Portraits and Jewelry From Colonial Latin America
Despite its titular implications of spectacle and vanity parade, the Denver Art Museum’s exhibition “Glitterati: Portraits & Jewelry from Colonial Latin America” offers an unexpectedly intimate and contemplative experience of some important pieces from the institution’s core holdings. The general scarcity of Spanish sixteenth- to early nineteenth-century jewelry with documented or even plausible New World provenance precludes the kind of overwhelming display that can be found just one room over, where the museum’s collection of colonial silver hollowware dazzles the eye through sheer expanse of gleaming surfaces. Moreover, the exhibition’s curators Donna Pierce and Julie Wilson Frick seem to have deliberately cultivated an effect of dignified reserve. Surrounded by deep red walls and guarded by somber portraits enveloped in baroque gloom, even the most bejeweled objects in the exhibition appear as small, bright accents rather than aggressive contenders for the spotlight. This is entirely appropriate. The portraits, selected because of their in-situ depictions of jewelry, suggest that Spanish fashion of the colonial period, even in its farthest forays into ornamentation, conveyed a somber strength that restrained the impulse to excess and resisted the frivolity that at times thrived in the salons of Europe. Even in the colonies, the subdued aesthetic of Velazquez and Murillo seems to have been more reflective of Spanish taste than the exuberance of Rubens or the delicacy of Watteau.
Pearls figured prominently in the jewelry of wealthy colonial women, though given the high rate at which bracelets, necklaces and pendants were later cannibalized in the interest of keeping up with mercurial fashion, it is not surprising that only three pieces among the jewelry displayed in the exhibition actually contain pearls. The portraits serve as more accurate indicators of historical practice. A painting of Doña Maria del Carmen Cortés Santelices y Cartavio Roldán, the creole wife of a Spanish-born judge in Trujillo, Peru, depicts the blue-eyed eighteenth-century matron adorned with earrings of gold-framed mother-of-pearl disks with triple pearl drops, pearl bracelets of four strands on each wrist, and a silver foliate cross suspended from a three-strand pearl necklace. From a century later, a staid three-quarter-view portrait of an unknown elderly Colombian woman, whose presumably thin gray hair is entirely hidden by a close-fitting black cap, features a single gold and large pearl drop earring as sufficient proof of her wealth and social status.
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Glen R. Brown, a professor of art history at Kansas State University and a frequent writer on jewelry and metalwork, has a longstanding interest in the decorative arts of Latin America. The Denver Art Museum’s exhibition “Glitterati: Portraits & Jewelry from Colonial Latin America” provided a rare opportunity to study some particularly fine surviving examples of seventeenth- to nineteenth-century work in gold and silver, but he was most impressed by the juxtaposition of jewelry and its representation in period paintings: “what may be the best way to look at historical objects and remember why they were made.”