Collecting guide: Spanish colonial art
An expert overview of the rich and varied art produced in the New World from the late 15th century until around 1820, with insider tips from leading collectors Carl and Marilynn Thoma and Richard and Roberta Huber
What is Spanish colonial art?
Spanish colonial art includes paintings, sculptures and decorative objects produced across one and a half continents, from Mexico down to South America, over a period of about 330 years. (Artworks produced in Brazil during this period are referred to as Portuguese colonial art.) All art and objects from this region that precede Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World in 1492, marking the beginning of the European conquest, are termed pre-Columbian
The Spanish colonial period ends around 1820, when Spain began to lose its grip on its colonies in the New World and independence was won by many of today’s Latin American nations.
What does Spanish colonial art look like?
Because of its incredibly broad scope, Spanish colonial art cannot be defined by any one particular style, subject or form. One can find a preponderance of depictions of Virgins and saints, attesting to the spread of Catholicism in the region, but often these come with a distinctly regional flavour.
Guadalupanas, for example, are a purely Mexican invention, combining Catholicism with local lore by showing the Virgin Mary emblazoned on the cloak of Saint Juan Diego, a 16th-century Mexican peasant who is said to have seen the Virgin at the Hill of Tepeyac, a sacred place of worship for the Aztecs (now in Mexico City).
Secular portraits are also popular subjects of the period. The Viceroys — essentially the New World royalty — and other members of the elite often commissioned portraits that served as a visual declaration of their status and power.
Sculpture and the decorative arts also flourished during this period, ranging from polychrome gilded wooden figures to coqueras — elaborately carved wooden boxes used to store the coca leaves that were commonly chewed in mountainous regions of South America.
What inspired or influenced Spanish colonial artists?
As the renowned collectors of Spanish colonial art Carl and Marilynn Thoma have pointed out, ‘Spanish colonial art is the result of a convergence of Andean [and Mexican] cultures and the Spanish Empire over hundreds of years.’
The Portuguese and Spanish colonies enjoyed a flourishing trade with Europe, Asia and Africa. These global routes brought prints and paintings from Europe that artists in the New World often used as a point of departure for their own creative innovations. As such Spanish colonial art is an excellent example of early globalisation in art.
Lacquerware furniture from Asia also inspired artisans in the colonies, who created new genres of objets d’art using mother of pearl.
Who are some of the important Spanish colonial artists?
Typically produced by guilds or workshops, Spanish colonial art is often unsigned. Artworks that are signed by one of the identifiable masters of the period often command a premium on the market.
Mexican artists Miguel Cabrera (1695-1768), Cristóbal de Villalpando (1649-1714), Juan Correa (1646-circa 1716) and Nicolás Enríquez (1704-circa 1790), along with the indigenous Peruvian artist Diego Quispe Tito (1611-1681), are among the most sought-after names in Spanish colonial art.
Carl and Marilynn Thoma consider a painting by Diego Quispe Tito to be one of the most prized works in their collection. ‘We were fortunate to be able to acquire a small painting on copper signed by Diego Quispe Tito, a member of the Inca nobility who worked in Cuzco in the late 17th century,’ says Carl Thoma. ‘Most of Quispe Tito’s oeuvre was in the parish church of San Sebastián in Cuzco. The church and its contents were destroyed by a terrible fire in 2016, so having a work by the artist’s hand is particularly poignant.’
In addition to these individual masters there are also identifiable schools of artists, perhaps the best known being the Cuzco School.
Established in the second half of the 17th century, the Cuzco School comprised indigenous and mestizo artists who looked to European Catholic painting traditions, but whose work is differentiated by the use of bright colours and elaborate gold leaf, and often includes depictions of native flora and fauna. The two paintings above, Virgin and Christ Child and Saint Joseph and Christ Child, are fine examples.
What is the state of the market for Spanish colonial art?
There has been a recent rise in market demand for Spanish colonial art, both from institutions and private collectors. New exhibitions and curatorships specialising in the field at many of the top museums in the United States have helped to spur this interest.
‘We are very pleased to see how interest has grown, particularly in the last 10 years,’ say Richard and Roberta Huber, leading collectors of Spanish colonial art. ‘This has been led by important exhibitions in many museums, most recently the terrific Painted in Mexico, which travelled from Fomento Cultural Banamex in Mexico City to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
‘Our collection has been exhibited in Philadelphia, San Antonio, Sacramento and Norfolk over the last five years. This has heightened collector interest, and whereas we often used to be the only bidders at auctions of this material, now we have many competing prospective buyers. That has meant higher prices, but ultimately much greater general interest in this vast field.’
What is the best advice for new collectors of Spanish colonial art?
To answer this question, we turned to collectors Carl and Marilynn Thoma, who offered the following: ‘Our collecting has been a source of intellectual pleasure and something akin to a scholarly mission for us over the years. It takes time to research the field properly. Don’t make a purchase without doing that crucial legwork first!
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‘Study the literature, art and history, and make trips to view the original settings — some of which are in less travelled regions of South America. You will soon see that there are differences, for instance, between the exuberant style of the High Andes and the more conservative one preferred in coastal Lima.’
Why collect Spanish colonial art?
Collecting is of course a very personal journey. Those who choose to collect Spanish colonial art will probably find it an incredibly fulfilling experience — as Richard and Roberta Huber have.
‘Looking back over our 45-plus years of collecting we find it interesting to review the many strange and off-the-beaten-track places where we have found treasures,’ the Hubers have said. ‘It goes from dealers and auction houses in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, La Paz, Santiago, Mexico City and New York to London, Madrid, Lisbon, Porto, Manila, Stockholm, Austin, and many other more hidden locations. Virtually every piece in our collection has a “backstory” about how we tracked it down and acquired it. It has been fun and immensely educational.’