Miguel de Herrera, Portrait of a Lady

Miguel de Herrera, Portrait of a Lady, c. 1782, oil on canvas, 125 x 101 cm (Museo Franz Mayer, Mexico City)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re in the Franz Mayer Museum in Mexico City, and we’re looking at a late-18th century portrait of woman. We don’t know the identity of this woman, but we know she was wealthy.

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:14] As is very typical of female portraiture in 18th-century New Spain, she’s three-quarter length, her body positioned towards us. She’s looking out at us. What’s on display here is her elaborate clothing and jewelry.

Dr. Zucker: [0:25] She’s got this wild hairdo, which is reminiscent of the French court in the 18th century. Out of it are fabulous plumes. I see black and white and green and red.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:37] Ostrich feathers are a common decoration in Europe. Also, this is part of court fashions earlier in the 18th century. She’s in keeping with what had been in vogue in this French style because at this time the Spanish crown is Frenchified, it’s the Bourbon dynasty.

Dr. Zucker: [0:51] And so the adopting of the manners of the French court would have been tremendously important to the newly wealthy in Mexico City.

[0:58] But this is also clearly a portrait that is inspired by the Spanish tradition. If we look, for instance, at the monochrome warm background, these browns we see in her hair, it is reminiscent of the court portrait that we would expect to see in Spain in the 18th century.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:12] Earlier portraits from even the 16th and 17th century are used as models for portraits as they develop over time.

[1:18] Let’s talk more about what she’s wearing, because in her hair, besides these fantastic plumes, she has pins showing things like [a] crescent moon, an eagle, flowers that have been fixed into her hair, and they’re silver with different gemstones, maybe some type of diamond. Then, she’s wearing [a] fabulous choker, and chandelier earrings, and bracelets, and rings.

Dr. Zucker: [1:39] And all of that is a reminder of the wealth in Mexico, of the mining operations that brought out this silver and these gemstones. In a sense, what we’re seeing is the bounty. The person who commissioned this portrait, whoever that was, would have been interested in her as a subject displaying her wealth.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:54] You can clearly see that in the costume too. She’s wearing this elaborate white dress, with red and blue ribbons that have been woven into lace elements, and she’s got these wonderful sleeves.

Dr. Zucker: [2:06] The lace is just spectacular. We can feel the stiffness from the way in which it’s constructed, that lifts off her body and reveals her skin, but at some distance, so that there really is a depth that’s created here.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:17] She’s holding a fan in her right hand, a symbol of court. When closed, it was the sign of a chaste, usually married, woman.

[2:24] You can really see the artist’s hand at work here, his skill in depicting these sleeves, because you get the impression of how delicate it would have actually been here. You can see through to her skin underneath. We do get this wonderful impression of how gorgeous this dress would have been when on display.

Dr. Zucker: [2:41] It’s interesting also to note that she wears a pocket watch. And it’s a small watch, which would have meant that it was expensive. It is a sign of her modernity.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:49] The watch would have also been a sign of her wealth.

[2:51] In addition to lace, her dress is made of silk. We can see it has these delicate roses and other floral elements with blue bands.

Dr. Zucker: [2:59] But notice that we’ve spent all of our time talking about her hair, her ornament, her dress, and we haven’t spoken about her face. I think that’s telling. Her face is in the center of the canvas. It’s present. She’s looking directly out at us. But in a sense, the display of her wealth is what’s most important. Although this is also clearly a likeness, though her likeness is idealized.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:18] We also have the relationship to Asia with the lace sleeves, and perhaps even some of the silk. We’re really getting the sense of the global economy with New Spain at its center.

Dr. Zucker: [3:28] All of these subtle signals representing her social status, her chasteness, the scope of the Spanish Empire, all of this is represented in this marvelous, although anonymous, portrait.

[3:37] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Miguel de Herrera, Portrait of a Lady," in Smarthistory, January 2, 2023, accessed July 20, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/miguel-de-herrera-portrait-of-a-lady/.