Spanish Colonial Art

Garden Party on the Terrace of a Country Home

Mexico, circa 1725

Oil, canvas, gold

Gift of Frederick and Jan Mayer; 2009.759

Inspired by Asian examples, colonial Mexicans used folding screens to divide spaces, block drafts, and create privacy in their homes. This screen provides a glimpse into daily life. Clusters of people are shown enjoying a garden party on the terrace of a country home. They play cards, gamble, smoke, flirt, drink, or make music.

There are only about a dozen screens in existence with scenes like this; all were made in Mexico City in the 1700s and most are in private collections. The DAM’s screen is one of the earliest known and is the only such screen in a U.S. museum.

For more information about this artwork, including lesson plans for teachers and their students, visit the DAM's Creativity Resource website.

Inca Princess

Peru, early 1800s

Oil on canvas

Gift of Dr. Belinda Straight; 1996.18

This painting is a posthumous portrait of an ancestor, undoubtedly commissioned by her descendants in the late colonial period to assert their claims to Inca nobility.

The inscription claims that she was the first Christian Inca woman in the Andes and that when a man tried to violate her vow of chastity, she fought and beheaded him. In doing so, she recreated a feat credited to Mama Occllo, the first queen of the Inca dynasty, who conquered Cuzco by decapitating an enemy. Her deed also echoes that of the Old Testament’s Judith, who saved the Jewish nation by beheading the Assyrian general Holofernes.

Sebastián López de Arteaga

Saint Michael and the Bull

Mexico, circa 1650

Oil on canvas

Gift of Frank Barrows Freyer Collection by exchange and Gift of Frederick and Jan Mayer; 1994.27

As part of the colonization effort in the Americas, Spaniards founded towns with cathedrals and civic buildings and established mission churches and schools in Indian settlements. Artists emigrated from Europe, particularly from Spain, Flanders, and Italy, to decorate these new buildings. Sebastián López de Arteaga arrived in Mexico from Seville around 1640. Since he died in 1652, only a handful of paintings survive by his hand.

This large, spectacular painting of the archangel Michael is signed by Arteaga in the lower left and dates from around 1650. It depicts the appearance of Saint Michael on Mount Gargano (in the boot heel of Italy) to a local bishop (lower left). Michael is explaining to the bishop that he caused an arrow shot by an angry farmer at his runaway bull to return toward the farmer instead. The miracle scene is visible near Michael’s left knee.

Sebastián Salcedo

Virgin of Guadalupe

Mexico, 1779 (signed and dated)

Purchased with funds from Mr. and Mrs. George Anderman and anonymous donor; 1976.56

No image is as distinctively Mexican as the Virgin of Guadalupe, with her characteristic spiky aura and blue robe with gold stars. After her miraculous appearance to the Indian Juan Diego in 1531, the Virgin of Guadalupe became exceptionally popular in Mexico among both Spaniards and Indians.

Here the Virgin is surrounded by prophets, saints, angels, and seven miniature scenes of her miracles, all identified by inscriptions. At the bottom, Pope Benedict XIV and an Aztec princess (symbolizing Mexico) flank a landscape showing the Virgin’s church north of Mexico City.

Painted on copper in Mexico City in 1779 by Sebastián Salcedo, this image was brought to Santa Fe, New Mexico, around 1800 to hang in the new adobe church of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Ignacio Chacón

Madonna and Child with Bird

Cuzco, Peru, circa 1765

Oil, gold, canvas

Gift of Engracia Freyer Dougherty; 1972.390

This painting is from Cuzco, Peru, and incorporates Spanish influences along with strong native Incan iconography. The Cuzco area was once the center of the Inca Empire, and it continued to have a significant Inca population throughout the Spanish Colonial period. The Cuzco School included many native artists as well as those of Spanish descent.

The Inca considered birds to be sacred, partially for their ability to fly and, consequently, to move closer to the sun god. Bird feathers were incorporated into clothing and headdresses of the Inca nobility and symbolized their exalted status. In Cuzco, paintings often incorporated birds or bird feathers into images of the Virgin and Christ to indicate their sacred and honored position in colonial society. The painting is finished with a gold brocade overlay known in Spanish as broceatado, typical of the Cuzco School.

Madonna and Child with Bird was selected as the 2006 U.S. Postal Service Christmas stamp.

