When used correctly in reference to antique furniture, paintings or objets d’art, the term “Spanish colonial” refers specifically to those items crafted in the colonies established by the Spaniards in Mexico, Central America, South America, parts of the Caribbean, the Philippines and what today is the Southwest of the United States, following the arrival of the “conquistadores” to the New World in the early 16th century.
For obvious reasons of logistics and supply, Spanish colonial furniture was almost exclusively crafted in woods indigenous to Latin America: sabino, mesquite, mahogany, cedar, alder and ponderosa pine were the woods most readily available to artisans in the colonies.
In general it is fair to say that antique furniture from the north of Spain was usually crafted in dark hardwoods such as walnut, oak, chestnut, elm, cherry and beech, while pieces from the center and south of the country tended to be made in softer woods such as pine or poplar. Fine Spanish Renaissance furniture was most often produced in walnut, the most prized of hardwoods available to artisans at the time.
Spanish colonial furniture is the direct result of the marriage of arts and crafts styles from Old World Europe and the more primitive traditions of the native Indian cultures that flourished in the New World at the time of the Spaniards’ arrival. For that reason many colonial pieces were characterized by chunky, Baroque-style carving and lines. Additionally, when one considers that one of the Spaniards’ chief objectives in the New World was the conversion of souls to the Catholic Church, it is not surprising to note that much of the furniture produced in the colonies was ecclesiastic in style and feel.
It is curious to observe how some areas of the American Southwest and Latin America still cling to the belief that certain characteristics of furniture design and decoration originated here. For example, country furniture from northern New Mexico often features thumbnail carving (sometimes referred to as “bullet” or “chip” carving) and is generally thought to be indigenous to the northern part of the state. In fact, this type of carving is extremely typical of the Rioja wine region in north-central Spain, and is often seen on “Riojano” blanket chests, credenzas and tables crafted between the 16th and 19th centuries. It is also very common to find bright, multi-colored naif motifs on painted beds and cabinetry pieces from the same regions that are reminiscent of many primitive painted pieces produced in northern New Mexico between the 17th and 19th centuries.
The most notable characteristic of antique furniture and doors from northern Spain is the widespread use of mixed woods (pine and walnut, poplar and oak, elm and walnut, pine and oak or chestnut, etc.), and by the juxtaposition of those different woods to create patterns or design motifs. This is highly typical of furniture crafted in La Rioja and areas of Old Castile between the 16th and 19th centuries.
Because there are so few direct importers in the U.S. of true period antiques from Old World Spain, the style of furniture that most Americans associate with “Spanish”, is what is commonly known today as the “Second Renaissance” (“Segundo Renacimiento”): at the end of the 19th century, when the Spanish empire was in the process of losing its last remaining colonies in the Philippines and Cuba, many thousands of craftsmen were obliged to return home to Spain. Their arrival immediately sparked a major resurgence of dark, heavily carved classic Renaissance-style furnishings that were almost exclusively produced in hardwoods such as chestnut, oak or walnut.
Despite most American consumers’ belief that all antique Spanish furniture is dark and heavily carved, it is important to note that in reality early Spanish pieces were usually less ornate and more austere than those produced during the same time in France, Portugal or Italy.