Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 6, 2018
Edward J. Sullivan From San Juan to Paris and Back: Francisco Oller and Caribbean Art in the Era of Impressionism Exh. cat. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. 208 pp.; 81 color ills.; 18 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (9780300203202)
Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, June 14‒September 6, 2015. Brooklyn Museum, New York, October 2, 2015‒January 3, 2016. Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, San Juan, January 29‒April 24, 2016

Edward Sullivan’s book-length disquisition on Francisco Oller is an engaging narrative that traverses a wide historical range, from the personal to the national to the transnational and to artworks and their histories. Oller, whom Sullivan describes as the most prominent Caribbean artist of the nineteenth century, lived and painted during a period of intense social and political transformation. Born in 1833 in Puerto Rico to a father who had migrated there from Spain, Oller was forty by the time slavery was abolished. During his lifetime, Puerto Rico went from being a Spanish colony to a US dependency, with Oller capturing the shifting nuances of such immense upheavals in his paintings.

Sullivan’s aim in this book is to locate Oller within the prevailing European aesthetic trends of the time, not merely as a voyeur or a passive recipient but as someone who engaged fully with many of the established artists of France and Spain, developing his own style in the interstices of Realism, Impressionism, and Postimpressionism.

The first chapter examines in some detail Oller’s abolitionist sympathies, revealing interesting historical tidbits such as the fact that Puerto Ricans spearheaded the antislavery movement in Spain, establishing the Spanish Abolitionist Society in 1865. While the author is focused on a particular artist, he makes it clear that his interest is also in the “cross-pollination of visual languages” (17) in the Caribbean region and between the region and countries like Mexico and Venezuela as well as the United States and Europe.

Thus a good part of the first chapter focuses on painting in these different locations, in particular painting that included black/African or racially mixed subjects. According to Sullivan there were several artists operating in the region in the eighteenth century, most of them itinerant artists from European countries drawn to the Caribbean by stories of its beauty and eager to paint the “exotic” flora, fauna, and human subjects available there. Their representations of island life were instrumental in the development of a Caribbean imaginary back home in Europe.

Paintings by artists such as the Italian Agostino Brunias and others played a role in depicting Caribbean locations as sites of harmony and beauty, where there was peaceful coexistence among disparate groups and the races blended and mixed without conflict. This was consistent with the genre of Romantic landscape painting prevalent in Europe and the Americas at the time. Artists also came to the Caribbean on commissions to paint the holdings of wealthy landlords in the islands. Haiti, independent since 1804, presented a different model of art production, one in which wealthy and powerful black Haitians commissioned well-known European artists to paint their portraits. Young Haitian artists who could afford it also routinely went to Paris to study.

The nineteenth century brought artists from the United States to the Caribbean, principally artists from the Hudson River School of landscape painting. European artists continued to visit. Sullivan takes note in particular of Danish artist, Fritz Melbye, who worked in the region, becoming mentor to the young Camille Pissarro, who came from a Jewish family in Saint Thomas. Pissarro’s close relationship with and influence on Oller is discussed at length throughout the book.

There were also important local artists who influenced Oller, chief among them the most outstanding Puerto Rican painter at the time, José Campeche, the son of a white woman from the Canary Islands and a former slave who painted religious pictures for churches. Oller revered Campeche, whom he described as “lost light of that dark time when art in Puerto Rico remained a secret” (44).

This notion of art being absent in Caribbean countries or “a secret” until a particular artist comes along and reveals it has a familiar ring. In Jamaica, for instance, that accolade is bestowed on Edna Manley, the white English artist who came to Jamaica as the wife of Norman Manley, popularly viewed as the father of the nation. The year when Edna Manley first landed in Jamaica as a twenty-two-year old, 1922, is used to indicate the beginning of the modern Jamaican art movement, implying that art practically didn’t exist in Jamaica until young Edna came along and rectified the situation.

Sullivan’s treatise is a welcome antidote to the glaring deficits of Caribbean art history. (For example, you can count on one hand the number of monographs available on senior artists of the Anglophone Caribbean.) As suggested by the book’s title, Sullivan’s fulsome account of Oller’s career weaves back and forth from Spain and France to Puerto Rico. He chooses to focus on a handful of Oller’s most important paintings rather than a decade-by-decade examination of the artist’s work. He enthusiastically chases artistic precedents and influences down their respective rabbit holes in his tracking of this important artist and teacher, who in 1872 was appointed a pintor de cámara, or official painter to the Spanish court.