Luis Niño

Virgin of the Victory of Málaga

Potosí, Bolivia, circa 1740

Gift of John C. Freyer for the Frank Barrows Freyer Collection; 1969.345

Although Lima became the political capital of colonial Peru, Cuzco remained its artistic capital, as it had been in Inca times. The extraordinary use of gold stamping to create the pattern on the cloth and the columns in this painting is exclusive to Cuzco and the surrounding highland areas, including Bolivia, where this piece was painted by native artist Luis Niño.

While much of the imagery derives from Spanish Catholic traditions, there are distinctively Peruvian touches, such as the red and blue wings of the angelic musicians (red and blue feathers were sacred to the Inca and were symbols of nobility). The landscape fragments at the bottom are the surviving upper halves of two sequential scenes depicting a miracle at sea performed by the Virgin of Málaga.

Saint Ferdinand

Querétaro, Mexico, 1730-60

Paint, gold, gesso, wood

Gift of Sam Houston in honor of Helen Bonfils; 1956.91

This statue of Saint Ferdinand, the King of Castile and León in Spain, was originally part of an altar screen installed in the Cathedral of Querétaro, Mexico, around 1750. Many cathedrals in Spain and Latin America installed main altar pieces dedicated to royal saints. Statues of Saint Ferdinand were often paired with ones of his friend and cousin, Saint Louis IX of France. The Denver statue was collected in Querétaro in 1920; its matching statue of Saint Louis is in a private collection in Mexico City.

As in Europe, the statues in altar screens of Latin America were carved of wood. Fabric areas were treated with a technique known in Spanish as estofado, in which tissue-thin sheets of hammered gold were applied to a red gesso ground. Next, paint was applied over the gold leaf. Then the paint layer was stamped or etched through to reveal the gold underneath, in imitation of the elaborate brocade fabrics of the period. Areas depicting skin, such as the faces and hands, were created using a different technique known as encarnación, in which white gesso was painted in flesh tones, shellacked, and gently sanded. The process was repeated until the buildup of layers achieved a glowing surface imitating real skin.

Virgin of Quito

Ecuador, circa 1750

Paint, wood, gold, silver

Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John Pogzeba; 1974.265

In the 1700s, Quito, the capital of Ecuador, was internationally known for its exquisitely-carved, small wooden sculptures that were exported to other areas of colonial Latin America and to Europe. The Ecuadorian sculptors devised a new estofado technique with gold designs applied over raised areas of gesso. Another leitmotif of the Quito style is the use of silver leaf underneath transparent paint, as can be seen on the blue mantle of the Virgin here.

This beautiful example is characteristic of the delicate carving and elaborate painting produced in the studio of Bernardo Legarda. Although the figure’s delicate face is serene, the jutting mantle that encircles the figure and the upturned wings that echo the crescent moon at the base give a sense of movement to the sculpture. Statues of the Virgin of Quito were typically adorned with a hammered silver halo and wings.

Rafael Aragón

Our Lady of Mount Carmel

Santa Fe or Córdova, New Mexico, circa 1830

Paint, gesso, wood

Funds from Walt Disney Imagineering; 1989.3 a-b

When Spanish settlers arrived in the southwestern United States at the end of the 1500s, they brought with them paintings and sculptures of Catholic saints for their churches and homes. Soon afterward a local tradition of making such images developed.

Spanish devotional artists (santeros) learned from local Pueblo Indians how to make paints from native plants and minerals. They combined these homemade paints with oil paints imported from Mexico to make images of religious figures known as bultos (sculptures) and retablos (paintings on wood panels). Both are still made in the area today.

Molleno

Altar screen panels mounted in contemporary framework

New Mexico, circa 1825

Paint, gesso, wood panel

Gift of Anne Evans Collection; 1936.16

The New Mexican artist known as Molleno is referred to as a santero—an artist who creates santos, devotional images that played an important role in church, community, and family rituals. The figures were combined to create large altar screens, generally placed behind the altar or along the walls of the church.

The painted wooden panels within the frame, called retablos, depict images of Catholic saints, the Christ Child (as seen in the center of the top row in the arms of Saint Joseph), and the Virgin Mary (as seen in the right side of the bottom row). The empty niche on the bottom row probably held a sculpture of a saint, called a bulto. The religious figures portrayed here would have been familiar to the church-going population in New Mexico in the 1820s.

