5) What did you first notice about this portrait?

This is a portrait of three men. The portrait itself is made of oil paint on canvas. It’s a relatively large canvas, almost life-size. These men stand before us. There are three of them here, each with their names written in Spanish above their heads, as well as their ages. At the center, we see don Francisco de Arobe. He’s 56 years old. To our right, we see don Domingo, who is, we believe, 18 years of age, and on the other side, we see don Pedro, who is 22 years old. We believe that these two men are the sons of don Francisco de Arobe. All three men come from the northwest coast of Ecuador, a place called Esmeraldas, and today this painting is called the Mulatto Gentlemen of Esmeraldas. What this painting was called in the 16th century, we’re not exactly sure.

The painting was made in 1599 by a relatively well-known indigenous painter who was working in Quito at the time, a man named Andrés Sánchez Gallque. The small plaque on the painting in the gold frame with the writing over on the far right explains that the painting was commissioned by an official working in Quito as a gift to Philip the Third, the King of Spain. So we know that this painting was made as a kind of gift, perhaps a coronation gift, for the King of Spain. It is a portrait of three men who are, we know from historical documents at the time, of mixed ancestry. They are part indigenous or Indian and part African American: the sons of people who were once slaves brought to the Americas to work, perhaps in Quito, perhaps elsewhere, and native people. They appear before us here dressed in some of the finest clothing that we can imagine for native people at the time.

We see the three men standing. Each one holds an iron-tipped spear, a spear probably made of hardwood from the jungles. They also appear before us wearing some European-style clothing as well as some indigenous-style clothing. We see them with fancy ruff collars of lace, imports clearly from Europe, as well as cloaks of fine silk and damask. They have lace at their wrists from their shirts, and two men hold European-style hats—don Francisco at the center and don Domingo over at the side. Underneath their cloaks and above their ruffled collars, we see the men wearing indigenous-style ponchos that have been cut in a style that would have been traditional in the Americas prior to the Spanish Conquest. The material of these robes, however, these ponchos, was all imported, probably into Quito from Asia. So there’s a connection here between trade with Asia as well as Europe and the Americas.

The shell jewelry, the necklaces, that the men wear identify them as people of the coast, people of the coast of Northern Ecuador, as does their gold jewelry—the nose rings, the earrings, the lip plugs—that they wear. These are all typical kinds of jewelry known in Ecuador from pre-Hispanic times through the Colonial period. So that the outfits they wear are probably not outfits that they would have worn in the coast of Ecuador. Nor probably outfits that they would have worn even when they came to Quito to visit, the occasion upon which to have their portrait painted. But rather, these are most certainly—or most likely—clothes that they would have donned specifically for the painting of this portrait.

Beyond this, the dark color of their skin makes it more than clear that these are hardly-European people—that they would have to be residents of the New World. The background of the painting is a little bit ambiguous and maybe even in some ways mysterious. There seems to be a cloudy sky that drops behind these men, but that because there’s not much that happens in that background—we don’t see mountains, we don’t see coasts, we don’t see trees, we don’t see landscape—it’s very difficult to say where, in pictorial terms, these men actually stand. Certainly they were painted in a studio of sorts, but where they are meant to be in geography in this painting is unclear.