Viceregal Art from a Cosmopolitan Hub

June 28, 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 third installment, Dennis Carr, the Carolyn and Peter Lynch Curator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, speaks about how the CPPC’s gift of colonial works from Venezuela will be contextualized within the 53 galleries of the Musuem's celebrated Art of the Americas Wing. 

Part one, written by Jorge Rivas, the Frederick and Jan Mayer Curator of Spanish Colonial Art at the Denver Art Museum, can be found here. And part two, by Rosario Granados, the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Associate Curator of Spanish Colonial Art at the Blanton Museum of Art, can be found here

Venezuela during the viceregal period was a key trading center of the Spanish Atlantic world, a crossroads of the southern Caribbean. During the eighteenth century, Venezuela, along with its largest city of Caracas, grew significantly in population. A cosmopolitan hub owing to the trans-Atlantic trade connections, Caracas attracted artists and craftsmen from Spain and the Canary Islands, and supported home-grown industries of furniture making, architecture, sculpture, and painting. The gift of eight superb examples of Venezuelan decorative arts and painting from the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston provides an opportunity to showcase the evolution of Venezuelan art during the viceregal period. The gift is a tribute to the collectors Patricia Phelps de Cisneros and Gustavo Cisneros for their long-standing efforts to preserve, study, and celebrate the extraordinary artistic legacy of their native Venezuela.

Originally housed in the Hacienda Carabobo outside of Caracas, this group of objects demonstrates the remarkable variety and breadth of Venezuelan art from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. The gift includes an important religious painting, Nuestra Señora de Guía (about 1762) by Juan Pedro López (1724–1787) (Fig. 1), carved furniture attributed to Domingo Gutiérrez (1709–1793), Antonio Mateo de los Reyes (active 1725–1766), and Francisco José Cardozo (active 1768–1820), and inlaid furniture in the neoclassical style by Serafín Antonio Almeida (1752–1822).[1]

Fig. 1. Juan Pedro López, Our Lady of Guidance (c. 1762). Oil on wood. 100.3 x 69.2 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Promised gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros in honor of Jorge Rivas

Five of the objects in the gift have been on loan to the MFA since 2010, and on view in the museum’s 53-gallery Art of the Americas Wing. The Wing, like the CPPC collection, incorporates indigenous, colonial, post-colonial, and modern art into its highly contextualized, mixed-media displays. The MFA partnered with the CPPC in 2010 on a series of key loans of Latin American art that greatly broadened the representation of Latin America in the galleries beyond the traditional collecting strengths of the museum in art of New England and the United States. 

Many of the objects in the current gift were specifically selected to show important stylistic and cultural connections across the hemisphere—connecting North and South, and in some cases linking directly to objects in the MFA’s permanent collection. The mahogany bookcase (estante) carved in an undulating pattern and ornamented with foliate motifs (Fig. 2) is attributed to the Venezuelan artist Domingo Gutiérrez. 

Fig. 2. Domingo Gutiérrez, Shelf (18th century). Mahogany and brass. 170.2 x 115.6 x 34.3 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros in memory of Carmen and Alfredo Machado

Born and trained in the Canary Islands, Gutiérrez is credited with carving some of the most ornate interiors of churches and religious buildings in Caracas, made at the height of his career during the second half of the eighteenth century.[2] Gutiérrez created lavish domestic furniture as well, and this bookcase section (which probably originally sat on a writing desk or table) bears certain characteristics of Gutiérrez’s workshop, namely the leafy cartouche at the center of the pediment. Gutiérrez often collaborated with the Canarian painter Juan Pedro López on major commissions for religious altarpieces in Caracas, and the carved frame of the painting Nuestra Señora de Guía (see Fig.1), which is thought to have been created for a retablo in the Convento de las Monjas Carmelitas Descalzes (Convent of the Discalced Carmelites), has a similar curvaceous outline.[3]

The undulant façade of the bookcase has echoes in furniture made around the Caribbean and in other regions throughout the Americas during the eighteenth century, with examples known from Portuguese Brazil all the way to French Canada.[4] Within the MFA’s Art of the Americas Wing, the Gutiérrez bookcase is displayed in context with furniture from disparate regions: a British Rhode Island desk and bookcase (Fig. 3), with its so-called “block-and-shell” façade that became a signature feature of Newport and Providence furniture, and a magnificent Cuban mahogany chest of drawers (cómoda) with its original silver hardware (Fig. 4).

