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The Grandeur of Viceregal Mexico: Treasures from the Museo Franz Mayer,

The astute judgment of Franz Mayer and his passion for collecting the arts of colonial Mexico led to the creation of a museum in his name in Mexico City. A stunning selection of objects spanning three centuries drawn from that museum's impressive permanent collection is the focus of The Grandeur of Viceregal Mexico: Treasures from the Museo Franz Mayer.

Mayer, a German immigrant, settled in Mexico City in 1905 and began seriously collecting about 1920. By that time, he was a noted banker and financier. When he died, he left his collections as a legacy to the people of Mexico. The museum named for him, housed in a beautifully restored 16th-century hospital, opened to the public in 1986. The Grandeur of Viceregal Mexico contains more than 150 objects, including painting and sculpture, inlaid and richly carved furniture, silver, gold, and iron pieces, and Talavera earthenware, all produced from 1521 to 1821. The MFAH and the Museo Franz Mayer organized the exhibition, which will travel to Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library in Winterthur, Delaware and to the San Diego Museum of Art.

"The arts of Mexico's colonial era are still not well-known, even in Mexico," said Peter C. Marzio, director of the MFAH. "This exhibition offers a rare glimpse at the material culture of that time. The museum is especially pleased to be the opening venue for this fascinating collection."

"Franz Mayer had an exceptional eye for finding everyday objects with artistic value," said David B. Warren, director of Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens at the MFAH and curator of the exhibition. "What's more, he clearly understood that a collection of such objects could tell something about the country's history at a particular point in time."

Mayer had that vision in common with his contemporaries in the United States, Miss Ima Hogg in Houston and Henry Francis du Pont in Winterthur, Delaware, who both collected American decorative arts. All three are linked by the extraordinary collections that reflect the colonial pasts of their respective countries and all three left their collections to be shared with the public.

The Franz Mayer Collection

Mayer's collection reveals a fascinating confluence of cultures from Europe, Asia, and Meso America that gives the art of Mexican style its unique qualities. Spanish taste, itself heavily influenced by the Near Eastern culture of the Moors, with all its baroque flamboyance, was introduced to Mexico at an early date. Similarly, the arts of China made their mark in Mexico as export luxuries came in the Manila Galleon to Acapulco and then were transshipped over land to Vera Cruz for the final sea voyage to Spain. The native Meso American culture also survived and was adapted in interesting ways. The tin-glazed wares known as Talavera are considered emblematic of the diverse influences on Mexican art.

The baroque period ended in 1783 with the founding of the Nobles Artes de San Carlos in Mexico City, an academic institution that embraced neoclassicism, the European art movement of the Enlightenment. Examples reflecting the new influence are included in the final section of the exhibition.

Religious objects are among the highlights in the exhibition. The show includes a missal stand, c. 1760, that is exceptional because it is entirely worked in cast silver without the wooden framework used by many artisans to cut costs on materials. No other colonial Mexican missal stand is known to surpass this one in craftsmanship. Another silver piece, an alms tray, c. 1700-1725, features a star-shaped plate and naturalist engravings. Alms trays were frequently modified or remade because they were in high demand from collectors. This tray is one of the few in existence in which both the plate and the ornamentation are original, not a fusion of elements. That makes it an outstanding piece for its authenticity as well as for its craftsmanship and beauty of design.

Women were rarely depicted in colonial Mexican portrait painting in the 16th and 17th centuries. That changed in the 18th century, when female portraiture became increasingly popular. The exhibition offers a fine example of such work in Portrait of a Lady, 1782, by Miguel de Herrera. The skilled rendering in oil on canvas shows a young lady with an elaborate coiffure bearing large colorful feathers.


Many outstanding examples of Talavera earthenware from various eras are included in the show, each revealing something about the country's history. A platter from the late-17th century made in Puebla, Mexico shows a lavish use of cobalt blue, which was extraordinary considering its value at the time. In its decoration, the piece shows Hispano-Muslim conventions combined with motifs and decorations of European, Chinese, and native Mexican origin. By the first quarter of the 19th century, Pueblo ceramists began to tire of the blue-and-white decoration that had predominated for more than 150 years. They began to use polychrome decoration as ground coloration and to render motifs. An inkwell and tureen, both early 19th-century, were made with a pale-blue background. Vibrant flowers in yellow, orange, green, blue, and manganese decorate the pieces.

Beautifully designed furniture and objects designed for everyday use also are part of the collection. A wardrobe of carved wood, 1750-1800, features an exquisite ornamental headpiece, which is more closely related to altarpiece construction than furniture design. The door panels bear round mirrors surrounded by well-crafted rocaille. Exquisite detail is also evident in a snuffbox, c. 1810, made by renowned silversmith José María Rodallega. The box, made from cast, chiseled two-tone gold, shows a French influence in its structural design and in the chromatic interplay of the two colors of gold. The lid of the rectangular box has hidden hinges and is decorated with borders of engraved leaves, vines, and hanging flowers.

About Franz Mayer

Franz Mayer (1882-1975) obtained an independent stockbroker's license one year after arriving in Mexico, and was a founding member of the Mexican Stock Exchange. His charisma helped him gain entry into the elite social circles of the day. Soon he established himself as one of the country's top investors and eventually accumulated a vast fortune. When he began collecting, his eye for valuable objects was enhanced by his tremendous purchasing power, the thrill of the deal, and a love of bargain hunting. He became known as "the crazy old German who would buy an owner a new flower pot in exchange for an old one." His collection was thinned and refined in later years when he became a partner with one of the most important antique galleries in Mexico City. As his interests and collection expanded, he hired agents to locate fine and decorative art objects, either Mexican or related to the country, from all over the world. In addition to his passion for collecting, Mayer was an avid traveler, photographer, and gardener.

Exhibition Web Site

The MFAH and faculty and graduate students in the Instruction Technology Program in the College of Education at the University of Houston, have developed a comprehensive exhibition Web site for The Grandeur of Viceregal Mexico. Visitors to the site, http://www.fm.coe.uh.edu, will be able to learn how works of art in the exhibition show influences of the indigenous Pre-Columbian cultures, of Spanish and Islamic art, and of the art from China and the Philippines. One feature compares furniture, portraits, ceramics, and silver from the Museo Franz Mayer with similar objects produced in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York to demonstrate how life in the Spanish and British colonies in the New World were alike and very different. Interactive games for children on the site will help them learn how goods were transported to Mexico from Spain and the Far East, and to design their own ceramic pieces, create a book of works in the exhibition, and create crazy combination portraits. Teachers will find easy-to-use lesson plans focusing on art and social studies for students of all ages.

The Web site also documents the 2001 cultural exchange between students in Houston and in Mexico City and the art they created and provides background information on the museum, Bayou Bend, and the Museo Franz Mayer. During the run of the exhibition, the museum, for the first time, will experiment with Web casting selected exhibition lectures.


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