an itinerary that explains how their collection unites not only works from Spanish and Portuguese America, but from Iberian Asia as well. This dialogue is followed by two introductory interpretive essays, one by Suzanne L. Stratton-Pruitt on the material furnishings of Iberian American interiors (discussed below), and the other by Luisa Elena Alcalá on the assessment of value by the makers and owners of luxury objects, including a nicely documented discussion of the ephemeral art of flower arranging.

Valuable introductions completed, the remaining 170-odd pages of Journeys present a catalogue of the Hubers’ exhibited collection. It is divided into five sections: “Paintings,” “Ivories,” “Sculpture,” “Silver,” and “Furniture.” Three of these—on paintings, ivories, and silver—are prefaced by an interpretive essay. All catalogue entries include a brief summary of provenance, listing from which auction house, gallery, or private collection the particular item was acquired by the Hubers. Stratton-Pruitt contributed “Origins of the Art of Painting in Colonial Peru and Bolivia” as a preface to the paintings section. Although most of the Hubers’ painted works date to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Stratton-Pruitt looks to the sixteenth century in order to propose a stylistic “starter mix” (32) of Italian, Spanish, and Flemish influences. In the painting catalogue that follows, Castro puts impressive effort into documenting claims about the influence of printed works on Latin American art. Many of his entries show not only one of the Hubers’ paintings, but also a (color) reproduction of the print on which it was based. Next, “Ivories” begins with the essay “The Indo-Portuguese and Hispano-Philippine Schools of Ivory Sculpture” by Margarita M. Estella Marcos. A noted authority on Christian works created for Spanish and Portuguese consumers, Estella Marcos proposes a trait guide for distinguishing ivories made in Goa, Ceylon, and the Philippines. This stylistic framework is then used to discuss over thirty works from the Huber collection, including a Christ as Good Shepherd, dreaming with a winsome lamb at his side (107), and four stunning Jesuit saints, their ivory hands and faces set off by turbulent ebony robes (126–27).

Ebony carvings serve as transition objects to the next section, on sculpture, which presents nine wooden statues. Following the sculpture section, David L. Barquist surveys works in silver in his introduction to that section, “From the Andes to the Amazon.” Barquist is especially interested in silver’s facture, and discusses not only silversmiths of Jewish and African ancestry in Iberian America, but also the many laws regulating this art. Most of the illustrations in these interpretive essays come from outside sources, and one of the most illuminating of them is the 1750–1800 Saint Eligius, Patron Saint of Goldsmiths, from the Museo Histórico Regional in Cuzco, which shows metalworkers at their tasks. The catalogue’s final section, on furniture, contains five items, and they are probably my favorite works in the show—from a delightfully bling-gilded frame with painted jewels to a trunk covered with cut-up eighteenth-century religious paintings. This trunk provides a fitting envoi for Journeys, bringing together painting with decorative arts and pointing again to the long-established traditions of mixed-media galleries at the PMA.

Return, now, to Stratton-Pruitt’s opening essay, “A Private Collection in Colonial Spanish America,” which sets the stage for the volume. As in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film of 1958, Vertigo, Stratton-Pruitt uses a pictorial conceit to guide us into the past. In Madrid in 2001 the Hubers purchased a portrait of Rosa de Salazar y Gabiño, Countess of Monteblanco and Montemar. (Their nickname for her is “The Pink Lady.”) A member of Lima’s aristocracy, Rosa was born in 1749. In 1764 she married Fernando Carrillo de Albornoz y Bravo de Lagunas. Soon the couple “accumulated considerable wealth by expanding the family’s sugar production, making them among the largest slaveholders in the viceroyalty” (80). Wealthy and happy, Rosa passed from this world forty-six years later, in 1810—thus making her a Carlotta Valdes figure who died not one century ago, but two. An inventory of Rosa’s possessions (transcribed and published by Guillermo Swayne y Mendoza in 1951) reveals striking parallels between objects owned by Rosa and objects owned by the Hubers. This essay’s title, then, has a double meaning: the private collection of Rosa in colonial Spanish America, and the private collection of the Hubers in colonial Spanish American Art. Just as Rosa’s inventory provides a textual record of household interiors from the early nineteenth century, so do photographs of the Hubers’ well-appointed homes in Hartford and New York provide visual records of household interiors from the early twenty-first century (4–6). Both spaces were furnished with similar objects. “The paintings, sculptures, silver, furniture, and carved ivories collected by Roberta and Richard Huber,” writes Stratton-Pruitt, “reflect with remarkable completeness the domestic sphere inhabited by Doña Rosa and her contemporaries. By assembling a collection of objects in a variety of mediums, the Hubers enable us to vividly imagine life lived two centuries past and thousands of miles from Philadelphia” (17). Catalogue readers are thus invited to consider how splendid it was to live in the Iberian empires: “The life of an aristocratic family was one of ease sustained by expensive items, sometimes amassed over generations, that reflected nobility but also lent a sheen of high social status to those who sought it through success in commerce, mining, or service to the Spanish monarchy” (10). And further on: “In all ranks of colonial society, from Spanish-born grandees to mine owners to indigenous caciques, or chiefs, there were collectors who amassed considerable numbers of paintings and other works of art" (42).

