Portrait of a Young Woman

Portrait of a Young Woman
Unknown (Lima School), Portrait of a Young Woman , ca. late 18th century, Oil on canvas, 54 3/4'' x 39 1/4'', Museum purchase, Funded by Wellesley College Friends of Art, 2011.17

This extraordinary and rare portrait is a stunning addition to the permanent collections, with appeal far beyond its immediate context of Latin American colonial art. The work is not widely known now, but given its rarity, will certainly become an iconic example of Latin American colonial portraiture as it is included in future publications and exhibitions.

An engaging, if unnamed, woman stands full-length before the viewer; the rather summarily painted backdrop contrasts with her richly-embroidered costume, including a dress with a high hemline, a stylized apron, a dark shawl, silver and pearl jewelry, and fine silk shoes with buckles. The embroidery includes undulating floral garlands and attached ribbons and pleats that together create a dense Baroque field of imagery, although the pastel colors of the dress might indicate the impact of the Rococo. The high hem of the dress is surely an indication of the date of the picture, or perhaps the status of the subject. There is also something strikingly modern about the stiff almost geometrical forms.

The iconographic complexity of the image is closely tied to what she wears and holds. She delicately holds out a rose in one hand—symbolic of passing beauty, perhaps, and echoed in the rose at the center of her chest—and a closed ivory fan—symbolic of chastity—in the other. The crucifix at her neck reminds us of her faith, and of the Catholic culture that produced the work. She also wears a crest or silver tiara in her hair, and matching bracelets that seem to be of black ribbons with silver ornaments. All this silver reminds us of the source of wealth in this period: silver mining in the Viceroyalty of Peru. Her brown hair cascades down her neck and her features are finely painted. Behind her head a red curtain drapes across the upper left corner; to the right, a sketchily rendered balustrade and garden open out to a bright cloudy sky, to provide some sense of space, even if fictitious. The tiled floor appears in a similar portrait.

James Oles
Senior Lecturer in the Wellesley College Art Department and Adjunct Curator of Latin American Art at the Davis Museum

In celebration of the acquisition and first public exhibition of this marvelous portrait, a free afternoon symposium “A Lady from Lima: Culture, Collecting, Conservation,” will be held at the Davis on Friday, April 26th beginning at 2:30 pm. A team of experts will address many fascinating questions about the work: Who was the artist? Who was the patron? What can this work tell us about art and society in colonial Lima, one of the richest cities in the Spanish Empire?  A series of short papers will be presented, including: James Oles on her context in colonial Lima; Pamela A. Parmal, David and Roberta Logie Curator of Textile and Fashion Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, on her dress and jewelry; Julie Knight, Co-Director at Hirsch and Associates, New York, on her gilded frame; and Elizabeth Leto Fulton, Conservator, on her condition.

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Free and Open to the Public