Finding Home at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Hello! My name is Alex Tonsing. I just graduated and I was a history major. This summer I’m working at the Philadelphia Museum of Art as a curatorial intern with European Painting. While I work in European Painting, I am actually working on the museum’s colonial Mexican painting collections. I couldn’t be happier about the arrangement considering I wrote my thesis about casta paintings and race in eighteenth-century New Spain.


Portrait of Reverend Mother María Antonia de Rivera

Thus far I’ve been working on two main tasks: writing online exhibit labels and researching Robert H. Lamborn, who donated 80 Mexican paintings to the museum in 1888. Writing labels has been a lot of fun. I was surprised how much research was involved in writing 150 word blurbs about art. One of the paintings I worked on today was Portrait of Reverend Mother Maria Antonia de Rivera. This painting is an example of a monja coronada, “crowned nun,” painting. These paintings are exactly what they sound like: they depict nuns wearing large, lavish crowns of flowers. In New Spain, wealthy families would commission these paintings of their daughters when they took their final vows and entered the convent. As such, these images represented the mystical marriage (notice María Antonia’s wedding ring) to Jesus. What I just learned,however, was that this sort of painting was only popular in New Spain. Other regions of Latin America such as modern-day Peru and Colombia also produced many monja coronadas, but with one key difference: the crowned nuns are dead. While this may seem morbid, it was not meant to be. Rather than praise young nuns on their sort of “wedding day,” these other portraits celebrated corporeal death as the moment these brides were finally united with Christ.

Robert Lamborn

Robert Lamborn and Dalton Dorr in Lamborn’s gallery at the Pennsylvania Museum at Memorial Hall

I have also enjoyed researching Robert Lamborn (1835-1895) because he has given me the opportunity to do archival research both at the PMA and the Academy of Natural Sciences ( Lamborn was a native of Philadelphia and a well-respected railroad engineer. Between 1881-1883 he spent seven months in Mexico building the Mexican National Railroad between El Paso and Mexico City, where he purchased the 80 paintings he donated the museum. One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed researching Lamborn so much is that my hometown shows up everywhere I turn. Pueblo, Colorado sure is a sneaky and tenacious place. I was first startled by a reference to my lovely home when I read one of Lamborn’s own articles, “Life in a Mexican Street.” He was celebrating Mexico City’s incredible urban planning and favorably compared it to modern Denver, Pueblo, and Minneapolis. Wait a second. Come again? Did he say Pueblo’s urban planning was something to brag about? I’d never noticed. Here I go learning to appreciate the little things about where I come from after I’ve moved away.


Welcome home!

Then, when I went to the Academy of Natural Sciences to see what they had, I was shocked by what I found. Not only did they have more than ten boxes dedicated solely to Robert Lamborn—not really surprising considering his Will was one paragraph long and granted the Academy of Natural Sciences everything he had—but two whole stuffed boxes were all about Pueblo! It seems this man really liked my hometown. Doing my research I learned that Lamborn served under Captain Palmer during the Civil War and the two of them later worked together to settle Colorado. Unfortunately most of his Pueblo papers were fairly banal: please pay your rent, Lamborn; the economy is down, please pay your rent; ect. Who knew I’d get to learn all about home at the Philadelphia Museum of Art? What a sweet surprise.

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