Basin (Lebrillo)

Puebla, Mexico, late 1600s

Earthenware, lead/tin glaze, cobalt in-glaze paint

Funds from 2001 Collectors Choice; 2001.314

Hand-built from mud and low-fired to harden, earthenware vessels were produced throughout the Americas for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans. Earthenware covered with a hard, shiny glaze made from lead and tin had been invented in the Middle East. The technique (known as majolica), along with the potter’s wheel, was introduced to Spain by Muslims in the 900s. In turn, Spanish ceramic artists introduced glazes and the potter’s wheel to the Americas in the 1500s.

The colonial towns of Puebla (Mexico) and Lima (Peru) became centers of majolica production. They created distinctive styles that often incorporated a mixture of motifs taken from earlier Islamic, Spanish, and ancient native models as well as from imported Chinese porcelains.

Cross finial

Colombia/Ecuador, circa 1650

Gold, emeralds from Colombia, pearls from Venezuela

Gift of the Stapleton Foundation of Latin American Colonial Art, made possible by the Renchard Family; S-519

When Hernán Cortés and his small army arrived in Mexico in 1519, to their delight they found that gold and silver were abundant. American Indians had a long tradition of metalworking techniques, including filigree, casting, and hammering. Silversmiths from Spain began to immigrate to the Americas shortly after the conquest and introduced European forms and styles. Through time the synthesis of New and Old World styles became integrated, culminating in the lush excesses of colonial Baroque and Rococo metalwork.

The emeralds in this cross have been identified as coming from the famous emerald mines in Colombia, with some of them from the large Muzo mine, known for the exceptional quality and clarity of its stones. In microscopic analysis, the tear-shaped emeralds show evidence that they were originally cut with Pre-Columbian quartz stone tools to form beads. In the colonial period they were reshaped with metal tools to be incorporated into the cross to serve as an ornament at the top of a crown for a statue of a saint or the Virgin Mary. The pearls have been identified as Venezuelan, most likely from the famous Island of the Margaritas off the coast.

Portraits of Simón de la Valle and María del Carmen Cortés y Cartavio

Peru, circa 1750

Oil on canvas

Funds from Frederick and Jan Mayer, Carl and Marilynn Thoma, Jim and Marybeth Vogelzang, Harley and Lorraine Higbie; 2000.250.1

Portraiture became increasingly important in colonial Latin America where local artists generally followed the canons accepted for official portraiture in Europe, with figures portrayed in three-quarter view gazing directly at the viewer and flanked by drapery. However, in the Americas the focus on social standing often overshadowed any effort to convey the essential personality of the subject. Although colonial artists accomplished a physical likeness, the faces often show little expression. Instead artists focused their attention on depicting rich details of luxurious clothing and objects that allude to the subject’s abilities or accomplishments. Sometimes coats-of-arms or cartouches with inscriptions outlining the sitter’s heritage or honors were included.

These portraits depict a married couple from Trujillo, Peru. According to the inscriptions, the gentleman was born in Spain and immigrated to Peru to serve as head of the Royal Bank in Trujillo. His Spanish-American wife was born in Trujillo and descended from one of Columbus’s navigators. Both husband and wife were literate, as indicated by the writing quill and paper he holds and the book in her hand. The red and white badge on his chest indicates he is a member of the Spanish military-religious order of Calatrava.

Portraits of Simón de la Valle and María del Carmen Cortés y Cartavio

Peru, circa 1750

Oil on canvas

Funds from Frederick and Jan Mayer, Carl and Marilynn Thoma, Jim and Marybeth Vogelzang, Harley and Lorraine Higbie; 2000.250.2

Portraiture became increasingly important in colonial Latin America where local artists generally followed the canons accepted for official portraiture in Europe, with figures portrayed in three-quarter view gazing directly at the viewer and flanked by drapery. However, in the Americas the focus on social standing often overshadowed any effort to convey the essential personality of the subject. Although colonial artists accomplished a physical likeness, the faces often show little expression. Instead artists focused their attention on depicting rich details of luxurious clothing and objects that allude to the subject’s abilities or accomplishments. Sometimes coats-of-arms or cartouches with inscriptions outlining the sitter’s heritage or honors were included.

These portraits depict a married couple from Trujillo, Peru. According to the inscriptions, the gentleman was born in Spain and immigrated to Peru to serve as head of the Royal Bank in Trujillo. His Spanish-American wife was born in Trujillo and descended from one of Columbus’s navigators. Both husband and wife were literate, as indicated by the writing quill and paper he holds and the book in her hand. The red and white badge on his chest indicates he is a member of the Spanish military-religious order of Calatrava.

