South America's epic past unfolds in a New York City town house

The cultural confluence is evident in A Virgin Martyr, a late seventeenth- or early eighteenth-century Bolivian oil on canvas (Fig. 7). The artist, possibly from La Paz, depicted the popular seventeenth-century Spanish subject wearing a European blouse and a skirt of distinctly Incan weave. Suzanne Stratton-Pruitt, editor of a forthcoming catalogue of the Huber collection, speculates that the painting may have been made for an affluent native family.

Few colonial South American paintings are signed and dated. Exceptions include two lively narrative-driven oils by the Bolivian artist Gaspar Miguel de Berrio that date to 1760 (Fig. 8) and 1764 (see Fig. 17). Latin inscriptions hint that they were intended for an educated audience. Considered Potosí's master painter, Melchor Pérez Holguin is represented by a small tender Saint Joseph and the Christ Child (Fig. 9) and a Pietà of about 1720 (see Fig. 11) whose elongated forms reflect mannerist influence.

So-called "dressed sculpture" paintings of the Virgin Mary have a frothy, wedding-cake appeal. In the most beguiling examples, artists, using a technique called brocateado, applied a filigree of gold paint or gold leaf over pigment to simulate the appearance of sumptuous fabric (see Fig. 12).

"After we moved back to New York, I became involved in the exhibition Potosí: Colonial Treasures and the Bolivian City of Silver at the Americas Society. I learned so much, especially about silver, from co-curator Pedro Querejazu," says Roberta. The more than three dozen pieces of silver in the collection range from frames and plaques with repoussé surfaces fecund with animal and plant life to chastely unadorned bowls. The variety of forms-from a baptismal basin and votive lamp to slave amulets, a box for coca leaves, and a water bucket-suggest wide access to the abundant metal along with its energetic use by a Catholic Church intent on making converts through showy display.

"Once the Cerro Rico was discovered in 1545, Potosí became the largest supplier of silver to the Spanish crown for the next seventy years. Colonists and other miners became fantastically wealthy," says David L. Barquist, curator of American decorative arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. As with painting, South American silver mingles European and indigenous elements. To avoid paying taxes, makers rarely marked their wares. Much of what scholars have gleaned about craftsmen and their patrons comes from church records. "South America's indigenous population had been working with precious metals for millennia. The Spanish were smart enough to recognize a skilled workforce," Barquist says, noting that the sculptural qualities of European baroque decoration dovetailed nicely with pre-conquest Andean metalworkers' tradition of hammering silver sheet metal into raised designs. The fusion of Indian and European traditions was strongest outside the principal cities, in Alto Peru and the Jesuit missions in Paraguay.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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