A Transformational Donation of Colonial Art

June 16, 2017

To mark the occasion of the simultaneous gift of 119 objects from the CPPC’s colonial collection divided between five institutions, we invited three curators to write about how those works will relate to existing holdings. In this first installment, Jorge Rivas, the Frederick and Jan Mayer Curator of Spanish Colonial Art at the Denver Art Museum, describes how the CPPC’s gift of paintings, furniture and objects, mostly from Venezuela, will help to round out the Denver Art Museum’s renowned collection of Spanish colonial art.​

Part two, written by Rosario Granados, the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Associate Curator of Spanish Colonial Art at the Blanton Museum of Art, can be found here. Part three, written by Dennis Carr, the Carolyn and Peter Lynch Curator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts​, can be found here.


The Denver Art Museum’s collection of Spanish colonial art is known as the most important of its kind in the United States, and in several areas its holdings are the most in-depth outside of the countries of origin. Nevertheless, the representation of works from the Caribbean and northern South America has been relatively meager. The donation of 25 works from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection to the museum—the majority of which are paintings, furnishings and objects produced in Venezuela between 1680 and 1830—fills this significant void in the collection and positions the Denver Art Museum as one of the primary repositories of colonial art from the Spanish Caribbean.

Venezuela was always linked to the sailing routes of the Caribbean, in particular the trade networks set up by explorers from the Basque region and the Canary Islands, but also to the contraband routes—under the control of English, Dutch and French traffickers—that greatly encouraged commercial and artistic exchange in this part of the globe. These complex maritime routes provided for both the emigration of artists as well as the circulation of the art, goods, and ideas that served as inspiration for more than three centuries of local creative production. The colonial Venezuelan elite dedicated a portion of their wealth to artistic patronage, generally to benefit the Catholic Church and its associated institutions. The selection of pieces earmarked for the enrichment of the Denver Art Museum’s holdings is a sample of the sophistication and originality of this artistic production, which is unique to the province of Venezuela.

The six Venezuelan paintings included in this donation are representative of the finest in local production from the 17th and 18th centuries. In chronological order, noteworthy works include, first, a painting by the so-called “Painter from Tocuyo” (active 1682–1702) that depicts St. Michael the Archangel with Saint Francis Xavier and Saint Francis of Assisi. Little is known of the life of this painter residing in Tocuyo, in western Venezuela, whose actual name is unknown. However, his work is among the earliest to survive to the present day.

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Fig. 1. Painter from El Tocuyo, Saint Michael the Archangel with Saints Francis Xavier and Francis of Assisi (1682). Oil and tempera on canvas. 86.4 x 59.1 cm. Denver Art Museum. Promised gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros in honor of Carlos Duarte

Executed around 1730 in a highly restricted chromatic palette, perhaps due to the scarcity of pigments available to local painters, we have The Holy Spirit by Fernando Álvarez Carneiro (c.1670–1744). This work is representative of the kind of painting being done in Venezuela in the first third of the 18th century. Álvarez Carneiro played a key role in the artistic life of Caracas, and among his most important works is a series on the life of Saint Francis of Assisi that he produced for the convent of the same name in Caracas.

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Fig. 2. Fernando Álvarez Carneiro, The Holy Spirit (1730). Oil on canvas. 160.8 x 103.1 cm. Denver Art Museum. Promised gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros in honor of Carolina Cisneros Phelps

The donation includes the work of mestizo painters whose work is inspired by the painting of late 17th-century Seville: the work Saint Joseph with the Christ Child, attributed to Caracas-based painter José Lorenzo Zurita (active 1695–1753) in the first half of the 18th century, and Saint Anthony by Francisco José de Lerma y Villegas (active 1719–1753). These two paintings show the melding of artistic influences between Spain and its overseas territories, as well as demonstrating the role of artists in the complex dynamics of race and status in colonial society.