Fig. 3. Desk and bookcase (1770–1790). Mahogany, chestnut, pine, cherry. The M. and M. Karolik Collection of Eighteenth-Century American Arts. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Fig. 4. Chest of drawers [cómoda] (1750–1800). Mahogany, cedar (cedrela odorata), silver hardware. Henry H. and Zoe Oliver Sherman Fund. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

While the precise origins of this style are unclear, it might be seen as a late flourishing of the European baroque style, with its interest in fine materials and ribbony, reflective surfaces, that came to the Americas through printed architectural and furniture pattern books, objects transported with owners and immigrant craftsmen who had trained in Europe. It should be noted that tall desks and bookcases, like the form of the Gutiérrez cabinet, are relatively rare in the Spanish world, being more associated with Anglo-Dutch furniture rather than Spanish. 

Within the MFA galleries, visitors can also see an eighteenth-century side chair in the rococo style from Venezuela from the CPPC collection (Fig. 5) in relationship to similar chairs made in different regions of North America. 

Fig. 5. Unidentified artist, Venezuela, Side chair (18th century). Hardwood. 108.5 x 54 x 52 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros in honor of Adriana Cisneros de Griffin

The installation begins with a standard London-made “Chippendale”-style chair, the type of which was immensely influential among American cabinetmakers, and then proceeds with chairs from Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Boston; New York; and Philadelphia, all the way to the southern Caribbean, with examples from Barbados and Venezuela. The comparison of these chairs makes apparent the stylistic differences between various regions of the colonial Americas; yet, more important, it shows that craftsmen from these regions all spoke the language of the fashionable European rococo style, just with different dialects.

Another gift to the MFA, a highly important carved armchair attributed to Antonio Mateo de los Reyes of Caracas, demonstrates the influence of both European and indigenous styles on furniture making in Latin America (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6. Antonio Mateo de Los Reyes, Armchair (c. 1755). Spanish cedar, painted and gilded. 107 x 77 x 56 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros in honor of Carlos Duarte

This kind of syncretism, or hybridity, often is created by local artists incorporating indigenous motifs into standard European forms, like upholstered armchairs, which had no precedent in pre-Hispanic furniture making. The carving on the chair, particularly the front and rear cross stretchers, displays heavily stylized volutes and plant motifs of a South American character. These exist alongside the classicalized ornaments on the legs and posts, a product of the new environment in which European styles took root in the Americas. The luxurious chair is thought to have been part of the furnishings of the fashionable home of Don Antonio Pacheco y Tovar, first count of San Javier, in Caracas, made probably around 1740.[5] In the MFA’s galleries, the chair is paired with another armchair (frailero) (Fig. 7), which incorporates a beautiful, tooled-leather back and seat bearing the image of a double-headed Hapsburg eagle, the symbol of the Spanish empire. The chair once belonged to a larger set of related chairs that has a history in the cathedral in Coro, Venezuela.

Fig. 7. Unidentified artist, Venezuela, Armchair (18th century). Wood, leather, and copper. 101.6 x 63.5 x 61 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros in honor of Gustavo A. Cisneros

In Venezuela, as in other regions of Spanish America, the highly heterogeneous nature of the population added to the diversity of artistic production. The influx of residents and laborers from Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, and other parts of Latin America created a mixed society characterized by racial and cultural diversity. Two examples of furniture in the gift are attributed to mixed-race craftsmen: an elaborate carved and gilt fleuron (florón) attributed to the Caracas cabinetmaker Francisco José Cardozo (Fig. 8) and an inlaid corner shelf (repisa rinconera) attributed to Serafín Antonio Almeida (Fig. 9).[6]

Fig. 8. Francisco José Cardozo, Fleuron (18th century). Gilded Spanish cedar. 50 x 120 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros in honor of Carolina Cisneros Phelps
Fig. 9. Serafín Antonio Almeida, Corner shelf (c. 1800). Spanish cedar veneered in carreto and gateado woods. 45 x 47 x 47 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros in honor of Antonieta and Leopoldo López