Tupac Yupanqui from Inca Rulers (set of sixteen, detail)

Peru, late 1800s

Oil on canvas

Gift of Dr. Belinda Straight; 1977.45

Portrait of Doña Micaela Esquibel

Mexico, circa 1750

Oil on canvas

Gift of Robert J. Stroessner; 1991.1166

Cup (Kero)

Peru, circa 1600

Lacquer on wood

Bequest from the Estate of Leon H. Snyder; 1978.288

Attributed to Juan Bautista Vásquez

Virgin in Prayer

Colombia, circa 1675

Oil on panel

Gift of the Stapleton Foundation of Latin American Colonial Art, made possible by the Renchard Family; S-0478

Virgin Mary Spinning

Peru, circa 1700

Oil on canvas

Gift of Engracia Freyer Doughtery for the Frank Barrows Freyer Collection; 1969.353

Cabinet

Paraguay, circa 1750

Paint on wood

Anonymous gift; 1992.44

Chair

Colombia/Ecuador, 1700s

Wood, gesso, paint, gold, velvet

Gift of the Stapleton Foundation of Latin American Colonial Art, made possible by the Renchard Family; S-0001

Overview

Jan & Frederick Mayer Galleries of Pre-Columbian & Spanish Colonial Art, Level 4, North Building

Notable for its cultural and temporal range and artistic quality, the Spanish Colonial collection of the Denver Art Museum is the most comprehensive collection in the United States and one of the best in the world. 

Spanning three and a half centuries (c. 1492-1850), the collection of over 3,000 objects represents the diverse cultures and geographic areas of Latin America including Mexico, Guatemala, Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Argentine, Chile, and the southwestern United States.

 

Highlights

Initiated in 1936 with a gift from Anne Evans of santos from southern Colorado and New Mexico, the Spanish Colonial collection has grown dramatically over the years to include more than 3,000 objects. Acquisition of the Frank Barrows Freyer Memorial Collection of colonial paintings, sculpture, and furniture, collected in Peru and Bolivia in the 1920s, commenced in 1968. In 1990, the Stapleton Foundation of Latin American Colonial Art gifted its extensive collection of colonial art from northern South America. Acquired between 1895 and 1914 by Daniel C. Stapleton, the collection’s donation was made possible by the Renchard family of Washington, D.C. In addition, an exemplary collection of Spanish Colonial silver from the Robert Appleman family and major gifts of Mexican Colonial painting and decorative arts from Frederick and Jan Mayer have greatly enriched the collection.

The collection includes many unusual and distinctively American objects such as Aztec-style feather paintings, small copper paintings worn as brooches by nuns, an Asian-influenced painted folding screen depicting a garden party, oil-on-canvas paintings embellished with applied gold leaf, and panel paintings inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

The depth and breadth of the paintings collection is complemented by its artistic quality; the major stylistic movements and workshops are well represented, in many cases with signature pieces such as the Virgin of Málaga by Bolivian artist Luis Niño, Madonna and Child with Bird by Peruvian Ignacio Chacón, and Saint Michael and the Bull by Mexican artist Sebastián López de Arteaga.

Things To Do

  • When the Incas Met St. Francis of Assisi: Birdmen, Angels & Flying Saints in Colonial Art

    with Jaime Lara
    Thursday, September 15, 2016 - 6:30pm7:45pm.

    Centuries before the arrival of the Europeans, Andeans had known flying men and aerodynamic human beings, as we can see in extant pre-Columbian textiles, ceramics, and monumental sculpture. In a sense, these native beliefs prepared them for Christian angelic beings and a historical moment that turned the world upside down. More

  • Circulación: Movement of Ideas, Art and People in Spanish America

    Circulación: Movement of Ideas, Art and People in Spanish America

    16th Annual Mayer Center Symposium
    Friday, October 21, 2016Saturday, October 22, 2016.

    The movement of artwork and artists, as well as the circulation of ideas and ideologies, shaped culture in Spanish America. A group of international scholars will assemble in Denver to explore topics related to artistic exchange, ranging from local interactions to global networks, and their influence on the art and architecture of the region. Organized by Jorge Rivas Perez, Frederick and Jan Mayer Curator of Spanish Colonial Art, Denver Art Museum.

