Arts of Latin America, the Philippines, and Portuguese India: Decorative Arts


The creative genius of the indigenous artisans of Latin America served as the foundation for the decorative arts of the colonial era. The luxurious objects of gold, silver, feathers, and textiles that they produced for the elite of the Aztec and Inca empires proved a source of marvel to European audiences when they first reached the courts of Europe. Albrecht Dürer, the renowned Renaissance artist, had the opportunity to view in Brussels in 1520 the first treasures of conquest sent by Hernán Cortés to Charles V, of which he wrote in his diary: “For I have seen therein wonders of art and have marveled at the subtle ingenia of people in far-off lands. And I know not how to express what I have experienced thereby.” Toribio de Benavente, known as Motolinía, arrived in Mexico in 1523 with the first Franciscans and immediately became one of the greatest advocates for the indigenous population of Mexico. In his History of the Indians of New Spain, Motolinía spoke eloquently of the ingenuity of the native artisans: “In the mechanical arts the Indians have made great progress, both in those which they cultivated previously and in those which they learned from the Spaniards.” To which he later added, “They never make anything without changing the style, seeking to create new models.”

From the 16th through the 18th centuries the indigenous, African, Asian, and European artists and artisans of colonial Latin America created some of the most extraordinary decorative arts ever produced, drawing freely upon the rich artistic traditions and techniques of the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa. Hybrid art forms emerged as indigenous media and techniques were adapted to European forms, European designs were incorporated into the indigenous arts, and Asian motifs, techniques, and forms were reinterpreted by both European and indigenous artisans.


In general the decorative arts of colonial Latin America followed the pattern of the major European stylistic movements, from Renaissance to Neoclassical, but regional preferences permitted some styles and motifs to endure long beyond their passing in Europe. For example, 16th-century Renaissance C-scrolls and Mannerist strapwork cartouches remained popular motifs in the arts of the Andes well into the 18th century. The enormous wealth of the viceregal capitals of Mexico City and Lima attracted more artists and artisans, which accounts for the disproportionately large number of decorative arts produced around these centers throughout the colonial period.

Under the tutelage of Catholic missionaries, indigenous artists in Mexico painted Christian devotional images of phenomenal sophistication and beauty employing the Pre-Hispanic art of the feather mosaic. The indigenous feather mosaic technique utilized iridescent feathers from hummingbirds along with feathers from other native birds that were carefully trimmed and applied in layers using an orchid-based glue onto amatl or maguey paper. A rare early example in the Hispanic Society’s collection is a bishop’s mitre (ca. 1559-1566) from Michoacán. Of the seven known surviving featherwork mitres found today in church treasuries and museums, this is the only one in the Americas.


Taking their inspiration from Asian porcelains and lacquers, Colombian artisans perfected the indigenous mopa mopa lacquer technique, which they combined with gold and silver leaf, transforming wooden chests and writings boxes into luxury objects destined for European nobility. A spectacular example of the impact of Asian arts in the Americas may be seen in a portable writing desk from Pasto, Colombia, decorated with a type of inlaid lacquer known as barniz de Pasto (Pasto varnish),which is based on the resin of the South American mopa mopa tree. It bears the coat of arms of the Quirós family on the interior lid, having been commissioned by Cristóbal Bernardo de Quirós, Bishop of Popayán, in 1684 to send to his brother, secretary to King Charles II of Spain, who had been granted the title of Marquis of Monreal in 1683. While the form of the piece is typically Spanish, the construction more closely resembles 16th-century Nanban cabinetry. The lacquer decoration, on the other hand, combines Spanish, Asian, and indigenous American motifs.

A distinct lacquer tradition of Pre-Hispanic origin developed in viceregal Mexico which employed a lacquer composed of insect and plant oils, mineral clays, and natural pigments that was applied to gourds and wooden objects, most commonly large bowls or trays known as bateas. The decoration of the 17th-century examples demonstrates a clear interest in European print sources with an occasional reference to indigenous animals and motifs. The Society has an important collection of Mexican lacquerware, including two 17th-century bateas and a portable writing desk from Peribán (Michoacán, Mexico), an 18th-century coffer from Olinalá (Guerrero, Mexico), and several 18th and 19th-century works from Pátzcuaro (Michoacán, Mexico), including an important large cabinet on stand by Manuel de la Cerda (active 1765); a large batea with Asian-inspired decoration; and a pictorial sewing box. The later 18th-century works exhibit a shift towards Chinoiserie, looking to both Asian and European tendencies.


