The Peruvian Collection

The Museum of Spanish Colonial art unveils a major acquisition.

When the annual confluence of tens of thousands of Spanish Market enthusiasts arrives in Santa Fe the last week of July, a standout added attraction will be on view: the world premiere of Window on Lima: The Beltrán-Kropp Collection from Peru, the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art’s important new acquisition. It’s the largest group of South American Spanish Colonial works ever entrusted to MOSCA, the only museum anywhere whose main focus is the art of New Mexico as considered in the context of other Hispanic cultures within the Spanish Empire. MOSCA’s holdings have always been first rate—now, with the Beltrán-Kropp legacy, they’re unparalleled.

Well-heeled and internationally known from the 1940s through the ’70s for their political and journalistic exploits, Peruvian Ambassador Pedro Beltrán and his American wife, Miriam Kropp Beltrán, traveled in elite circles, frequently hosting lavish affairs at their palatial residence on a historic church square in downtown Lima. That grand scale of that lifestyle is showcased by the impressively elaborate silver and porcelain serving sets in this exhibition. There are five dozen other possessions, including some colonial-era religious works from Peru with extraordinary frames, and small items of furniture from the same period. The collection derives much of its interest and appeal from the Beltráns themselves, whose tastes reflected their rarefied milieu, as well as the interesting times in which they lived.

Inherent in this collection is the Beltráns’ love for Peru—its natural beauty and its arts—as well as their efforts to ameliorate some of its social problems. Both born to considerable privilege, the Beltráns strove tirelessly to improve life for Peruvians, directing their energies toward such causes as freedom of the press, fair elections, low-cost housing, upgrading sewage and water systems in the barriadas (slums, reclaiming public lands, and building roads to connect isolated areas to national centers. The debonair Pedro was a prominent Peruvian diplomat, statesman, and economist. Prior to his marriage, he cut a dashing figure in mid-1940s Washington, D.C., when he served as Peru’s ambassador to the U.S. He bought the Peruvian Embassy’s magnificent D.C. residence, where, according to one gossip columnist, his “Latin charm” facilitated “many a feminine conquest.”

Pedro Beltrán’s playboy days came to an end in 1950, when, at the age of 53, he married Miriam Kropp, a San Francisco oil-company heiress 17 years his junior. An economic analyst, Miriam was the first female Foreign Service officer to serve in Peru, where she and Pedro were introduced by an American diplomat. “The Beltráns make an effective and delightful working combination,” the same Washington columnist gushed, calling Miriam “brilliant and gregarious.” Like her husband, Miriam dressed impeccably, her clothes made by Paris designers. In 1956, she wrote a well-received travel book delving into the history, landforms, and culture of Cuzco, a Peruvian city. Pedro, an expert in agriculture who had great success as a large-scale cotton farmer beginning in the 1930s, also worked early in his career as a high-level economist, overseeing Peru’s central bank. As Peru’s finance minister in the late 1950s and early ’60s, Pedro, a free-market advocate, rescued his country’s failing economy.

Among his many accomplishments, Pedro Beltrán was an award-winning and innovative newspaper publisher who, in the 1930s, bought, resuscitated, and modernized La Prensa(The Press), which had been stifled by the Peruvian government. A self-described political nonconformist, Pedro was imprisoned for a month in 1956 for granting free speech in his paper, and was once challenged to a duel (he turned it down, citing its illegality) because of his steadfast belief in civil liberties. While Pedro was incarcerated, his equally intrepid wife filled in as La Prensa publisher. It was Miriam who had the foresight to send their belongings to the U.S. before the couple was forced out of Peru in 1974 by a hostile government. The Beltráns ended up having to relinquish both La Prensa and their mansion. Relocating to San Francisco’s Russian Hill neighborhood, where Miriam had a family home, the pair continued to encourage their Peruvian friends and associates to agitate for various forms of freedom. Pedro died in 1979, four years after the move. Miriam remained at their California domicile until her death, in 2010.

The Beltráns’ globe-trotting yielded quite a few high-end housewares from Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Both these and the Peruvian pieces beef up MOSCA’s internationally sourced examples of how each of the cultures comprising the Spanish Empire developed unique modifications of shared Spanish artistic prototypes. Regional techniques evolved, shaped by such factors as available materials, exchanges between indigenous and immigrant cultures, and the presence of imported goods. Colonial South America was especially imprinted by imports from China, the Philippines, and India, as galleons from Manila and Spain dropped off and picked up cargo at ports in Acapulco and Veracruz. From there, ships as well as mule caravans took foreign items to populations in South and North America, including landlocked—but hardly isolated—New Mexico, New Spain’s northernmost territory, of which Santa Fe was already the capital. Indeed, the Spanish Empire established the first network of global trade.

As MOSCA’s curator, Robin Farwell Gavin, explains, the domestic nature of the Beltráns’ possessions affords us “a slice of life from an upper-class, 20th-century Peruvian household.” But middle-class Peruvian families, too, owned religious art, and dining rooms throughout the country gleamed with silver dishes and utensils of all kinds, due to the abundance of the precious metal in Peru and a dearth of porcelain, usually imported from China and therefore a luxury. Suzanne Stratton-Pruitt, a scholar specializing in Spanish Colonial art, points out that the exhibit is “very timely, because we’re focusing more now on the way people enjoyed and used their things, and less on how devotional images functioned in conversion—they also simply decorated homes.”