    The symposium will take place Friday 9:30 am-5:30 pm and Saturday 9:30 am-1 pm. More

  • Glitterati
    Exhibition

    Glitterati

    Portraits & Jewelry from Colonial Latin America
    On View through November 27, 2016

    During the Spanish Colonial period in Latin America (1521–1850), precious gold and silver were crafted into elegant jewelry then embellished with emeralds from Colombia, coral from Mexico, and pearls from Venezuela. Wanting to demonstrate their wealth and status, people were painted wearing their finest dress and elaborate jewelry. More

News & Stories

  • Welcome to the Ancient future pyramid installation by Carlos Fresquez

    Cuatro artistas locales participaran en el programa Cuatro

    Gracias a una beca del Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), el Denver Art Museum trabajará con cuatro artistas locales para presentar el programa Cuatro [4]: A Series of Artist Interactions durante el próximo año. More

  • Welcome to the Ancient future pyramid installation by Carlos Fresquez

    Latino Artists Participate in Cuatro at the DAM

    Meet Carlos Frésquez July 7-August 7

    Four local creatives and artists will present Cuatro [4]: A Series of Artist Interactions. More

  • Young Dancers at the Denver Art Museum for Dia del Nino

    Join the Denver Art Museum for Día del Niño

    Sunday, April 24, 10 am–5 pm

    Includes a variety of performances and free general admission to non-ticketed exhibitions at the DAM, History Colorado, Byers-Evans House Museum, and the Clyfford Still Museum. More

  • Three magi on horseback

    Newly Conserved Magi on View at the Denver Art Museum

    Learn how the DAM conserved these three kings from the 1700s and see them at the museum. More

  • Americas Latino Eco Festival Poster

    Celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month at the DAM

    We invite you to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month at the Denver Art Museum with special events and exhibitions. More

  • Tapestry Video 3: A Plan for Repair

    Tapestry Video 3: A Plan for Repair

    In preparation for Creative Crossroads: The Art of Tapestry, opening May 31, the Denver Art Museum’s staff have been working on a Spanish Colonial table cover in PreVIEW (a behind-the-scenes visible staging area in our textile art gallery). More

Research

Scholars wishing to access the New World Department collections and/or library holdings must contact the Mayer Center well in advance of a visit. If approval for study is granted, the collection/library will be made available as the staff of the DAM's schedule permits. Please contact mayercenter@denverartmuseum.org for more information.

The Mayer Center Fellow Program

This program is designed to support scholarly research related to the museum’s collections of pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial art and to provide curatorial experience to art historians.

The Mayer Center Scholarship

The scholarship, established in honor of Frederick and Jan Mayer and sponsored by Alianza de las Artes Americanas, is awarded biennially to a doctoral student. It includes a stipend and two weeks of access to the museum's New World collection.

Learn more about the fellow program and scholarship.

Publications

Recent Mayer Center publications on Spanish Colonial art are available for purchase in The Shop and include:

Department

Current Staff

  • Jorge Rivas Pérez, Frederick & Jan Mayer Curator of Spanish Colonial Art
  • Julie Wilson Frick, Mayer Center Program Coordinator
  • Jesse Laird Ortega, Curatorial Assistant
  • Anne Tennant, Research Associate
  • Heather Nielsen, Associate Director of Learning and Engagement

Past Staff

  • Margaret Young-Sánchez, Ph.D., Frederick & Jan Mayer Curator of Pre-Columbian Art 1999-2016
  • Donna Pierce, Ph.D., Frederick & Jan Mayer Curator of Spanish Colonial Art 1999-2015
  • Gordon McEwan, Ph.D., Curator 1991-1998
  • Robert Stroessner, Curator 1968-1991

Symposia

Mayer Center symposia are held annually, alternating between pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial topics.

Past Spanish Colonial symposia topics include:

  • New England / New Spain: Portraiture in the Colonial Americas, 1492-1850 (2014)
  • Festivals and Daily Life in the Arts of Colonial Latin America (2012)
  • At the Crossroads: The Arts of Spanish America and Early Global Trade, 1492-1850 (2010)
  • The Arts of South America, 1492-1850 (2008)
  • Asia and Spanish America: Trans-Pacific Artistic and Cultural Exchange, 1500-1850 (2006)
  • Painting a New World: Mexican Art and Life, 1521-1821 (2004)
  • Pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial Art in the Collections at the Denver Art Museum (2002)