About an Unknown Artist's Portrait of a Lady


REPRODUCTION: What can I learn about how this reproduction is different from the original artwork?

The size of the digitized image is limited to the size of a computer monitor. The actual artwork is 41" high and 31" wide. When the original is viewed up close, the woven canvas is sometimes visible through the paint. In many places the surface of painting is quite shiny.

This painting is one of a pair of portraits. The companion portrait is of a gentlemen in an embroidered coat wearing lace at his neck and wrists. The portraits are the same size and, when hung together, they complement each other.

CONDITION: What can I determine about the condition of the artwork?

In 1989 the conservators cleaned the Portrait of a Lady. Existing tears were patched and realigned using Japanese paper. The painting received a full new linen lining and was stretched on new redwood spring stretchers. Some paint loss was painted in and the portrait was given a new layer of varnish. The conservators were concerned both with protecting the painting from further damage and restoring it to look as it did in the eighteenth century.

SUBJECT MATTER: What can I determine about what the artwork depicts, if anything?

The painting shows a three-quarter height figure of an elegantly dressed, dark haired woman. Her body is turned slightly to her left. Her eyes are turned to look directly at the viewer. She delicately holds the stem of a flower between the thumb and first finger of her left hand and a closed folded fan in her right. She wears an elaborate blue and white, flowered, striped gown. The open neck of the gown is crossed with three intersecting collars . The collars, front, and sleeves of the gown are decorated with lace and three dimensional fabric flowers. She wears a matching blue, red, and white, flowered head piece atop her high crowned hairdo. She wears two bracelets, one of which contains a miniature portrait of a man (presumably her father or fiancé). Her painted fan also bears the miniature image of a gentleman in an oval. From her waist hang two watches; one, almost out of view behind the fan. She wears dangling earrings and a large beauty mark at her temple. In the upper left corner of the painting appears a coat of arms. A dark red curtain is draped in a swag across the top of the painting behind the lady's head. Loops of cords and tassels are visible on the left.

TOOLS, MATERIALS, AND PROCESSES: What can I learn about how the artwork was made?

The portrait was painted with oil paints on canvas. It was executed with great attention to fine detail. The thicker paint of individual brushstrokes is visible in the lacework. The surface of the painting shimmers as the effect of glazing or the application of varnish.

Sensory Lesson Index
SENSORY ELEMENTS: What visual elements do I see?

Attention to detail has resulted in a convincing illusion of texture in the painting, for example in areas such as the silk gown, lace, heavy fabric drape, and the flower in the lady's hand. The illusion of solid form is created by the careful imitation of how values (lights and darks) gradually change as light strikes curved surfaces, for example on the arms and hands, the face, the flower, and the lady's left sleeve. Pink, blue, dark red, white, and black are the most prominent colors.

FORMAL ORGANIZATION: How do the elements in the artwork work together?

The roughly triangular, elaborately decorated, shape of the lady contrasts dramatically with the darker, simpler negative (background) shape which surrounds it. This triangular, central shape lends a sense of stability to the composition. The single flower on the right tends to balance the coat of arms in the upper left.


The name of the eighteenth century artist who painted the Portrait of a Lady is unknown. However, some believe Miguel Cabrera, a prominent painter from Oaxaca, or one of his follows may have painted the portrait.


NATURAL CONTEXT: What can I learn about the natural environment where the artwork was made?

The central plateau of Mexico is mountainous. The temperatures are generally consistent with a subtropical environment with a wet summer season and a dry winter season.

FUNCTIONAL CONTEXT: What can I learn about how the artwork was used?

Although the name of the sitter is lost, this portrait presumably captures her likeness, that is, it documents the appearance of a specific woman (and her clothing and jewelry). The painting defined the woman as a lady of wealth and status. Large portraits, such as this greeted visitors in reception areas of the grand mansions of noble families in colonial New Spain.

CULTURAL CONTEXT: What can I determine about what people thought, believed, or did in the culture in which the artwork was made?

"Colonial Mexican society was organized into a heirarchy of classes or caste based on race and national origin. It is no surprise that society's elite was drawn largely from two groups, both of pure Spanish blood, at the top of the pyramid: the peninsulares, who were European-born Spanish; and the criollos (creoles), born in the Americas of Spanish ancestors. . . . The households of the great families of Mexico City included a full range of racial mixtures, if the family itself did not.

"As the colonial period progressed, these great families, who had been so Spanish in their outlook and who had often chosen peninsulares for in-laws, increasingly took pride in a doubly noble descent from European aristocracy and Aztec royalty. . . . By the time the colonial period came to a close and Independence loomed, the elite of New Spain had come to think of themselves not as Spaniards living in America, but as Mexicans." Kevin L. Stayton, (1996), "The Algara Romero de Terreros Collection: A Mexican Aristocratic Family in the Colonial Era" in Converging Cultures: Art & Identity in Spanish America, edited by Diana Fane, New York, The Brooklyn Museum in association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc. publishers, p. 71 and 74.