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Fig. 3. José Lorenzo Zurita, Saint Joseph with the Christ Child (18th century). Oil on canvas. 88.6 x 104.1 cm. Denver Art Museum. Promised gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros in honor of Archeduchess Maria Beatrice and Count Riprand of Arco
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Fig. 4. Francisco José de Lerma y Villegas, Saint Anthony (first half of the 18th century). Oil on wood. 46 x 61 cm. Denver Art Museum. Promised gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros in honor of Fernando J. Cisneros

Painting in Caracas was reborn in the second half of the 18th century and the painter Juan Pedro López (1724–1787), the son of immigrants from the Canary Islands, was undoubtedly the most renowned figure of this period. Saint Matthew is one of his works, painted for the Conception Convent of Caracas around 1770. For painters of the 18th century like López, the most significant works were large canvases commissioned for the embellishment of churches and convents, such as this painting, which was part of a series on the Evangelists.

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Fig. 5. Juan Pedro López, Saint Matthew (c. 1770). Oil on canvas. 138.4 x 95.9 cm. Denver Art Museum. Promised gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros in honor of Mateo R. Barnetche

This selection of Venezuelan paintings is completed by a piece from late 18th-century Caracas: the Immaculate Conception signed by mestizo painter Antonio José Landaeta (active 1748–1799). This painting, which could date as late as 1795, is one of very few autographed objects from colonial Venezuela, and it is an example of the excellence achieved by local painters toward the end of the colonial period.

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Fig. 6. Antonio José Landaeta, Immaculate Conception (c. 1795). Oil on canvas. 75.6 x 47.6 cm. Denver Art Museum. Promised gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros in honor of Frederick and Jan Mayer

This ensemble of Venezuelan pieces complements the museum’s collection of paintings from the Viceroyalty of New Granada and the Audiencia of Quito, which stem for the most part from the legacy bequeathed by the Stapleton family. Adding to the group of Venezuelan paintings is a large-format south Andean canvas from the 18th century that depicts the Archangel Gabriel. Archangels are one of the most frequent themes of Andean religious painting, and this work adds to the museum’s core works of Andean painting, mostly stemming from the legacy bequeathed by the Freyer family.

Also significant is the collection of 17 furnishings from the 18th and early 19th centuries from Venezuela, Mexico and the Andes region. Of particular interest are the Venezuelan religious furnishings, among which it is especially worth noting two armchairs commissioned in the 18th century for the Cathedral of Caracas that exemplify the evolution of the style over the course of the century. The first is the lower seat of the cathedral’s throne, carved in 1766 by Canary Islands-born woodworker Domingo Gutiérrez (1709–1793), with painting and gilding by Juan Pedro López.

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Fig. 7. Domingo Gutiérrez, Armchair for the Solium of the Caracas Cathedral (1766). Gilded and painted Spanish cedar, fabric upholstery. 116 x 60 x 49.5 cm. Denver Art Museum. Promised gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros in honor of Gustavo A. Cisneros

This is nothing less than a piece produced in collaboration by two of Caracas’ most important artists of the latter half of the 18th century. The second piece is one of the chairs for the cathedral’s choir produced by woodworker José Ramón Cardozo in 1797. This chair, which shows the influence of English techniques, is a typical example of local woodworkers’ adaptations to changes in taste and style within colonial society.

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Fig. 8. José Ramón Cardozo, Armchair for the Choir of the Caracas Cathedral (1797). Mahogany, velvet upholstery. 135.5 x 79 x 65 cm. Denver Art Museum. Promised gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros in honor of Adriana Cisneros de Griffin

While Denver’s collection of religious woodworking is fairly comprehensive—including an extraordinary 18th-century gate in carved and gilded wood produced in Cuzco, and a Mexican altarpiece from the same era—this selection of armchairs fills a significant void in the museum’s collection.

The domestic furnishings donated to Denver by the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection consists of 15 pieces from the second half of the 18th century and the first third of the 19th century. While the Denver Art Museum holds important examples of civilian furniture from Peru and Mexico—largely stemming from the donations of the Freyer family and from the collection of Frederick and Jan Meyer, respectively—the museum’s holdings lacked representation from Venezuela. Outstanding works in the donation include a selection of center and side tables from the 18th century that provide a clear representation of the typologies of these civilian furnishings. Also notable are a pair of high-backed chairs called taburetes from the latter half of the 18th century, which exhibit Anglo-Dutch inspiration, and fill out the selection of Peruvian and Mexican chairs of the same style in the museum’s collection. Outstanding among the Rococo-style furnishings is a small tabernacle in carved wood, also made by woodworker Domingo Gutiérrez, a work which belonged to Caracas noble Don José María de Tovar y Tovar (1754–1791), and remained in the hands of his descendants until it was acquired by Patricia Phelps de Cisneros in 2004.

