As the Caribbean and Latin American population has grown in Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Museum itself has examined how to expand its own collection of art from those cultural spheres. Two upcoming exhibitions will highlight some of their recent acquisitions that particularly focus on art from the Caribbean and Latin America during the Spanish colonial period, when artistic influences from Europe, Asia, and the indigenous cultures were contributing to a uniquely vibrant visual culture.
“When I arrived three years ago, we had this great collection of Spanish colonial art, but what was missing was the Caribbean art,” said curator Richard Aste over the phone. “We’re trying to right a wrong by acquiring from the Caribbean what’s often overlooked in Spanish colonial exhibitions.”
The Brooklyn Museum has been actively acquiring art from Latin America since 1941, Aste explained, and it was “the second museum in the country to do this after the Philadelphia Art Museum.” Now its acquisitions in Caribbean art strengthen this focus, and 10 new objects will be on display in Behind Closed Doors: Power and Privilege in the Spanish American Home, 1492-1898, opening this September.
One stunning piece that strongly illustrates the mix of influences at this period is a six-panel folding screen from Mexico inlaid with mother-of-pearl, which was acquired in 2012. Known as “biombos,” these screens were heavily influenced by Japanese screens, which were popular gifts from Japanese diplomats in the Americas in the 17th century, and the lacquerware of Asia and Mexico. The scene on this particular screen created by the González Family in 1697–1701 shows a vivid hunting tableau by Johannes Stradanus, a painter in the Medici court. It’s actually part of what was a 12-panel screen commissioned in 1700 by José Sarmiento de Valladares y Aines, the then viceroy of New Spain, and the other half is held by the Museo Nacional del Virreinato in Tepotzotlán, Mexico.
In other newly acquired work, José Campeche, a painter from Puerto Rico, did a portrait in 1796 of a Spanish lady who came to the Caribbean with her Spanish navy stepfather, and is depicted in a neoclassical style with her European dress. Campeche himself was the son of a freed African slave who worked as an artisan and a Spaniard from the Canary Islands, and he was in demand with both religious and upper class patrons for his stately portraits. The painting, acquired by the Brooklyn Museum in 2012, was actually in the portrait subject’s family until that sale, and now for the first time with its exhibiting at the Brooklyn Museum it will be brought to a wider audience.
Another 2012 acquisition is Francisco M. Oller’s “Hacienda La Fortuna” (1885), a painting of a sugar planation in Oller’s home country of Puerto Rico. The Impressionist landscape painter studied art in Madrid and Paris, becoming influenced by the work of Gustave Courbet, as well as that of his friends, which included fellow Impressionists Paul Cézanne and Camille Pissarro. Oller still traveled back to Puerto Rico, being active in its abolitionist movement, and helped to set up art schools in the country. Oller’s painting is currently installed in the Brooklyn Museum’s European art gallery alongside his contemporaries, although it will become part of Behind Closed Doors: Power and Privilege in the Spanish American Home, 1492–1898 later this year. The museum is also organizing a 2015 exhibition focused on Oller and Impression, From San Juan to Paris and Back: Francisco Oller, His Caribbean, and the Era of Impressionism.
After it closes at the Brooklyn Museum, Behind Closed Doors: Power and Privilege in the Spanish American Home, 1492-1898, will tour to three venues in the United States. “This is very inclusive art in that it speaks to so many of the world’s heritages,” Aste said.