“Behind Closed Doors” concerns Spanish colonial art

As these examples suggest, obsessions with race, lineage and place of birth – some peculiar to the Spanish colonies, others more widespread – haunt “Behind Closed Doors”. Visitors are constantly confronted with family trees and other more or less hereditary claims to power. (Titles could be purchased, but the buyer had to first prove noble ancestry and “purity of blood” – a phrase which effectively meant that people of Jewish or Moorish descent did not need to apply .)

One can also see “casta” paintings which use a rigid racial classification system; one is called “From Spanish and Indian, mestizo” and shows a Spaniard and his native wife with their baby mestizo, or mestizo. Here too there are works that are not quite caste but which seem closely related, such as the group portrait “Free women of color with their children and servants in a landscape” by Agostino Brunias (an Italian working in the British colonies). The painting is not as progressive as it seems; he reinforces the colonial hierarchies of race and class by surrounding his fashionable young heroine – one of the “free women” in the title – with darker-skinned servants who may well be his slaves.

In some of the decorative works of art, at least, cultures mix and mix freely and without the need for taxonomies. A highlight is a large screen that once graced the Viceroyal Palace in Mexico City. One side shows battle scenes based on Dutch prints from the Great Turkish War; the other represents a hunting party on the model of those of the Gobelins tapestries. Both were rendered by Mexican artists in a traditional technique of inlaying seashells known as enconchado, on an object – the six-panel screen – long associated with Asia.

And at various locations in the exhibit, the museum’s curator of European art, Richard Aste, juxtaposes Spanish colonial art and furnishings with similar objects from the British colonies. In doing so, as he notes in the catalog, he continues a dialogue from a 1999 installation in the museum’s American Paintings galleries. (Viewers of “Behind Closed Doors” might also want to visit “”Interlaced globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500-1800 ”, which has a similar transcolonial thrill, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

It’s alive, especially when the portraits clash: Miguel Cabrera’s severe 1760 painting of a wealthy Creole, Doña María de la Luz Padilla y Gómez by Cervantes, for example, against John Singleton’s acerbic 1772 portrayal. Copley d’Abigail Pickman Gardiner, married to wealthy Boston landowner Sylvester Gardiner. Seeing them together allows you to compare and contrast the fashion and beauty trends unique to their respective colonies; Doña María’s face is studded with chiqueadores, or glued moles, while Ms. Gardiner wears a vaporous “Turkish suit” of a salmon-colored dress over green harem pants.

Edward K. Thompson