By Contributing Writer Isabella Lores-Chavez
The objects in the painted cupboard by Antonio Pérez de Aguilar are under lock and key.
Vessels and foodstuffs from diverse origins coexist behind a pane of glass that encloses the cupboard. The key sitting in the lock doubles as the handle for the cupboard door, poised to be opened. Pérez de Aguilar persuasively describes the texture of each item, but above all, it is the painting itself that interrogates the boundary between reality and illusion. By the time Pérez de Aguilar created Alacena in Mexico City, around 1769, European paintings had been exported to the New World for generations. This piece, the earliest surviving colonial still life, is among the lively responses of New Spain artists to conventions of European art.
The cupboard displays objects encoded with both the Old and New World: material goods made and used in colonial Mexico, some of which were valued as luxuries in Europe. The painting itself, meanwhile, is a direct dialogue between Pérez de Aguilar—born and trained in Mexico—and a European painting tradition of trompe l’oeil, images intended to trick the viewer’s eye. Alacena has previously been read as an intellectual self-portrait, in which the painter’s tools, paired with books, present painting as a learned endeavor rather than a mechanical craft (Cuadriello, “Criollismo, ilustración, y academia,” 22). Their position on the top shelf, literally elevated above foodstuffs and kitchen wares, may indeed posit that the enrichment of the mind and spirit is more important than physical nourishment (Pierce, Painting a New World, 224; Sullivan, The Language of Objects, 98). However, Pérez de Aguilar chooses to use the virtuosic trompe l’oeil type of still life to represent colonial objects, which allows him to link his mastery of painting with the ingenuity of other craftsmen in the New World.
On the bottom shelf, a copper pot reflects the light more than any other object in the cupboard. The pot, and the whisking stick protruding from it, were European and colonial adaptations of vessels made for the delectation of chocolate by Maya and Aztec elites (Pierce, Cerámica y cultura, 246-47). Soon after the arrival of New World cacao beans, as early as 1585 (Pierce, Cerámica y cultura, 250), Europeans mixed familiar ingredients such as vanilla into the chocolate, to make it more palatable and to divorce it from its indigenous associations. Yet, in so doing, Europeans merely revisited the long tradition in the Americas of experimenting with flavoring chocolate (Coe, “Cacao: Gift of the New World,” 153). But Europeans’ interest in chocolate did inspire innovation in the form of new vessels for its consumption. The copper pot in Alacena was specifically developed in the seventeenth century for the preparation of chocolate (Pierce, Cerámica y cultura, 254). It was perfectly suited to heating chocolate, as well as to stirring and beating it—though this too emulated the Maya and Aztecs, who had raised foam on the surface of the beverage by pouring it from one bowl to another.
In colonial Mexico, an alternative was developed: a whisking stick known as a molinillo, used to beat chocolate in a copper pot.
Pérez de Aguilar presents these objects—created in Spain and its colonies—as a necessary pair. Alongside them he includes two examples of a pre-Columbian chocolate vessel type still in use, a small bowl known as a jícara, originally made of colored pottery or gourds. To cap off this ensemble, Pérez de Aguilar offers a coconut cup embellished with silver.
Made from fruits of Mexican Pacific coconut palms, it was known as a coco chocolatero, reserved for chocolate. Unlike the jícara, it was primarily associated with an aristocratic culture of drinking chocolate (Borrel Miranda et al., The Grandeur of Viceregal Mexico, 256).
This distinguishes the coco chocolatero from other coconut cups popularly collected in early modern Europe: in princely cabinets of curiosity, coconut shell cups were prized for their exotic provenance and similarly embellished with carvings and mounts, but were intended more for display than use (Kenseth, The Age of the Marvelous). The colonial version suggests a conception of the coconut and the chocolate as compatible substances native to the Americas.
These vessels—adaptations of a pre-Columbian tradition as well as inventive new objects—coexist comfortably with common wares produced in colonial Mexico. The glass bottles on the bottom shelf, used for storing wine or a quince liqueur called membrillo, were likely produced in one of the glass factories functioning in Puebla by 1542 (Pierce, Painting a New World, 224). Paired with two types of glasses, the bottles allude to the success of an entire colonial industry. A priest writing in 1746 described how glass made in Puebla was “if not able to compete with Venetian glass, at least equal to that of France, double, strong, clean, clear, and exquisitely manufactured” (Sánchez, Puebla sagrada y profana, 1746; translated in Pierce, Painting a New World, 224). These glass objects serve as a reminder that New World goods could be valued as much if not more than their European counterparts.
This material competition finds another interlocutor in the porcelain plate on the bottom shelf. Colonial Mexico enjoyed an abundant influx of Chinese porcelain as a result of the Manila galleon trade with its port in Acapulco (Kuwayama, Chinese Ceramics in Colonial Mexico, 13). The blue-and-white porcelain in Alacena looks like one of the many Wanli dishes that entered colonial homes throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The presence of Chinese porcelain in the New World quickly inspired ingenious local imitations, notably in Puebla, where, according to the aforementioned priest, pottery produced in great quantities demonstrated “the ambition of the Puebla potters […] to emulate and equal the beauty of the wares of China” (Sánchez, 263).
