[ Francisco Oller was the only Latin American painter to take part in the emergence of Impressionism. He produced a rich oeuvre that evokes the beauty of the French landscape and the virgin lands of the New World.]
HE WAS AN INTIMATE of Camille Pissarro. In 1866 Antoine Guillemet referred to Paul Cézanne as “ton éleve” (your pupil). He participated in the formative years of Impressionism in Paris and introduced Impressionism in Spain. He was the Puerto Rican painter Francisco Oller. It is hard, indeed, for art critics to accept that a Puerto Rican was teacher to the great Paul Cézanne, but this was one of the many surprises revealed by the Oller retrospective put together by the Ponce Museum of Art on the occasion of the sesquicentennial of his birth in 1833.
The greatest surprise of all was unquestionably the quality of his painting. Following an intensive restoration effort, residents of Puerto Rico, New York, Washington, D.C., and Springfield, Massachusetts, were able to see the real Oller for the first time. The tropics were unkind to his works, and self-styled “restorers” painted over them without mercy, but the judgment of Pissarro, Guillemet and Cézanne at the middle of the last century has been validated: this is a first-class painter.
The son of creoles of comfortable circumstances, Oller traveled to Spain in his youth (1851-53) to study in the San Fernando Royal Academy in Madrid. His first stay outside Puerto Rico was brief, but when next he departed in search of artistic training, he chose to go to Paris in 1858. There he spent seven intensive years in the effervescent artistic atmosphere that ultimately changed the direction of Western art-as Guillemet prophetically wrote to him in 1866, “in the end we will impose our way of seeing.” An admirer of Manet, whose influence is apparent in his portraits, Oller occasionally referred to himself as a disciple of Courbet. In Paris he studied under Thomas Couture and then in Gleyre’s studio, where his fellow pupils were Monet, Renoir and Bazille. At the Atelier Suisse he became friends with Paul Cézanne and took Camille Pissarro to meet “the curious Provencal.”
From these important years in París may date El estudiante (The Student), which is part of the Gachet Collection of the Jeu de Paume in Paris. Perhaps his best-known picture internationally because it hangs in this prestigious museum, the painting is a light-suffused composition in which Oller shows his ability to capture the ambience of his years in Paris. Dr. Christian Lloyd of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford thinks it may be a portrait of Pissarro and his wife. An unchallenged masterpiece of early Impressionism, it evokes the bohemian, intensive life of those young people who set out to revolutionize the art of the last century.
In addition to being an avant-garde painter, to having participated in the radical renovation of the art of his time, Oller was also fiercely Puerto Rican and deeply committed to his homeland’s future. In response to this commitment, he returned to Puerto Rico in 1865. There he used his brush, as he himself put it, “to lash out at evil and extol the good.” He was against slavery, an advocate of popular education, and the creator of a national art that drew its inspiration from the landscape and fruits of the tropics. His early still lifes, entirely original creations in the modeling style of the 19th century, combine elements of the Spanish tradition of the 17th century with the brilliant light and coloring of the Impressionists. He preferred his native fruits, which he depicted in an atmosphere of tranquility and dignity that invested them with an aura of monumentality.
During his years in Paris he developed a direct approach to representing his subjects. Committed to painting from life, the basic tenet of Realism and after it of Impressionism, his landscapes done out-of-doors have a spontaneity from which he would never swerve in all his long career as an artist. After the Ponce Museum retrospective had been organized, two landscapes of Puerto Rico were discovered from the period of 1865-73. Small canvases painted out-of-doors, they are the first landscapes to capture the quality of tropical light. The long, pigment-laden brush strokes, the composition and structure, all parallel what his contemporaries were doing in Paris in those years.
Even though he had firmly established himself in Puerto Rico, he returned to Paris in 1873, when his friends were organizing the first Impressionist exhibition. We know that he renewed his friendship with the group. Oller always was in financial difficulties, and Pissarro tried to help him sell some of his (Pissarro’s) paintings that Oller had acquired earlier. He was in Paris for three years and, although he exhibited nothing in the two Impressionist exhibitions, landscapes such as Orillas del Sena (Banks of the Seine) attest to his attachment to and mastery of the Impressionist techniques. The banks of the Seine were among the favorite subjects of the Impressionist painters, and in this canvas Oller came closer to the aesthetics, the pictorial methods and the objectives that his friends in Paris would continue to develop. The picture was painted very loosely, and the pigments were mixed right on the canvas surface itself. The paint was soft and applied very quickly to capture the impression of that moment in time and space.
