Lot 40
  • 40

Attributed to José Campeche y Jordán (1751-1809)

80,000 - 120,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Attributed to José Campeche y Jordán
  • Retrato de niña
  • numbered 105 lower left
  • oil on canvas


Private Collection, Madrid

Catalogue Note

The discovery of this canvas adds an important testimony to the history of Latin American painting at the end of the 18th century. Although this work is not signed, it can be attributed with certainty to the notable Puerto Rican painter, José Campeche. In effect, upon examining all of the elements that compose it, including the innumerable descriptive details related with the decorative arts, its iconography, and the harmonies of color, all without exception point clearly to the expressive language used habitually by the artist in all of his works. This, without speaking of the high quality of the technical execution, the illumination of the figure, the objects or the clothing, or the manner of resolving the textures and distinctive qualities of all that is represented, points newly to the identity of the author.

Based on its exceptional execution and style, Girl with Toys is undoubtedly the product of a commission made by a prominent Puerto Rican family. It is an intellectual work, a result of the artist’s embrace of the neoclassical ideals of the Enlightenment. This is clearly demonstrated by the beautiful harmony of the colors, which were stylish at the time: the sea green of the curtains, the grey of the background with its subtle nuances, devoid of any adornment, and the sandy tone of the floor. The painter situates his diminutive model at the center of our focus, while also  slightly back from the foreground to emphasize her petite stature. The girl, who appears to be about one year old, is luminous with a bright complexion emphasized by her dark brown tousled hair. She is dressed in a simple “old-style” dress, of pale purple organdy, adorned by wide gauges of fine lace rolled at the cuffs and another wider band at the hem of the skirt, delicately rendered with brilliant highlights. One of her feet, covered by a simple shoe, peeks out from under her skirt. The lace band around her neckline serves as a base for her face, and the diagonal lines of the folds serve to dynamically activate the apparent tranquility of her expression. Confined by the serving tray of her chair, the artist captures her in a typically childish gesture at the moment she raises a morsel of bread in her left hand, intending to take it into her right to taste it. She looks out at the spectator seriously, but hiding a smile, anticipating her next bite. Her face is lightly angled towards the right, such that she gazes directly at the spectator; the artist has very carefully concealed the strabismus of her left eye, but as is typical of the artist, without completely hiding the truth.

The figure of the girl is not only luminous in itself, but the painter has highlighted it by use of the color of the fabric of the two square cushions of the seat, rendered with exceptionally sharp detail. These two cushions appear to be upholstered in velvet in the favored color of Campeche, Royal Blue, formed by Prussian blue and white lead pigments, used in nearly all of his works. The seat, despite its small dimensions, is imposing, like a small throne of dark wood with octagonal claw feet delicately decorated with the traditional motif of branches entwined with star-shaped leaves. All of this aside, it is a rustic chair, purely functional, with a seat of straw covered by the cushions. Without a doubt, the girl has just taken her seat, distractedly abandoning her toys in disarray in the lower left corner of the composition. They are scattered on the cool floor of ballast stone tiles, suitable for the climate of Puerto Rico, whose mortared joints define the perspective that begins in the foreground and softly fades away in the background. This darkened left corner, which the Puerto Rican artist always casts in shadow in his portraits to frame the composition, allows him to render the chiaroscuro of the four toys, cast partly in light and partly in shade. At the same time, these toys serve to symbolize the identity of their owner, an iconographic device Campeche used throughout his oeuvre. The tambourine and brass trumpet allude to the introduction of music to the girl’s education, also reflecting the painter’s interest in incorporating art into his family environment. The gracefully painted wooden acrobat with articulated armor reminds us of the candor and innocence of its young owner. The crude little tin frying pan with its long handle points to the household role that the girl will be taught to fill as she grows older.

The high social status of the young girl is clearly articulated in the luxurious environment of her small room, dominated by the enormous theatrical curtain on the left side of the canvas that is present without exception in all of Campeche’s portraits. It is a brilliant silk curtain, in a sea-green color that lends an air of theatricality to the portrait. It is gathered in the painter’s usual manner, by means of two thick strands of gold thread enlaced in a garland, while another hangs vertically to show a typical bell-shaped tassel made with the same material. The lower part of the curtain is finished off by a rich strip of gold thread, perhaps the most elaborate ever rendered by the artist. The luxuriousness of this curtain, which signifies the opulence of the house, also has an echo on the opposite side.  There,  Campeche has dedicated half of the composition to an elegant, stylish neoclassical wooden table, decorated with gold leaf and adorned with claw-feet in the baroque Estípite style, similar to the legs of the girl’s chair, decorated similarly with abundant floral garlands in the neoclassical style. The tabletop is of white marble, and upon this surface the artist places a precious vase in the form of a Pompeiian urn, in porcelain with gold leaf, with a square base also of marble. From the mouth of this urn leaps a delicate bouquet of highly realistic fresh flowers, representing the concept of the “return to nature” advocated by the Enlightenment. Here, in this bouquet painted with absolute fidelity to detail in each petal and leaf, is where the artist harmoniously balances each of the colors used in the composition on the whole. It is a widely varied bouquet, representing of flowers cultivated across Puerto Rico: red, yellow, and pink roses, blue asters, springs of wallflowers, flowers of the Guayacán tree, baby’s breath, springs of cypress, astroemerias, and more. Finally, the table, which could well have been a side table, serves to accentuate the diminutive proportions of the girl, binding her symbolically with the world of the adults of the house and symbolizing the invisible presence of her parents and of her social status.

With each of these interesting details that come from the observation of this work, one can anticipate that this new fascinating portrait by Campeche will bring us surprises as exciting as that of its discovery. One of the aspects that could be investigated in the future, for example, would be the identity of this girl, which could certainly be better understood, as well as other unclear aspects. The number 105 painted in the lower left corner could guide us to an ancient, forgotten catalogue of the collection from which it comes, where her identity may be inscribed.

Carlos F. Duarte
Director, Museo de Arte Colonial Quinta de Anauco, Caracas
August 2017