ARTWORLD CONTEXT: What can I learn about the art ideas, beliefs, and activities that were important in the culture in which the artwork was made?

"Artistic activity [in New Spain] was mostly overseen by artists imported from Europe. Eventually, the establishment of the San Carlos Academy of Art in Mexico City (1778) and the arrival of Jerónimo Antonia Gil as supervisor of arts standards solidified the dominance of Spanish and European styles. The Academy was a center for intellectual and artistic production." Overlapping Artworlds: Here and Now -- There and Then, (1997), Phoenix, Arizona, Phoenix Art Museum, p. 37.


MAKER'S INTENTION: What can I learn about why the maker wanted the artwork to look the way it does?

The painter of this portrait is not known, though some scholars have linked it with the artist, Miguel Cabrera, or his followers. Presumably the artist was concerned about meeting the patron's requirements, which probably were to present the lady as a wealthy person of high status.

Viewer Lesson Index
ARTWORLD VIEWER UNDERSTANDING: What can I determine about how the viewer, patron, or user understood the artwork?

Presumably the family of the woman who sat for this portrait commissioned the painter to make it, along with the companion portrait of a gentleman. The sitter would have seen herself depicted as a woman of status and fashionable beauty. She is shown wearing fine jewelry, purely decorative watches, silks from Asia, and lace from France, all in the latest European styles. The beauty mark, popular among women of all social classes at the time, would have been made of velvet or tortoiseshell. Social rules were so strict for the elite that she would not have carried the same fan to more than one major social event. One can only imagine how the sitter would have felt as she viewed her image in this grand portrait.

CULTURAL IMPACT: What can I learn about how the artwork was understood within culture in which it was made?

"The world in which these [wealthy, elite] families lived was one of great wealth and ostentation. In fact, one of the requirements of nobility and honors in colonial New Spain was the secure possession of wealth great enough to support servants and retainers, stables and horses, townhouses and haciendas, and a small fortune in clothing and jewels....Great wealth was necessary to ensure a place among the one hundred leading families of colonial Mexico City, each of which possessed a fortune of at least a million pesos; about three hundred additional families of the lesser elite had a total wealth exceeding one hundred thousand pesos. To lose the fortune was to lose one's place in this rarefied world, since the proper maintenance of aristocratic status was costly." Kevin L. Stayton, "The Algara Romero de Terreros Collection: A Mexican Aristocratic Family in the Colonial Era, in Converging Cultures: Art & Identity in Spanish America, 1996, New York: The Brooklyn Museum and Abrams, p. 71.

Presumably this portrait both defined and confirmed the status of the sitter and her family among the powerful elite families of Mexico City.


STYLE: How does the artwork look like other artworks?

The Portrait of a Lady shares characteristics with three styles of the time: a universal European style, a distinctive Mexican interpretation of the European style, and the individual style of a particular Mexican artist. Like many oil paintings throughout Europe, The Portrait of a Lady has a geometric (in this case, triangular) composition, strong contrasts between light and dark, as well as realistic features and textures. This portrait, distinct from European painting, but like other Mexican paintings of the era, is quieter; has a more naïve stillness; and has a sense of idealism. Specifically this portrait has characteristics associated with the Oaxacan mestizo painter, Miguel Cabrera. He was "known for depictions of the wealthy marquesas and vicereines, the sumptuous and secular luxuries that confirm wealth and status upon the sitters." Overlapping Artworlds: Here and Now -- There and Then, (1997), Phoenix, Arizona, Phoenix Art Museum, p. 37.

INFLUENCE: What can I learn about how earlier artworks influenced this artwork or about whether this artwork influenced later artworks?

Oil painting in colonial New Spain in general was very much influenced by European art. The painter of the Portrait of a Lady, if he was not Miguel Cabrera, seems likely to have been one of Cabrera's followers or influenced by one of those followers. Some scholars have referred to Cabrera as the most important painter in eighteenth century Mexico.

THEMES: What general ideas connect this artwork to other artworks?

The theme of portraiture unites The Portrait of a Lady with other Mexican or Chicana/o portraits such as Yolanda López' Self Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe, Gilberto Luján's Me and My Compadre, Rivera's portrait of Zapata in Revolt, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Portrait of Sor Juana de la Cruz , as well as to European portraits by artists such as Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, Judith Leyster, and Hans Holbein.

One might use the theme of symbolic depiction of flowers to relate the Portrait of a Lady with traditional Oaxacan huipils, to Dutch still life paintings, or the paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe.

How artworks define status is a theme that relates the Portrait of a Lady with painted portraits of Chinese Emperors, or European royalty, the carved wooden figures (ndops) depicting the kings of the Kuba people of African, or many other artworks from diverse cultures depicting the elite within that culture.

© 2001 Hispanic Research Center, Arizona State University. All Rights Reserved.