Oller’s earliest surviving Autorretrato (Self-Portrait) dates from 1880 in Madrid. The artist went off to Spain in 1878 and stayed there till 1883. His melancholy visage emerges from a background of dense shadows. His renewal of contact with Spanish painting is remarkably evident in this self-portrait, which is strongly reminiscent of Velázquez.
This time in Madrid marked the apogee of the Puerto Rican painter’s public career. La carga de Treviño (The Charge of Treviño), a historical painting, became part of the Royal Collection. His exhibition of 1883 was visited by King Alfonso XII and the Infanta María Eugenia, who purchased some of his works. The exhibition gave the public of Madrid their first taste of the Impressionist style that Oller had assimilated in Paris, and the critics received it well. Little work has been done to gauge Oller’s impact on Spanish painting. It is a subject that merits thorough study, for the late Spanish scholar Juan Antonio Gaya Nuño concluded that it was Oller who brought French Impressionism to Spain.
After an absence of 11 years, Oller returned to Puerto Rico to become enmeshed in deep personal and financial difficulties. In the wide swings of Spanish politics in the 19th century, the 1880’s were a decade of particular hardship for the country’s colonies of Cuba and Puerto Rico. Oller had returned at a time when a wave of cruel persecution was being unleashed against the liberals. The terrible situation on the island’ was one of the factors that prompted him to paint El velorio (The Wake), his most serious artistic statement and most biting critique of a society that permitted this “orgy of brutal appetities under the veil of coarse superstition.”
In El velorio Oller returned to the precepts of the Realist school, and painted to convert. Relatives and neighbors are seen congregating in a hut on the occasion of a wake for a child, whom everybody ignores: they are more interested in the roast pig being brought in through the door. The conspicuous exception is an old black beggar in the center of the composition, the only one to show the dignity and respect that a wake demands. Oller’s painting harks back to a work on a similar subject that Gustave Courbet had in mind but never managed to execute.
For this complex genre scene Oller made a good number of preparatory sketches and studies, many of which have survived. The two landscapes and the still-life details in the painting are rendered with the same care and given the same pictorial importance as the human figures. The profusion of detail ‘succeeds in communicating Oller’s point: the apathy to the death of a child and failure to take it seriously, which is an attitude shared by the figure of the priest. The canvas’s concealed anticlericalism and social cristicism provoked the disapproval of part of the Puerto Rican public.
Oller painted El velorio to show in the Paris Salon. After exhibiting it in Puerto Rico for the fourth centennial of the island’s discovery in 1893, he set sail with it. He put in at Havana and displayed his monumental canvas there. Haydée Venegas, the organizer of the Oller retrospective, recently searched the archives in Cuba and found several reviews of this showing of El velorio in Havana, where it drew some attention. From that city Oller set sail on his last trip to Paris. There the critics did not react against the content of the picture, but judged it on the basis of its style and formal elements.
Pissarro did not like El velorio. Absorbed in formal explorations that took him into his Neo-Impressionist phase, the French painter was not pleased with the social content of the work. Oller showed El velorio in the Salon and very soon got back in step with the painting that Pissarro was doing at the moment. His marvelous Paisaje francés I y II (French Landscape 1 and Il) capture the rich atmosphere and coloring of Neo-Impressionism. He now applied his paint in calculated patterns of color dots to create a very dense, rich pictorial surface. With every trip to France, Oller renewed his style to assimilate the most dynamic trends in the art of his time.
As his friend Manuel Fernández Juncos pointed out, this style “was not to the liking of his compatriots.” In the Hacienda Aurora, a masterly landscape of the northern coast of Puerto Rico, these dense points of color are nowhere to be seen. In his landscapes of the island, Oller makes a thorough study of the tropical skies, of their shifting atmosphere and color, by applying the precepts of Impressionism and his great powers of observation and re-creation. Oller’s landscapes depict a nature that is harmonious and peaceful. These works are the pictorial equivalent of the islanders’ nationalism. In the romantic poetry of José Gautier Benítez, for example, the natural beauty of Puerto Rico became a symbol of his native land.
