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Miguel Covarrubias 1904-1957

Photograph of a painting by Miguel Covarrubias.

Miguel Covarrubias 1904-1957

Princess and Attendant - a Scene from the Ardja

Gouache on paper 10 x 7 inches
Provenance: The artist to Walter Alan Gibbings;
Mrs. Maureen Roach (nee Costelloe), St. Vincent, British West Indies, 1969;
her niece, Mrs. Patricia McHugh
Literature: Miguel Covarrubias, 'Island of Bali', Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1937; illustrated p.250;
Adriana Williams, 'Covarrubias', University of Texas Press, 1994;

Williams & Yu-Chee Chong, 'Covarrubias in Bali', Editions Didier Millet Pte Ltd, Singapore, 2006, illustrated, a version;
Williams, 'Miguel Covarrubias in Bali', Arts of Asia Magazine, Vol.37, 2007, book plate illustrated p.134.
Exhibited: Exhibition of Watercolours, Pastels, Drawings and Monotypes, Art Institute of Chicago, 1935, a version.

Price on application. Mail dominick at mpfa dot ie

Music, dance, and drama play a major role in the life of the Balinese people. Highly skilled troupes of dancers and musicians perform in the temples on feast days and entertain guests at birthdays, weddings, funerals, and any other event that might warrant an excuse. The Ardja is one of a number of dance and drama traditions and is often referred to as the Balinese opera, perhaps because of the many dramatic arias central to each performance. The traditional plot revolves around romantic stories of the conquests of a flamboyant prince and his princess, intertwined with jocular remarks on current affairs, ad-libbed by the cast. The Ardja opens with the attendant singing the praises of the eternal princess, begging her to appear. Finally persuaded, the princess makes her entrance through the curtain at the side of the stage, which is the scene depicted in the current work. Covarrubias must have held this work in high regard as he chose it for one of the colour plates in his well-known book on Bali.

Photograph of a book illistration by Miguel Covarrubias.

The same plate adorns the cover of the Periplus Classic current edition of the book, making it one of the most recognisable Covarrubias paintings today. There are slight variations between the illustration and the current  work. For example, the book plate depicts the audience in more detail and shows enhanced decoration on the costume of the princess. However, feint gridlines suggest that the current work is the master copy from which the halftone colour engraving was produced for the 1937 edition. Working from field drawings and sketches, Covarrubias produced many of the paintings for his book on the long ocean journey back to New York. He returned to the subject of the Ardja on a number of occasions and painted a less detailed version in oil, the style of which suggests a slightly later date. 

The current painting has an unbroken provenance tracing back through Walter Alan Gibbings to Covarrubias. Gibbings was born in the 1880s in England. His scientific qualifications brought him around the world. As a chemical engineer he worked in Kobe, Japan; Bombay; Singapore and Bali. He also visited China, Canada and the USA. In 1920 he married Blanche Catherine Selby in St Andrew’s Cathedral in Singapore. In 1955 or thereabouts, his travels took him to St. Vincent in the British West Indies where he was popularly known as Alan Gibbings. By that time, he was a widower without children. On arrival, he rented a house in Villa from Ms. Ena Heuston. Enamoured with life on the island, he built ‘Nala’ on a nearby site purchased from the estate of John Langley Punnett. The house overlooked Young’s Island. St. Vincent reminded Gibbings of Bali, where he had lived in the 1930s. His time there coincided with the arrival of Miguel Covarrubias and the two became good friends.

A neighbour and close friend of Gibbings in St. Vincent  was Mrs Maureen Roach (nee Costelloe), the older sister of Patricia McHugh’s mother, Eithne Punnett (nee Costelloe), who had married Jack Vincent Punnett, a successful planter and owner of the Cane Grove Estate. Maureen and Eithne Costelloe were daughters of Matthew and Annie Costelloe, who had emigrated to Trinidad and Tobago from Ireland where Matthew had been a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary. He had been transferred to Trinidad to establish a detective branch for the local police. In the 1940s, Matthew and his wife retired to a house in St. Vincent and were joined there by Maureen and her husband, Ronald Roach, an Englishman who had worked for Barclay’s Bank in St. Vincent and British Guyana. Maureen helped Alan to set-up ‘Beachcomers’, a Coffee Shop on Grenville Street, Kingstown, opposite Barclays Bank. The venue became a popular meeting place. Alan Gibbings became ill just before the marriage of Patricia Punnett and Niall McHugh in 1969. Alan could not attend the wedding and died soon afterwards. He was cared for during his illness by Maureen Roach. All his possessions, including his two Covarrubias paintings, were left to Maureen who in turn left the paintings to her niece, Patricia McHugh, now living in Ireland. The painting came to us with a copy of Covarrubias's book containing the bookplate of Walter Alan Gibbings.

Photograph of a painting by Miguel Covarrubias.

Miguel Covarrubias 1904-1957

Balinese Girl on Sanur Beach

Gouache on white ground and western wove paper laid on conservation board 10 x 14 inches
Provenance: The artist to Walter Alan Gibbings;
Mrs. Maureen Roach (nee Costelloe), St. Vincent, British West Indies, 1969;
her niece, Mrs. Patricia McHugh.
Literature: Miguel Covarrubias, ‘Island of Bali’, Cassell & Company, 1937

Price on application. mail dominick at

Sanur beach is located on the eastern side of Bali. In Covarrubias’s day, it was considered to be an inhospitable part of the island, infested with mosquitoes and frequented only by fishermen. Nevertheless, Covarrubias chose the location to portray a native girl sitting in the shade of a mangrove tree, her hair adorned with exotic flowers such as those worn for feast days and festivals. In the background, an outrigger under full sail returns from deep water, perhaps after a night’s fishing for turtles.