Donna Pierce, who heads the Denver Art Museum’s Spanish Colonial wing and was MOSCA’s first curator back in 2002, agrees, adding that the acquisition is perfectly suited for MOSCA, which has, after all, “always concentrated on the art of everyday existence, not just on religious works, and its collections give us a vivid portrayal of how people really lived.”

Many of the Beltráns’ Peruvian pieces underscore how that culture’s native and mestizo variations on the Spanish Empire’s European art traditions developed in ways both similar to and different from the distinctive New Mexican styles. One of the exhibit’s showstoppers, which the Beltráns displayed in a red-walled living room, is an eglomise (reverse glass painting) Madonna and Child in an oversize frame 5 feet tall by 3.5 feet wide, also eglomise. Its exaggerated dimensions were common in 19th-century Peru, but not in Europe. Such frames, made in Cajamarca, in Peru’s northern highlands, became more and more distinctly regional as the early versions, based on Italian prototypes depicting pastoral scenes, gave way to expressions of the flora and fauna peculiar to that part of South America.

The Beltráns’ Madonna and Child is “a wonderful companion piece to the exuberant tinwork frames and mirrors made around the same time in New Mexico,” Pierce points out. “Many of those incorporated reverse glass painting as well.” Tin was, of course, the New Mexican substitute for silver. Also typically Peruvian are two massive and ornate gilded-wood frames, replete with mirror and plaster accents and probably from Cuzco, that dwarf the religiously themed paintings they surround. The extravagant application of gold to such pieces attests to Peru’s singular wealth of the resource, a mixed blessing that lay behind Spain’s conquest of the Inca Empire in the 16th century.

Items of silver abound, and, says Robin Farwell Gavin, the levels of Peruvian artistry in that medium rivaled any in the world during the colonial era. In particular, the town of Ayacucho (previously Huamanga) was famed for fine filigree work that often featured intricate, lacy patterns. The Beltrán-Kropp collection has several such filigree baskets, for keeping potpourri in closets or carrying flower petals in religious ceremonies. Household figures of saints often held miniature counterparts.

In addition to owning a sumptuous array of tea, coffee, and dessert sets and rare objects of religious art, all in silver, the Beltráns had a tabletop filigree incense stand, commonplace in upper-class homes, with stylized peacock feathers on the flat surface, bobbin lace along the edges, and stags at the handles (see photo on p. 23). Accent pieces—a silver jewelry box with Incan-inspired motifs, for instance—were often purchased from Camusso, an esteemed silver manufacturer founded in Peru by an Italian family in 1933. Like William Spratling’s contemporaneous silver studio in Taxco, Mexico, Camusso was known for modifying European prototypes with indigenous themes.

Another notable Beltrán-Kropp highlight is Miriam’s large, ivory-footed, octagonal marquetry box for jewelry. Made in 18th-century Peru from tortoiseshell inlaid with arabesque-style mother-of-pearl scrollwork, it provides a counterpoint to the New Mexican straw-on-wood appliqué used in making crosses, boxes, and furniture. South America and Asia had access to water-related materials like tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl; artists in New Mexico learned to adapt with straw, readily available and referred to, for its shimmering quality, as “poor man’s gold.”

“I think this collection reflects who the Beltráns were and what they were about,” Farwell Gavin says of the museum’s new gift. “Though they could afford the finest art from Europe, they chose things that were quintessentially Peruvian because they cared about their country so much.”

Among the Beltráns’ more personal effects are black-and-white photos of the elegantly attired couple at high-profile events: One shows Miriam dining with famed littérateur André Malraux, who, as France’s cultural-affairs minister, honored her in 1961 with that nation’s Order of Arts and Letters. And there’s a photo, probably from the ’50s, of Pedro on a yacht. Despite their marked affluence, and their ability to easily indulge such upscale passions as those Pedro had for sailing and French wine, the Beltráns are memorable to no small extent for their altruism. In fact, Pedro Beltrán was all but a Peruvian folk hero by the time he died, just short of his 82nd birthday. “You never promised us anything,” a hired driver once told Pedro after thanking him for improving the barriada he lived in. “You just went ahead and did it. We will never forget you for that.”

Susan Heard was an editor at the New York Times, Wired, and Outside. She lives in Santa Fe.

 

NEED TO KNOW

JUNE 22 Window on Lima: The Beltrán-Kropp Collection from Peru. Public Opening 1–5 p.m. Presentation by the curator at 2 p.m.; ongoing docent tours.

SEPTEMBER 14–JUNE 21, 2014 Lecture Series. Monthly talks on Peru’s art, life, and culture.

MUSEUM OF SPANISH COLONIAL ART $5, 16 and under free. Free to NM residents on Sundays. 750 Camino Lejo (Museum Hill), Santa Fe. (505) 982-2226; spanishcolonial.org.