Pérez de Aguilar inserts himself into this context of ingenuity and competition by creating a trompe l’oeil painting that rivals the achievements of his European predecessors. The keys dangling from the lock along the edge of the wooden frame are thus instrumental in tricking the eye. Pérez de Aguilar uses conventions of European still life to emphasize the three-dimensionality of his painted space: the tip of the violin bow dangles over the edge of the shelf, the doll’s head protrudes from the basket, the handle of a spoon pokes out of a wooden box. Even more specific to trompe l’oeil paintings is the sheen of the glass cupboard door that establishes where the surface of the picture plane ought to be—only to be contradicted by the keys hanging from the lock. The “glass” door intensifies the impression that objects are only out of reach because they are behind a barrier. Pérez de Aguilar executes the trompe l’oeil with the precision of a master well acquainted with the painterly devices necessary to achieve such effects. Although little information about his life remains, undoubtedly Pérez de Aguilar’s training in Mexico City aimed to grant him access to high-class patrons familiar with European art, such as Juan de Palafox, whose 1749 portrait is Pérez de Aguilar’s only other known work (Pierce, Painting a New World, 222). Alacena strongly suggests Pérez de Aguilar’s close study of European trompe l’oeil, and it is worth wondering whether those particular types of easel paintings also arrived in New Spain among the dozens of Northern still lifes exported through Seville (Kinkead, “Juan de Luzón”). Although not as expensive or esteemed as paintings of religious or historical subjects, a still life allowed Pérez de Aguilar to engage the commercial appeal of that genre while signaling his knowledge of European models.
Alacena successfully compiles objects that characterize colonial Mexican life through connections to both its indigenous past and the global economy, and Pérez de Aguilar describes this complex Creole experience through the quotidian site of a cupboard. This differs markedly from seventeenth-century Spanish still lifes of chocolate vessels and other colonial items, which tend to show these commodities as exclusive possessions.
The chocolate pot, molinillo, and coco chocolatero in Antonio de Pereda’s 1652 painting are part of a collection of imported objects including Chinese porcelain cups, a Pueblan talavera jar, and a bowl called a tecomate, incised with motifs based on pre-Hispanic ceramic decoration (Sullivan, The Language of Objects, 22). Pereda’s still life conveys the luxury of collecting foreign objects and using them for a fashionable repast—privileges enjoyed by Spanish elites.
Juan de Zurbarán’s 1640 Still Life with Chocolate Service prominently features the molinillo as part of an elegant arrangement marked by Chinese porcelain cups and a tecomate. Spanish still lifes regularly isolate these objects to emphasize their status as treasures acquired by the wealthiest individuals profiting from trade with the Americas. In these paintings, a refined setting transforms objects that were relatively ordinary in New Spain into erudite possessions. In colonial Mexico, objects like a tecomate and especially substances like chocolate were tied to a local history that long predated their European commoditization. With Alacena, Pérez de Aguilar offers a much more modest context for the consumption of chocolate, in which the same vessels that become luxuries in Spain remain primarily traces of daily life in the mixed-heritage New World.
Although Pérez de Aguilar was surely familiar with Spanish still lifes, his painting has closer affinities with self-referential trompe l’oeil works produced in Northern Europe.
Important seventeenth-century examples of these types of still lifes feature wondrous collectors’ items. Others show the painter’s tools, used to create the convincing illusion, or even personal trinkets that turn the trompe l’oeil into a self-portrait of sorts (Brusati, Artifice and Illusion).
Pérez de Aguilar responds to this particular tradition by staging an encounter not with a European curiosity cabinet or painter’s shelf, but with a cupboard whose contents belong distinctly in New Spain, despite their connections to other parts of the world. He creates a self-reflexive painting of his own, which references both the painter’s tools and his location, grounding the trompe l’oeil temporally and geographically. Meanwhile, to assert his conceptual abilities—without which his technical precision might amount to mere artifice—Pérez de Aguilar fills the cupboard with objects that themselves have ingenious associations. Porcelain represents a wondrous craft, worthy of imitation by Puebla’s gifted potters. Clever artisans turn a coconut shell into a sophisticated goblet. Expert manipulation of silver results in decorative plates, while wood and metal strings transform into lutes and violins. The invention of the molinillo offered a practical modern way to sustain the pre-Columbian tradition of raising foam on the surface of liquid chocolate.
The painter subsequently emerges as the most cunning of all, his ingenuity capable of reproducing the creations of other inventive makers.
With Alacena, Antonio Pérez de Aguilar offers a meticulous description of objects constituting the fabric of everyday life in his native colonial Mexico. The still lifes on each shelf of Alacena amount to facets of an individual painter: a Creole savvy about the divergent perspectives of his countrymen in Mexico and Spain when it came to colonial objects, and keen on establishing the products of his labor as the most valuable of all. That he set out to make an impression as a true master is evident in his decision to paint a trompe l’oeil, boasting the painter’s ability to deceive the viewer’s eye. That he made that impression is clear given the afterlife of his painting: shortly after its completion, in 1785, it became a gift to the European-model Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City, presented at the opening by one of its founders (Gutiérrez Haces, Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries, 435). When it came time to establish a fine arts academy in colonial Mexico, it was only fitting to admit into its collection Alacena, Pérez de Aguilar’s manifesto proclaiming the prowess of the Creole painter.
Isabella Lores-Chavez is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Art History and Archaeology. Currently she is a Theodore Rousseau Fellow of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, working on a dissertation about 17th-century Dutch still life painting.