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Fig. 9. Domingo Gutiérrez, Tabernacle(18th century). Gilded Spanish cedar. Closed: 52.2 x 33 x 10.2 cm. Open: 52.2 x 41.9 x 10.2 cm. Denver Art Museum. Promised gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros

The two 18th-century Venezuelan butacas [easy chairs] are undoubtedly among the most notable pieces of civilian furniture that the museum has received.

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Fig. 10. Left: Unidentified artist, Easy chair (18th Century). Mahogany, velvet upholstery. 115 x 72 x 43 cm. Denver Art Museum. Gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros in honor of Jorge Rivas. Right: Serafín Antonio Almeida, Easy chair (1795–1800). Spanish cedar veneered in gateado and carreto woods. 124.5 x 77 x 80 cm. Denver Art Museum. Gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros in honor of Rafael Romero

The oldest example, which dates to the decade of 1760, is exceptionally rare among the production of armchairs in Caracas. The other armchair, in neoclassical style, is the work of renowned woodworker Serafín Antonio Almeida (1752–1822) and is perhaps the most elaborate of the armchairs he produced. An impressive late 18th-century wardrobe and chest of drawers from Cumaná also reflects the neoclassical style. This is a one-of-a-kind piece made to celebrate the marriage of Don Domingo Mauricio de Besoitagoena de Berrizbeitia y Zamalloa to Doña María de Los Dolores de Mayz y Márquez de Valenzuela in 1799. This wardrobe is one of the few furnishings manufactured in Cumaná that have been preserved to the present day. Dating to the first quarter of the 19th century is a chair made by Joseph P. Whiting (1800–1849), a woodworker from Baltimore who lived in Caracas from 1824 to 1825. This piece is a prime example of production by the hands of foreign masters who resided in Venezuela at the beginning of the republic.

The two chests that also comprise part of the donation are unique as well. The first is a leather-bound chest from the early 18th century in an exceptional state of preservation that, while acquired from an old European collection, may be of Huamanga origin. The other is a Mexican piece from Villa Alta de San Ildefonso, Oaxaca, with precise inlaid designs in zulaque paste. This is the first piece using this technique to enter the museum’s collection.

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Fig. 11. Left: Unidentified artist, Peru, Trunk (18th Century). Spanish cedar, embossed leather and iron. 62 x 107 x 53 cm. Denver Art Museum. Gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros in honor of Natalia Majluf. Right: Unidentified artist, Villa Alta de San Ildefonso, Oaxaca, Mexico, Chest (18th Century). Cedar wood with pasted drawings, wrought iron lock. 49 x 90.1 x 47.8 cm. Denver Art Museum. Gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros in honor of Plácido Arango Arias

The selection of decorative arts is completed by a singular piece of silverwork, exemplary of the sophistication and virtuosity of Caracas silversmiths during the colonial period. It is a small, portable sanctum used to carry one’s allowance; the piece, dated 1790, is the work of master silversmith Domingo Tomás Núñez (1735–1801). Work in silver flourished in Venezuela during the colonial period thanks to commercial exchange with Mexico. The exportation of highly famed Venezuelan cacao was repaid with Mexican silver, raw material for local artists. Núñez, a silversmith of mixed race, was one of the key figures in late 18th-century Venezuelan silver work.

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Fig. 12. Domingo Tomás Núñez, Sacrarium (c. 1790). Silver. 16.4 x 15 x 7 cm. Denver Art Museum. Promised gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros in honor of Gisela and Carlos Padula

This generous gift from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros collection will undoubtedly transform and complement the Denver Art Museum’s already extensive collection of art from the Spanish colonial era, and will allow the institution to offer the public a comprehensive view of the colonial art of the Americas


Translated by Phillip Penix-Tadsen