It isn’t hard to find evidence of the 18th-century French influence in present-day New Orleans. From the very name of the city itself and its centerpiece, the French Quarter, to the continued popularity of French-inflected cuisine, decorative arts and even vocabulary, constant reminders of the city’s French heritage persist.
But it’s a little more difficult to be reminded of the nearly 40-year Spanish domination of the city just prior to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, aside from a scattering of street names around town and a good portion of the signature architecture of the French Quarter. (The fact that we don’t call it the Spanish Quarter is telling.)
A new exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art, however, will give audiences an intimate look at what has previously been a relatively less-examined dimension of the city’s artistic legacy as a former colony of the Spanish empire.
Organized by the Brooklyn Museum, “Behind Closed Doors: Art in the Spanish American Home, 1492-1898” presents over 160 objects, including paintings, devotional pieces and furniture that were used by the elite Spanish, Creole and indigenous populations of Spain’s expansive colonies in the New World to showcase their status, faith and prosperity.
In addition to the objects from the Brooklyn Museum show, the exhibition at NOMA also will include 11 objects from NOMA’s own important collection of Spanish colonial art, several of which have not been on display at the museum for many years.
While none of the objects in the show originally came from Spanish holdings in what is now the American Gulf South and southwest, NOMA Curatorial Fellow for Spanish Colonial Art Lucia Abramovich says many of the pieces dating from the same period still provide clues as to what some domestic interiors in late 18th-century New Orleans may have looked like.
“There are a lot of common threads found throughout all of Spanish colonial art,” she said. “So it isn’t a stretch to say that many of these pieces are representative of what would have been found in New Orleans during that time as well.”
Abramovich says the show presents several spectacular pieces that will give audiences an idea of the lavishness and even ostentation that characterizes much of the art of New Spain.
A massive late 17th-century six-panel folding room screen that was commissioned by the viceroy of New Spain for his palace in what is now Mexico City serves as a centerpiece for the exhibition. Made of inlaid mother-of-pearl and painted with a sprawling battle scene, the screen served to convey the power and wealth of its owner every bit as much as a Bentley in the driveway and a custom-built wine cellar might today.
Another fascinating piece in the exhibition is a late 18th-century portrait attributed to Peruvian artist Pedro Jose? Diaz of a young woman identified as Don?a Mariana Belsunse y Salasar, who is depicted in a richly embroidered dress showing — or showing off — a variety of jewelry and domestic objects in a sumptuous interior.
The portrait tells us as much about tastes in decorative arts among the gentry of the period as it does about Doña Belsunse y Salasar herself, depicted as she is with a mixture of smugness and pride in her possessions. Clearly this is a woman satisfied with the outcome of her bridal registry.
In addition, Abramovich points to two large-scale “statue paintings” of the Virgin Mary produced in the Andean region of Peru from NOMA’s collection as examples of objects that may already be familiar to some New Orleans audiences due to their display at the museum for many years; they will be focal points of the Spanish Colonial collection when it is reinstalled at NOMA over the next few years.
So why exactly has New Orleans’ own Spanish Colonial artistic heritage gotten such short shrift relative to its French counterpart? Abramovich says that’s a question she’s still trying to answer.
“I’m hoping this exhibition will remind people both of NOMA’s amazing collection of Spanish art and the importance of Spanish culture to the city,” she said.