Behind the Scenes at the DAM

Exhibit Explores Prized Functional Items in Spanish America

One exhibit on view at the DAM right now highlights how art was an essential part of daily life in Spanish America. Personal Effects: Art & Home in South America includes a number of small jewel-like objects of the highest quality—polychromed wood and ivory sculpture, exquisite pieces of silver, a magnificent illuminated manuscript and a portrait miniature painted on ivory. Many of the objects on view were prized possessions while serving practical domestic functions such as storing jewelry and writing materials. The ivory sculptures and small panel paintings were important for private devotion and prayer at home.

While many of the objects in Personal Effects are small in scale, the exhibit--in the Spanish Colonial Peru gallery on level four in the North Building--is anchored by two large pieces on loan to the DAM: a life-size female portrait painted around 1785 in Peru and a lavishly decorated wood chest from Colombia.

The above portrait, lent by the collection of Marilynn and Carl Thoma, depicts the Countess de la Vega del Ren, a wealthy patron of the arts who lived in Lima. The countess is attired in an ankle-length dress and an abundance of diamond- and pearl-encrusted silver adornments.

The Colombian chest lent by the collection of Frederick and Jan Mayer, shown at the top of this page, is decorated in the Andean technique known as barniz de pasto, a lacquer-like varnish used before and after the Spanish conquest of the Americas. This Pre-Hispanic technique involves the artist chewing the resin of the Andean mopa-mopa shrub, which was then stretched, pigmented and applied to the wood surface using heated stones. During the colonial period, silver leaf was introduced to the process to achieve higher luminosity.

The chest, featuring depictions of caymans, armadillos, jaguars and tropical vegetation, is one of the largest and finest of its kind in an American collection. A Colombian jewelry box, decorated in the same technique, is exhibited nearby and was acquired in the early 1900s by the American adventurer and collector, Daniel Casey Stapleton. The illuminated manuscript, commissioned in 1597 by a wealthy silver miner from Potosí, Bolivia, is also from the Stapleton Foundation Collection.

Many of the small-scale paintings in the exhibit are typical of private devotional objects used to aid prayer in the home or the cloister, or even while traveling. The silver repoussé rosary container, above, on view is an exquisite example of such a portable object. It came to the museum as a gift of Alianza member Mary Lanius, whose father acquired the object while taking part in Yale’s first Machu Picchu expedition in 1913. 

During the Spanish Colonial era in South America, both upper-class home and person were resplendent with decoration, whether as a reminder of wealth and family status, or as expressions of faith and contemplation. The objects that make up Personal Effects, an exhibit the two of us curated, reflect the quality of craftsmanship and important role played by artwork and ornament in daily life in colonial South America.

Michael A. Brown is the Mayer Fellow in the Denver Art Museum's new world department. Michael recommends that visitors don’t miss Doña Sebastiana’s Death Cart by José Inez Herrera in the US southwest gallery, located on level four of the North Building.