The sensuous daily life in the early modern Iberian world, however, was not necessarily in conflict with spirituality. Stratton-Pruitt is quick to point out that good Catholics could be connoisseurs as well: “The lifelong preparation for the Good Death—that is, death in a state of grace—sought by all pious Catholics in colonial Spanish America did not require lifelong austerity” (11). “Munificence, the quality of generosity attributed to great princes, added to personal prestige, and consequently churches and religious houses in South America were gifted with luxurious textiles and precious liturgical objects” (13). At the same time, writing about paintings, Stratton-Pruitt observes that although “the great majority of these were of religious subjects, most did not serve strictly for devotional purposes, but rather were valued for their color and considerable charm” (42). Along similar lines, a number of catalogue entries highlight objects that probably originated in domestic, as opposed to religious, settings; the description of an early eighteenth-century Peruvian silver tray from the Huber collection notes how “decoration on the example in the Huber collection suggests that it was employed for secular purposes in a private home” (174). Other examples include a silver basin from nineteenth-century Peru, emblazoned with a monogram (“the letters M. G. DE C.”) which “may indicate the owner of the piece, since wealthy families were generally eager to have their initials engraved on their possessions” (176). The “simple design” of a basin from nineteenth- or early twentieth-century Mexico ”indicates that it was likely made for a private home” (179), while a “footed bowl with cover”—from mid-eighteenth-century Bahia—“have had a variety of uses in a Brazilian private home, perhaps for serving sweets or other small treats” (182). But the view of colonial luxury in Journeys is not uncritical: with a contrastive nod to Richard Huber’s career, Stratton-Pruitt quotes Alexander von Humboldt’s “delicate reference to the lack of business acumen commonly attributed to Spaniards by Europeans” (12), and observes how a desire for household luxury resulted in “many tons of silver sitting on dining tables rather than invested in world trade” (12).

Yet one category of material culture was disappointingly absent from this exhibition: ceramics. As is well known, the finest Talavera Poblana wares (indistinguishable from Chinese porcelains) are held in private, not public, collections. But ceramics are not among the wide collecting interests of the Hubers, an issue which Stratton Pruitt addresses directly: “In Spanish America silverware was the practical alternative to fine ceramics, little of which was made with the exception of the pottery known as Talavera Poblana, produced in Puebla. While vast quantities of silver were available from the mines of Potosí in Bolivia and Zacatecas in Mexico—two of the major sources—porcelain was expensive and scarce in South America” (12). Fortunately, however, early in the twentieth century PMA director Edwin Altee Barber put together an important collection of artworks from Puebla, including ceramics. One of these—featuring a whimsical Chinese vignette, complete with parasols—is illustrated in Journeys (xi). And so, in conclusion, here is another example of the admirable complementarity of permanent collection and temporary exhibition. If the Latin American holdings of the PMA will be vastly enriched by the Hubers’ future gift, in many ways the Hubers’ collection, too, will be enhanced when its objects join their distant relatives in the PMA’s permanent displays.

Byron Ellsworth Hamann
School of Historical Studies, Institute for Advanced Study