At first glance, the map of Bali floating in the sky might suggest the influence of André Breton or Salvador Dali or even a desire on the part of Covarrubias to revisit his earlier career as a mapmaker for the Mexican Government, and is reminiscent of the extraordinary murals he painted for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco. However, the explanation might be far more practical as it appears that Covarrubias painted this work to illustrate a snapshot of life on Bali for the dust jacket of his book, ‘Island of Bali’. Nevertheless, by the time the book went to press in 1937, the design was radically simplified and included only the map and a vignette of the fishing boat, printed in a simple two-colour process. Apart from the considerable savings this modified version would have achieved, the original design did not lend itself to the placement of the book title and sub-titles. Even so, Covarrubias’s bold depiction of life on Bali in this work is remarkable and we are reminded of his close friendship with Diego Rivera whose avant-garde approach to painting set him apart from the rest.

Photograph of a book illustration by Miguel Covarrubias.

A second version of the painting was included in his book as a colour plate. Modelled on the current work, the adaptation maintains most of the essential features despite a change to the face and head-dress of the girl. As the illustration above shows, details such as her pose, sarong and ear piece are faithfully retained together with the surrounding flora of the coral beach. The map and mangrove tree are omitted; a fisherman casting his net from the shore is added to the middle ground and the outrigger is beached just behind the girl. This extraordinary craft is modelled on the mythical gadja-mina, an elephant-fish displaying magnificent tusks and large eyes which, according to legend, enabled the boat to see while fishing for turtles at night. All of this presents a stimulating insight into the working methods of Miguel Covarrubias.

His book tells a wonderful story, a small part of which is uniquely recorded in the current work. In the introduction, Covarrubias states that his aim was to “collect in one volume all that could be obtained from personal experience by an unscientific artist, of a living culture that it doomed to disappear under the merciless onslaught of modern commercialism and standardisation.”

Photograph of a book by Miguel Covarrubias.

The magic of modern technology allows us to show here how his book might have appeared if the original artwork had been employed. Essentially, we have switched the back with the front, thereby allowing a sufficiently blank background for the vital typography.

José Miguel Covarrubias Duclaud was born in Mexico City in November 1904. His mother, Elena Duclaud, was a Spanish aristocrat and his father, José Covarrubias Acosta, was a civil engineer who rose to the highest ranks in government. His formal education finished in national school at the age of fourteen after which he joined the Ministry of Communications. Perhaps with skills inherited from his father, he trained as a draughtsman working on street plans and maps. One of his projects was map design for the tourist trade.

Gifted with a natural flair for caricature, he spent much of his free time recording life in his native city. His drawings were published in university magazines and in the national press over the following years. He became well known in artistic quarters and befriended José Juan Tablada, a poet who encouraged him to go New York where he arranged important introductions. The writer and influential critic, Carl Van Vechten, introduced Covarrubias to ‘Vanity Fair’ who first published his work in 1924. ‘Vogue’ and ‘The New Yorker’ followed suit and within a short time Covarrubias became well established as an illustrator. He also found work as a set and costume designer. Through his theatre work, he met Rosa Rolanda whom he married in 1930. During their extended honeymoon in Bali, they became engrossed in the culture of the island and returned to Bali in 1933 on a Guggenheim fellowship to record and illustrate life on the island. 'Island of Bali' was published in 1937 and included exotic illustrations and drawings together with a collection of photographs by Rosa. The book is still in print today and is included on the school reading list in Indonesia.

Photograph of the artist Miguel Covarrubias.

Miguel Covarrubias at work on a mural; San Francisco, 1939

Miguel Covarrubias was invited by the 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition to create a set of murals illustrating a 'Pageant of the Pacific' as a centrepiece of telling the story of the social, cultural and scientific interests of the countries in the Pacific Area. Covarrubias painted six murals in San Francisco assisted by Antonio M. Ruiz. The set featured large-scale maps entitled 'The Fauna and Flora of the Pacific, Peoples, Art and Culture, Economy, Native Dwellings, and Native Means of Transportation'. These murals were immensely popular at the exhibition and were later exhibited at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Upon returning to San Francisco, five of the murals were installed at the World Trade Club in the Ferry Building where they hung until 2001. The location of the sixth mural, 'Art and Culture', is unknown. The surviving murals are now on display at the de Young museum in San Francisco. His biographer, Adriana Williams, describes Covarrubias’s career in great detail and illustrates his extraordinary career on his return to Mexico City. In what could be described as a second career, Covarrubias became engrossed in the analysis of the pre-Columbian art of Mesoamerica with an emphasis on the cultural life of the Olmec and Mississippian Native American Indians. Other important studies included an analysis of Mayan culture and how iconography could be used to place these cultures in correct sequence.

Miguel Covarrubias continued to paint on his return to Mexico. He lectured in ethnology at the Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia and was later appointed director of administration at the Palacio de Bellas Artes where he established an academy of dance assisted by Rosa. His studio became a meeting place for the arts and academic communities and an essential destination for many of his former American friends and colleagues. Rosa established a life-long friendship with Frida Kahlo, wife of Diego Rivera. His marriage to Rosa ended in 1952. Tragically, his life was cut short following minor surgery in February 1957.


Ardja framed
Gibbings bookplate
Bali book cover
Proprietor Milmo-Penny and Ardja
Covarrubias By Adriana Williams (

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