Francisco Bayeu y Subías (Zaragoza, Spain, 1734–1795, Madrid, Spain)
Oil on canvas
45 5/8 x 34 5/8 in. (116 x 88 cm)
Meadows Museum, SMU, Dallas. Museum purchase with funds generously provided by Barbara and Mike McKenzie in honor of the SMU-in-Spain program, MM.2015.06
Listen to Dr. Amanda Dotseth, curator at the Meadows Museum, discuss this work (2:33 minutes)
Francisco Bayeu y Subías (Spainish, 1734–1795)
María Teresa del Castillo, c. 1767–70
by Amanda Dotseth, curator at the Meadows Museum
This portrait of an aristocratic young girl, named María Teresa del Castillo, was painted around the same time as the American Revolution. The image has been carefully calculated to convey the sitter’s wealth and station within social hierarchy. Despite her young age, she wears an elaborate dress of blue silk and lace in the latest French fashion popular at the time in Madrid. Her poise and direct gaze are likewise also befitting of her status as the daughter of a marquis and important administrator in the court of King Charles III. Although only around six or seven years old, her prepubescent body has already been trained into a corset. But we are also reminded of her youth by such details as the lace cap adorned with fashionably striped ribbons, the pug she gently clutches to her side, and the doughnut-like pastry in her left hand. This traditional sweet fried dough is still popular in Spain to this day and is called a rosquilla de Santa Clara. It would have typically been flavored with aniseed and topped with a sugar glaze. A seemingly simple attribute, the rosquilla reflects more than a childhood sweet-tooth. Rather, access to such delicacies is the result of the dark reality of Europe’s global economy…thanks to its key ingredient: sugar.
The cane sugar that sweetened María Teresa’s rosquilla was produced a world away from the chic parlors of cosmopolitan Madrid. Most likely, it came from the island of Saint-Dominigue in Haiti. This Caribbean island was among those Christopher Columbus claimed for the Spanish Crown on his first voyage to the Americas in 1492. But it was on the explorer’s second voyage that he introduced the tall perennial grass native to Southeast Asia that would come to thrive in America’s tropical climates. By the middle of the eighteenth century, Saint-Domingue and its prolific sugarcane plantations had long been under French control. The island was a key participant in the Atlantic trade route moving slaves from west Africa to the Americas and the products of their enforced labor to Europe. Thanks to Saint-Domingue’s slaves, Europeans were using sugar to sweeten everything from tea to chocolate and, of course, a wide variety of pastries. Meanwhile, slaves working sugar plantations lived lives that were notoriously “nasty, brutish, and short.” The colony’s profits—that is, the whole economy of sugar—depended on the continual capture and sale of newly enslaved Africans. Remarkably, however, around two decades after María Teresa sat for her portrait, sugary treat in hand, the people of Saint-Domingue rose up against French colonial rule and its plantation owners. Led by people of color, including former slaves and their descendants, Haiti’s revolution resulted not only in the country’s independence but in the abolition of slavery there—some sixty years before the American Civil War.