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History of Puerto Rican Painting

The First Two Puerto Rican Painters

In Puerto Rico the development of painting was scarce or almost non existent in the first 300 years after Christopher Columbus Discovery. Due to underpopulation and neglect from Spain. Only two Puerto Rican painters can be pointed. José Campeche in the eighteenth century and Francisco Oller in the nineteenth century.José CampecheDon Antonio de Ustáriz

José Campeche was born in San Juan in 1751 when Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony. At that time the African slaves were imported to work in farms. A freed slave was Campeche's mother and his father was from the Canary Islands. He studied in the Dominican's Convent humanities, philosophy and music. His father who was a painter and artisan introduced him to painting. In 1776 a Spanish Court painter called Luis Paret y Alcaza arrived to P.R. From this educated man he learned the painting style of the XVIII century and the Rococo. Campeche's work is divided in portraits and religious paintings. He lived his entire life in San Juan and died in 1809.
José y el Niño

Campeche completed around 400 paintings. Most of them were commissioned by churches while other are portraits of prominent and rich people. A minority of his paintings have historic importance. His portraits fitted perfectly in the Rococo style. This style comes from the Barroque and it is related to high class people and intended to be elegant, refined and highly decorated. In the painting Don Miguel Antonio de Ustáriz various compositional elements of the Rococo are present. The scene is divided in tree planes: in the background there is a mirror with the reflection of a city landscape where African slaves are paving the streets; the middle plane filled with the nobleman holding plans and very ornate furniture; and closer to us, the rope is framing the two upper corners of the canvas. This composition guides the viewers eye from the foreground to the figure and then, into the cityscape. The painting is very specific in telling us about the historical importance of the sitter, he was responsible for the pavement with bricks of Old San Juan. Opposed to his portraits his religious work are more candid and more into the Barroque style, which is less fancy and has a more profound content. San José y el Niño (Saint Joseph and the Child)is about Jesus and his relationship with God and Joseph. The child looks up to the sky (his celestial father) while holding Joseph's hand (his terrestrial father). In the composition the figure of the child, apart from being fully illuminated, it is emphasized by two strong diagonals. The first one starts with rays coming from above and continued by the angel looking down and holding the cross. These elements also symbolize the presence of God in the scene. The second diagonal is formed by Joseph's gaze and arm. This diagonal is also echoed by the staff that Joseph holds. The painting's mystical content inspire silence and meditation as many other Barroque paintings do.
Francisco Oller

Twenty-four years after Campeche's death (1833), Francisco Oller y Cestero was born in Bayamón. His formal Art education was in his first trip to Europe during the years 1852-53. He studied in the Real Academia de Bellas Artes (Real Academy of Fine Arts) in Madrid having as a teacher Federico Medrazo. In a trip to France he was deeply influenced by the art of Gustave Courbet, "the father of modern Realism". From Courbet's perspective the function of art is to define the world as it is, without idealizing anything. A way of thinking that influenced Oller during all his life. In subsequent trips to Paris(1874-78 and 1895-96), he meets avant-garde artist as Paul Cézzane, Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, Antoine Guillemet and Antoine Guillaumin.
EL Velorio/ The Wake

Even though Oller joined revolutionary artists in a Salon Exhibition in 1865, back on the Island he worked in the realism style. Because by painting in that manner, it would be easier for the people to understand and accept his art. He thought that Art had a "didactic mission" and with his paintings he was showing the Puerto Rican situation (reality) of that time. In his painting El Velorio (1893) the wake of a peasant child is shown. On that time it was a tradition, among the peasants, to celebrate the death of a child.. The people in the scene are fooling around while the parents suffer their lost. Oller considered this tradition absurd and the painting is a protest, but it is an honest representation and nothing is idealized. This painting was shown in the Paris Salon in 1895. He also painted landscapes and still-life in an Impressionistic way.

Francisco Oller was an educated man, an abolitionist, who wanted to make a change in a non revolutionary way. He tried to promote art education in the Island but the time wasn't the best. During his life occurred the political transition of the Island from Spanish colony to U.S. territory. First, the Abolition of Slaves took place (1873) second The Spanish American War ended with the Paris Treaty, placing Puerto Rico in U.S. hands. Years before the U.S. invasion, Puerto Rico was suffering the lost of corporations owned by Spanish that were employing Puerto Ricans. So, there was a lot of unemployment, poverty and poor living conditions. The situation in the Island was too difficult for artistic production.

Oller's Followers

El Pan Nuestro de Cada Día/ Our Daily Bread

By the end of the 19th century Spanish Corporations left the Island and a time unemployment, poverty and poor living conditions started. Later, the American Invasion did not help social-economic crisis that Puerto Ricans were confronting. Therefore, these conditions did not support artistic production and Puerto Ricans where completely unaware of how Art was changing abroad. Francisco Oller was the strongest artistic influence for two artist who developed at the first decades of the 20th century: Miguel Pou and Ramón Frade. These artists, due to the reasons explained above, studied abroad. Ramón Frade, (1875-1954) a painter and architect from Cayey started his early education in Dominican Republic. He studied architecture at American School of Correspondence and in 1947 he had the opportunity to visit Italy. He also lived in Haiti for some time. Miguel Pou (1880-1968) was a painter and professor. His first teachers were Pedro Clausells and Santiago Meana. He later studied at Art Students League, NY, and Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. In 1910, he founded his own art academy in his hometown, Ponce. As Oller's followers, Frade and Pou painted in a realistic way.La Promesa/ The Promise

These two artist really represented the sentiments of the Puerto Ricans from that time in their paintings. In Frade's El pan Nuestro de Cada Día the peasant (jíbaro) is idealized as a monument that represents the land. The figure emerges from a rural landscape, walking toward the viewer. His face shows sadness, but he is still carrying that heavy load of bananas (which is one of the essential element of their diet). This aliment becomes a symbol of how difficult was to sustain a family in times of poverty and unemployment. Another painting with similar elements is Miguel Pou's The Promise. Here the protagonist is a woman with the same sad expression of the peasant from the other painting but her pose is more defiant. The Promise is about a catholic tradition. When a believer needs a favor or miracle he or she promises to a saint to make a sacrifice until whatever he or she asked for comes true. In the painting the woman is dressed as a nun (which is the sacrifice) and she holds a religious image of the Virgin of Mount Carmelo (to whom she made the promise). Her face is surrounded by a cloud that functions as an halo, which gives her an spiritual quality. These two works reflect the resignation and hope of the Puerto Rican society before 1930.

In the middle of the 1930's occurred important events that promoted Art in the Island. In 1936 Puerto Ricans were able to see the twentieth century art from other countries. There was an exhibition in the University of Puerto Rico organized by the artist and art teacher Walt Dehner. Artist like Picasso, Juan Miró, Stuart Davis, José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. The works of Campeche and Oller were also shown in this exhibition. In the same year another exhibition took place, showing the works of 60 local artists. Also the U.S. government offered scholarships to study in the States or abroad, making possible for many art enthusiast to become artists.