About an Unknown Artist's
Portrait of a Lady
INFORMATION ABOUT THE ARTWORK
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
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
SUBJECT MATTER: What can I determine about what the artwork depicts,
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
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.
INFORMATION ABOUT THE ARTMAKER
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
ARTWORLD CONTEXT: What can I learn about the art ideas, beliefs, and
activities that were important in the culture in which the artwork was
"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,
VIEWPOINTS FOR INTERPRETATION
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
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.
CONNECTIONS AMONG ARTWORKS
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
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
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