As in El velorio (in which the representational elements carry their own symbolism, the roast pig possibly an allusion to the crucified Christ, and the priest’s spurs to the diabolical), Oller’s intention in his landscapes goes beyond the mere depiction of nature. As one scholar has pointed out, Paisaje palma real (Landscape with Royal Palm Trees) is an attempt to identify the artist’s native land with the landscape, the royal palm being an emblem of Puerto Rico.
There is another point to be considered in Oller’s landscapes and still lifes. In a good number of his landscapes, Oller depicts different aspects of the sugarmaking technology, from the primitive animal-powered sugarcane press to the Central Plazuela (Plazuela Sugar Mili), in his time one of the most modern sugar mills in the Caribbean. Oller’s patent interest in documenting aspects of sugar technology and in studying the skies of the tropics derived from a quasi-scientific intention to use his painting to document and bear witness to a reality.
A similar approach can be discerned in many of Oller’s late still lifes as well. Fruit is represented in different states-green, ripe, half ripe and with its leaves and branches. And Oller also was interested in showing not only the color and form of a fruit, but how it was used. Higüeras (Gourds) presents different aspects of the fruit as well as the containers made from it and the machete with which it was cut. Palmillo, an extraordinary canvas that marked the end of his career, shows the seed, the dry branch, the palm heart cut and then ready to eat on a plate. The painting is a morphological exploration of the subject, an essay in form and color in which the artist re-creates and examines his Caribbean world. Oller’s identification with this world is clear in a self-portrait, now lost, in which he literally put himself in his canvas by painting his own face on a palm pod.
From the study of the work and person of Francisco Oller, one might wonder what would have happened if he had stayed in Paris. There can be no doubt that he would have been one of the leading lights of Impressionism. The canvases that have survived from those stages of his life make this clear. But Oller chose time and again to return to Puerto Rico, and despite the difficulties and limitations he encountered on doing so that drove him back to Europe, his resolve was always to remain in his homeland. This goes beyond the decision of a Puerto Rican painter of the last century and really relates to the experience of our artists of today. The central issue is regionalism versus metropolitan styles. When Oller painted in Europe, he was practicing an art that was entirely European, and his style adapted itself to the trends of the avant-garde with which he associated. During his years in Puerto Rico, he adopted an essentially realistic style in which he gave less weight to the formal concerns of those avant-garde styles.
Perhaps the figure most closely akin to Oller was always Gustave Courbet. It was this plain provincial who launched the rebellion against the Academy with his famous assertion that “il faut étre de son temps” (one must be of one’s time). But Courbet and Oller were not so much of their time as of their regions. Courbet used the people of his native Ornans in his first revolutionary picture, Funeral at Ornans. This picture had a shocking effect. Its peasants and burghers herald a radical break with the saccharine idealizations in fashion in Paris at mid-century and with the shopworn depictions of ancient history that were the delight of the academicians. Oller wanted to do the same with El velorio, which he took to Paris because it seemed important to make a critical statement about a regional and provincial society in what was then the elegant capital of painting. Oller’s gesture was the one made by all Latin Americans who bring the art of their regions to the great metropolises.
Oller embodies the dilemma facing those of us who live in Latin America: how to make our art valuable in relation to the mainstream. One of Oller’s responses was to paint in the prevailing style, in which he was able to create masterpieces such as El estudiante and Paisaje francés I and II on a par with those of his contemporaries. This was not his only quest, however. By exhibiting El velorio in 1895, he also wanted to leave a mark of his own region on Paris. Years later Diego Rivera went to Paris to participate in the first stages of Cubism. As Oller returned to Puerto Rico, Rivera returned to his native Mexico, where he created another style of painting that also exalts the character of his own region.
Francisco Oller was the only Latin American painter to take part in the emergence of Impressionism. Like many after him, he experienced the limitations of his own society, in spite of which he was able to go on producing paintings of high quality. The product of these efforts is a complex and rich oeuvre evocative of the beauty of the French landscape and of the virgin lands of the New World. Oller has bequeathed to us a vision that is sharp without falling into the trap of picturesqueness, and reveals to our eyes the times and places where he lived his excitingly creative life.
At the time Marimar Benítez was the registrar at the Ponce Museum of Art in Puerto Rico