Thus Sullivan points out that Oller’s Battle of Trevino, which he painted more than one version of in the late 1870s, depicted a battle landscape not from Puerto Rican but from Spanish history. Sullivan’s thesis is that a similar image of any of the struggles for liberation from Spain would have been difficult given the lack of an existing iconography of nationalism in Puerto Rico, with its limited independence movement. Oller would go on to make seminal contributions to such an iconography, although in Sullivan’s estimation he achieved this in other genres—still life and landscape, for instance—rather than in “official” paintings. Thus the Battle of Trevino was an anomaly for Oller, belonging as it does to the conservative genre of battle painting rather than the artistic avant-garde of the time, of which the artist considered himself a part.

The Wake (1892–93), created for exhibition in Paris, is arguably Oller’s most highly regarded and influential work, and Sullivan duly spends time laying out its art-historical precedents, the artist’s influences, and the techniques used. Sullivan then performs an intricate reading of the monumental painting as an allegory of the emerging Creole nation of Puerto Rico, a “human landscape” representing “an archetype of national self-identification” (178). Depicting a wake in the Puerto Rican countryside—at the very center of the composition is an old black man gazing upon a dead child, who has been laid out on the table—Oller’s masterpiece captures a wealth of sociological information while at the same time providing politico-cultural commentary on Puerto Rican society.

Sullivan shows how The Wake, as an image of nationhood, evoked fantastical responses from Puerto Rican artists Antonio Martorell and Rafael Trelles in work produced almost a hundred years later. Martorell produced a bilingual volume titled Martorell’s Wake in which each of the sixty-five chapters anthropomorphizes different elements of the painting. Trelles created a room-sized installation titled Visiting The Wake,” a postmodern revisioning of the painting in which all the characters are dressed in contemporary clothes. Another major work by Oller, started before The Wake, was The School of Master Rafael Cordero (1890–92), a painting that Sullivan spends even more time on since it has received less critical attention than The Wake.

In The School, the central character is Rafael Cordero, the founder of the first school for the children of enslaved persons as well as freed slaves in Puerto Rico. In the painting, Cordero is shown in his classroom, gazing directly at the viewer while his pupils are caught in various poses of classroom activity. The School was painted many years after Cordero’s death and is unusual for its central focus on a black subject, who is portrayed with great sympathy. Even more surprising is the fact that the painting was commissioned by the Ateneo Puertorriqueño for inclusion in its hall of notable citizens of the nation.

Because The School depicts students across the spectrum from black to white, Sullivan deems the painting “a parable for a specifically Caribbean form of nationhood in its most ideal sense, in which African origins are openly acknowledged” (106). According to Sullivan, The School also represents “a narrative of métissage and an expression of the ideals of a reconfigured nation” (113). Sullivan also says that by focusing on Cordero, a black teacher, Oller was racializing the image, “transforming the tradition of the portrait of the well-known political or literary figure into the body of a man of color, who is here taking on the task of stimulating and transmitting knowledge and culture to a subset of sons of families of black, white, and mulatto parents” (112).

Perhaps because the subject of teaching and learning, pedagogy, and the “labor of education” was so dear to Oller (he started several art schools during his lifetime), he was able to communicate in this painting the tenderness of Cordero among his pupils, memorializing him as “a paragon of pedagogical excellence” (104). In discussing Cordero’s parallel job as a cigar maker, Sullivan goes into fascinating detail, describing the Spanish colonial practice of reading to tobacco workers to edify them as they worked.

One of the final chapters deals with a portrait of American president William McKinley that Oller made in 1898—a painting that was lost for a hundred years, reappearing in New York in 2010. Because the painting was intended as a gift to the president when Puerto Rico was annexed by the United States, Sullivan speculates that Oller might have been angling for a position as official portraitist to the president. After all, he had been an official painter to the king of Spain not so long before that.

In this extended study Sullivan is interested in positioning Oller as a “transnational participant in the lively artistic conversations that took place on both sides of the Atlantic—North and South” (113). Privileged, white, and upper-middle-class Oller may have been, but his paintings countered prevailing colonial stereotypes with their sustained representation of transracial subject matter. His work contributed to a seminal iconography of Puerto Rican nationalism, literally “imaging” community as it manifested itself on the Caribbean island. At the same time Oller was cosmopolitan, sophisticated, and completely up-to-date with aesthetic trends in metropolitan Europe. Sullivan thinks it’s time that the world got to know Francisco Oller.

Annie Paul
Managing Editor, Social and Economic Studies, University of the West Indies, Mona campus, Kingston, Jamaica