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Video transcript

(gentle jazz piano music) - [Host] We're here in Chicago at the Thoma Foundation, and we're looking at a charming portrait of a young girl from 18th century Caracas in Venezuela. - [Female Voice] Everything about this portrait might suggest that the person in it is a sophisticated older woman, but in fact, it shows a child of only nine years. - [Host] It's the only child portrait that we know of from Venezuela at this time. Portraits of children were less common across the Spanish viceroyalties. This small, circular portrait is on an intimate scale, but it's surrounded by this gorgeous elaborate golden frame that's original to the painting. - [Female Voice] The portrait was created by Diego Antonio de Landaeta, who was a member of a large afro-descendant family in Caracas, who were active as artists, instrument makers, and musicians. We know this work is by Landaeta because he signed the painting. It's the only work that we can link directly to him. Let's talk about the portrait of Petronila more closely, because as you mentioned earlier, she is shown similarly to what we would expect of women who were in their late teens or twenties. We can see that she has her hair pulled up off her face. It's fastened with this delicately painted clasp that has pearls on it. She is wearing this beautiful dress. Her bodice is in bright pink. She has fabulously large lace sleeves. And then she has a large skirt that has delicate floral details painted on it, with pink flowers and golden embroidery. She also has lace on the top of her bodice, and she's wearing all of this different jewelry. - [Host] Circling her wrists are strands of pearls, and she has a pearl choker with a floral pendant, and all of these pearls would have been fished in the coastal waters off of Venezuela by indigenous and enslaved African labor. - [Female Voice] The way that she is fashioned, as a sitter in a portrait is someone who was of a certain wealth, perhaps of a certain elite status. Whether she actually was an elite is not entirely clear, but the way that Landaeta has shown her, is someone who was of indeed wealth. This is fashion that would've been expensive, the extra lace of her sleeves would've been imported and of great cost. The many different strands of pearls that are around her wrists or her neck, or even the earrings that she wears, and the clasp in her hair are signs of a certain wealth. And I'm also struck by how delicately the artist has painted each of the individual pearls, or even the four rings on her fingers, which you have to get really close to the painting itself to make them out. The artist has taken such great care to make sure that we are aware that she's wearing four rings. - [Host] Balanced in her left hand is a fan that is also an attribute of an older, more sophisticated woman. On her cheek is what's known as a chiqueador, or a false beauty mark, that was worn very commonly by Mexican women in 18th century portraiture. - [Female Voice] The fan and flowers that she holds are often attributes of marriage portraits, not only in the Spanish viceroyalties, but in parts of Europe at this time as well. It makes me wonder why a young girl of nine is wearing attributes of an older woman, as well as holding a fan and flowers that can, together, signify a marriage portrait. - [Host] Perhaps peculiarly, she's not set into a domestic space, or any real space. She's set in a cloudy background. - [Female Voice] And it's something that I tend to attribute to more religious paintings, versus portraits. And if we look closely at those clouds, it's yet another reminder of the expertise of the artist who's painting on this small scale with such delicacy. We really get a sense of the softness of these clouds that surround her. Because of the diminutive scale of this painting, the frame that surrounds it, which again, is original, almost seems to overtake the painting, because it's so elaborate, and it's so dynamic, it's bigger than the painting itself. - [Host] It has wonderful rocaille details that we see in other period frames. It has these stylized, almost banana leaves, and these palm leaves, these foliate designs. - [Female Voice] Then you see at the top and at the bottom, we have floral elements that further animate the surface in a different way than the three dimensional buildup of the frame. - [Host] And at the top, it leans out and looms over the painting. - [Female Voice] Now, one of the things that I find most fascinating about this painting is the inscription that we have on the back of the painting. - [Host] And it says, "To Petronila Mendez, Diego Antonio de Landaeta fecit (or made) on the 17th of July, 1763. The sitter had the age of exactly nine years, eight months, 23 days, and 11 hours old." - [Female Voice] Which is so wonderful, because how many portraits do we have that mark the sitter's age to the hour? I can't can't think of any. - [Host] And it allows us to identify both the sitter and the artist. It's an important clue to us because it tells us that this painting was not intended to commemorate her death. - [Female Voice] Portraits, while they do fashion the sitter in a certain way, they're not necessarily an exact likeness, but in some ways it does allow us to glimpse into how someone wanted them to be shown in their lifetime. (gentle jazz piano music)