11038 A CHARMING PROFUSELY DECORATED LACQUERED CHEST WITH CITYSCAPE, EXOTIC ANIMALS, FLORA AND THE MEXICAN FLAG Olinalá. 19th century.   Measurements: Height: 15″ (38 cm) Width: 33″ (83.9 cm) Depth: 16 1/4″ (41.3 cm)


Of lináloe wood and chia oil lacquer. Of rectangular form with domed lid, decorated on four sides with painted lacquer depicting flowers, animals, and borders of cowrie shells. The front depicting a cityscape with cathedral in the center and mountains in the background, the sides depicting two indigenous beasts in a landscape, and the top depicting a hunter with dog aiming at a wild cat, centered by the Mexican emblem of an eagle with snake in its beak standing on a cactus, flanked by two flags. The interior of the lid also painted with an eagle and serpent above a branch of flowers. Minor restorations and losses commensurate with age and use.

The Mexican town of Olinalá, in the eastern part of the state of Guerrero in the Sierra Madre del Sur, emerged as a major center of lacquer production in the 18th century. “According to Joaquín Alejo de Meave, the village priest in 1791, the lacquerers of Olinalá excelled in the ‘painting’ of gourd cups and larger gourd vessels, but also manufactured lacquered chests, writing boxes, trays, sewing boxes, candle screens and bookstands.”1

A coffer of this size and decoration would have been intended as a dowry chest. Chests were most often made of lináloe wood, grown in the tropical areas of Guerrero, and were used to store linens and valuables.  They were richly painted and brightly colored, and some, like the present example, were decorated with detailed city scenes. “Soldiers, flags, animals and other scenes of nineteenth-century life are depicted in a fanciful, yet straightforward fashion. Nationalistic emblems, most frequently the Mexican eagle atop a cactus and flags, are often part of the design motifs of trunks from Olinalá.”2 The emblem of an eagle holding a snake while perched atop a cactus derives from the Aztec legend of the founding of their empire, while the green, white and red flag was adopted by Mexico after it won independence from Spain in 1821. The idealized city scenes painted on the chests, “combining cathedrals and colonial buildings against a backdrop of mountains,”3 were copied from books and depict nearby cities such as Puebla, Taxco and Cholula, with their “magnificent central squares, imposing stone buildings and impressive churches.”4

The base material used in this type of lacquer is chia oil, extracted from the chia seed, mixed with crushed minerals and organic colorants. “After the first coat of oil and powdered dolomite is applied and burnished with the heel of the hand, layers of the oil and locally mined pigments are applied and polished, building up a very resistant base. This lacquered base can then be decorated with paints that nineteenth-century artisans made with natural pigments.”5 This recipe for lacquer was relied upon solely in Olinalá. The two techniques used in decoration were rayado (scored) and dorado (painted). In rayado decoration, two layers of contrasting colors were applied and, while the top layer was still soft, a design was scored into it, revealing a design in the color underneath. In the dorado technique, which is used on the present chest, a gold or silver leaf layer was adhered to a base coat of lacquer, upon which designs were painted with a fine brush in lacquer.

A chest closely related to the present piece can be found in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum (Accession No. L41.106) (figure 1). Like the present chest, it depicts a cityscape with cathedral, pairs of identical beasts on the sides, and the the Mexican emblem of an eagle holding a serpent both on the exterior and interior of the lid, all painted in a similarly subdued color palette. The Brooklyn Museum example bears the painted inscription “Independencia” above the eagle on the lid, and is dated 1878 above the eagle on the underside of the lid.

1. Rishel, Joseph J, and Suzanne L. Stratton. The Arts in Latin America, 1492-1820. Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2006. 112.
2. Oettinger, Marion. Folk Treasures of Mexico: The Nelson A. Rockefeller Collection in the San Antonio Museum of Art and the Mexican Museum, San Francisco. New York: Abrams, 1990. 52.
3. Ibid., 56.
4. Ibid., 61.
5. Ibid., 55.


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