Cardozo was the scion of a prominent family of furniture makers in Caracas, which included his father Antonio José Cardozo and his brother José Ramón Cardozo. The fleuron, with its highly carved and lively gilt surface, takes the rococo style introduced earlier to Venezuela by Domingo Gutiérrez to new heights, with exuberant vegetable forms and latticework ornaments. Such objects were popular in the interiors of opulent houses in Caracas, used as reflective ceiling ornaments from which to hang chandeliers. The second artist, Serafín Antonio Almeida, was born in the town of Guatire, outside of Caracas in 1752. His 1779 marriage to Maria Rosa Guevas in Caracas is recorded in the Register of Mixed Race and Slave Marriages. Almeida became one of the most important cabinetmakers in Caracas during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and many examples of his distinctive furniture in the neoclassical style, often inlaid with exotic woods, survive in collections today.[7] This example is the first piece of Latin American furniture in the neoclassical style to enter the MFA’s collection. It relates to the museum’s large collection of inlaid neoclassical furniture, which currently has much representation from the United States and Europe, but not Latin America. The inlay compares well to a pembroke table in the MFA’s collection (Fig. 10) by the cabinetmaker Holmes Weaver (1769–1848) from Newport, Rhode Island, a coastal port city that had major trade connections with the Caribbean.

Fig. 10. Holmes Weaver (1769–1848), Pembroke table (1790–1800). Mahogany; satinwood and rosewood inlays; cherry; pine. The M. and M. Karolik Collection of Eighteenth-Century American Arts. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Bringing together the MFA’s collection of Anglo American furniture with these extraordinary gifts of Venezuelan art from the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros creates—or rather recreates—a dialogue that existed in the colonial period. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the British colonies had a significant trade presence in the Caribbean as they sent ships to barter for sugar, slaves, and timber. Ships from New England sailed to “Saltertuda” (the salt island of La Tortuga, Venezuela), and later traded American-made furniture to customers in Venezuela.[8] In turn, craftsmen in Anglo America relied heavily on the importation of mahogany wood from the Caribbean islands and mainland Central and South America. This trade in a key raw material fueled the economy in the British colonies and resulted in a remarkable flourishing of the furniture-making industry there, which is shown in great depth in the MFA’s collection and in the galleries of the Art of the Americas Wing. The gifts from the CPPC add to the MFA’s growing collection of colonial Latin American art and enhance the museum’s ability to represent the important cultural legacy of Venezuela, and to a larger extent the Caribbean, which was a crossroads of migration and artistic and cultural exchange during the colonial period.

[1] In addition to the furniture and painting, the gift also includes a late-eighteenth-century silver-gilt Brazilian naveta, or incense boat, and a Venezuelan two-handled cup (tachuela) with the name of its owner, María Pacheco, inscribed on the bowl.  Including the Brazilian naveta, there are nine total objects in the gift.  The author is grateful to Jorge Rivas for his guidance and helpful insights on Latin American furniture over the years and to Caroline Cole for reading an earlier draft of this article.


[2] See Carlos F. Duarte, Domingo Gutiérrez: el maestro del rococó en Venezuela (Caracas: Ediciones Equinoccio, Universidad Simón Bolívar, 1977).


[3] For an excellent discussion of the painting, see Carlos F. Duarte, Juan Pedro López, maestro de pintor, escultor y dorador 1724–1787 (Caracas: Fundación Polar and Galería de Arte Nacional, 1996), 106–7, 259; and Jorge F. Rivas Pérez, ed., Power & Piety: Spanish Colonial Art from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection (Alexandria, VA: Art Services International, 2015), 46–8, 60, cat. 3.


[4] See, for example, a Montreal commode ca. 1770–80 in the MFA’s collection (1994.83).


[5] For more information on the chair and its maker, see Jorge Rivas’s entries in Joseph J. Rishel with Suzanne Stratton-Pruitt, The Arts in Latin America, 1492–1820 (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press, 2006), 486, cat. vii-6, 533.


[6] For biographical information on both makers, see Rivas entries in Rishel, 501, 507, 527, 529.


[7] See Carlos F. Duarte, Mobiliario y Decoración interior durante el período hispánico venezolano (Caracas: Armitano Editores, 1995).


[8] For an enlightening exploration of US-made furniture in Venezuelan collections, see Jorge F. Rivas, El repertorio clásico en el mobiliario venezolano, siglos XVIII y XIX, Cuaderno 9 (Caracas: Fundación Cisneros, 2007).