The direct influence of Chinese exports on viceregal Latin American art is also evident in ceramic production. The Society holds an important collection of ceramics from the Mexican city of Puebla de los Angeles, where fine tin-glazed earthenware was produced and distributed in quantity, including elaborate styles inspired by Chinese porcelain. Among the many exceptional pieces is a large jar with serpentine handles (ca. 1660), bearing the mark “he”, that is attributed to the master potter Damián Hernández. Spanning three centuries of production, the collection contains rare examples in various decorative styles ranging from colonial revival, Mixtec revival, to Art Nouveau by the Barcelona artist Enrique Luis Ventosa who revived the pottery industry in Puebla in the early 20th century.

Burnished, unglazed ceramics produced in the 17th century at Tonalá in Jalisco, Mexico, and Santiago, Chile, also form part of the Latin American collection. These wares are prime examples of búcaros de Indias, the New World ceramic objects highly prized among 17th-century European collectors for the perfumed quality of their clay. Works in the collection from Tonalá include red-slipped, white-slipped, and black earthenwares, including unique sculptural figures, a large decorated vase with ormolu mounts, along with a monumental white-slipped amphora, or tibor. The elaborate búcaros produced in the 17th century by nuns from the Order of Saint Claire in the Convent of Santa Clara in Santiago, Chile, are represented by a pair of exceptional red-slipped earthenware lamps with painted decoration and glass inserts, as well as a cup with handle.


Cabinets, chests, and coffers in a variety of materials from Latin America, the Philippines, and Portuguese India are featured in the collection. Two fine examples of 17th-century Indo-Portuguese cabinets, probably from Goa, made of teak with ebony and ivory inlays, stand on legs sculpted with mermaid caryatids. From the Philippines is a large 17th-century chest made of native narra wood, carved with foliate and floral designs, birds, and lions. Used to transport luxury goods on the Manila Galleons to Acapulco, these chests later became prized objects in the palaces of Mexico City and throughout the Spanish empire.


Decorative furniture and boxes inlaid with mother-of-pearl and tortoiseshell from Portuguese India were among the most coveted works shipped to the Americas aboard the Manila Galleons. These served as the inspiration for two Peruvian 17th-century boxes covered with mother-of-pearl and tortoiseshell marquetry that are in the collection. An 18th-century writing cabinet from the Jesuit missions of Chiquitanía in southeastern Bolivia, made of aromatic cedrela, incorporates mother-of-pearl inlays in the chip-carved interior decoration. Tortoiseshell was used alone for the construction of small coffers for jewelry or other treasured items, as found in the Hispanic Society’s coffer made in Mexico (ca. 1700) that is ornamented with ornate silver feet and lockplate.


Important colonial textiles in the collection originate from Portuguese India, Mexico, and China. From the Portuguese trading post established at Sitgoan in Bengal comes a rare bed cover, or colcha, that dates to the 16th century, composed of intricate raw tussore silk embroidery on cotton. The coverlet bears the coat of arms of a bishop from the Mendoza family in Spain surrounded by decorative borders with scenes from the Old Testament, the Labors of Hercules, Portuguese hunting scenes, and aquatic scenes with Makara, fantastic sea-creatures from Hindu mythology that are half mammal and half fish. A luxurious 18th-century Mexican rebozo, or shawl, made for the colonial elite is embroidered with multicolored silk threads that include gold- and silver-wrapped threads, in Asian-inspired floral and foliate designs combined with birds and animals. The Hispanic Society holds an extensive collection of mantones de Manila, large embroidered silk shawls with knotted macramé fringe that were produced in China and shipped through Manila in the 19th and early 20th centuries for the Spanish and Latin American markets. One remarkable example from the second half of the 19th century is decorated with Chinese scenes in which the embroidered faces of the human figures are covered with matching polychrome ivory masks on both sides of the shawl.

The finest examples of colonial silverwork found in the collection are from Goa, Bolivia, and Mexico. A small casket of delicate silver filigree in swirling motifs was produced in Goa in the 17th century for the Portuguese market, and retains its original storage box covered in ray shagreen with gold fittings. With the world’s largest silver deposit at their disposal at Potosí, Bolivia, the colonial silversmiths of Alto Peru were profligate in their use of the precious metal, making extravagant wares for religious and secular patrons. Typical of 18th-century colonial Bolivian religious silverwork is a pair of large silver plaques that served as altar decorations, known as mayas. Each plaque is ornamented in high relief with a siren in the center surrounded by swirling foliate designs and sea serpents. Two equally impressive 18th-century pieces from Alto Peru were produced for the secular market. A silver-gilt tray decorated with chinchillas, flowers, and vines in repoussé with chasing and engraving, bears the export mark of Buenos Aires and the collection mark of Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III of Great Britain. The other is a silver aquamanile in the form of a lion, used for hot water to make yerba mate or coca tea, includes an internal vented chamber for hot coals. Mexican silverwork of the 18th century is represented by an elaborate silver-gilt monstrance with engraved scrolls and applied cherub heads, and a set of four elegant candlesticks.