Rock Art in La Cachimba Cave, Cuba

Rock Art in La Cachimba Cave, Cuba

The roots of the history of painting in the Caribbean are clearly multicultural. The colonizers passed on their pictorial styles to the creators of art in the Caribbean while others arose from the juncture of slavery and the relations between the colonizers and the mixture of races. Today, much of the region’s early artistic output serves as a historical document that enables a sketch of the community and its culture.

The pre-Columbian is the first of the periods in which Caribbean art was born. In what is now Puerto Rico, the indigenous inhabitants of the island made cave paintings in sites such as Mona Island and in what is today the town of Morovis, according to historian Osiris Delgado. The other element of Puerto Rican art is, of course, the art that was created during the Spanish colonization, beginning in the 16th century. As one example, Lugo Ferrer notes that a carbon drawing on a wall in the San Felipe de El Morro fortress dates, according to Delgado, to before 1585.

Cave paintings in Curacao and Bonaire also serve as examples of the beginning of artistic efforts, as in other parts of the world, like in the Caribbean and Latin America. The drawings in the Dutch islands ─ discovered in the 19th and 20th centuries ─ present ornamental images of the land, while those in Aruba show human and animal figures involved in a ritual.

As with any conversation about the Caribbean, colonization plays a key role in understanding the social, economic, political and cultural processes of the region. The emergence of painting in the Caribbean countries was tied to the trips and stays in the Caribbean by artists from the colonizing countries, such as those from England who settled in Jamaica beginning in the 18th century. As would be expected, the art of that time in the Caribbean was an imitation of the European artistic trends ─ portraits and landscapes ─ of the 18th and 19th centuries.

In the early stages of the development of painting in the Caribbean region, few artists had access to European training. Europe came to them, however, in the form of various artists who settled in the Caribbean countries. In this way, colonial art developed through artists such as José Nicolás de Escalera y Domínguez (1734-1804) and Juan del Río (1748-?) of Cuba and José Campeche (1751-1809) of Puerto Rico. These early artists, in addition to dedicating themselves to religious paintings, were renowned portraitists of important people in the government and the aristocracy.

Rodríguez Morey notes that the common denominator among these artists was a primarily religious subject matter. In Cuba, Rodríguez Morey explains, the religious communities (Franciscans and Dominicans) provided incentives for such work in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Cuban painter Vicente Escobar (1762-1834), for example, moved to the San Fernando Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid. There he studied under chamber painter Salvador Maella. A person of mixed race born in Havana, and recognized as one of the first artists who open his own workshop, Escobar went on to teach other painters such as Juan del Río.

Portrait of Ramón de Castro from José Campeche

Portrait of Ramón de Castro from José Campeche

Although Campeche was not able to live in Spain, like Escobar, he did have the opportunity to study in Puerto Rico under Spanish artist Luis Paret y Alcázar, who was considered the second most recognized painter in Spain after Goya. It should be noted, as Taylor points out, that Campeche ─ like other painters of the era on islands such as the Dominican Republic ─ was exposed to engravings, illustrated books and plates for composing his works. Although his portraits and religious paintings never focused on the Puerto Rico of his time, the artist, also of mixed race, found ways to represent his own national discourse, even in his most rococo paintings. He did this through glimpses of the center of the old city, the mountains, and the Puerto Rican landscape.

During the 18th century, oil painting was the medium used by artists of the era to present their messages. One of these themes was slavery, which was addressed and interpreted through the hands and the perspectives of a wide spectrum of Antillean artists. Over time, a common flourish of Caribbean art has been the use of a palette of intense colors, derived from the landscape and anchored in the lives of the people and society.

The Foreign Eye and Brushstroke

The Caribbean also took in artists of various nationalities who documented daily life in the colonies. One example was the Roman artist Agostino Brunias (1730-1796), who arrived as the personal painter for the first appointed governor of Dominica, Sir William Young. Brunias did most of his paintings in the Windward Islands ─ Dominica, Martinique, St. Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and Grenada, to mention a few ─ and captured in his works the figure of the mixed-race people and the dynamic between the ruling English and the slaves.

Another who lived in the Antilles was English artist George Robertson. He was charged with creating a panoramic view of the landscapes of Jamaica and the sugar plantations on the island. Historian and plantation owner William Beckford was directly responsible for bringing the artist to the island and his images serve today as historical documents.

The Caribbean has also been the cradle for renowned figures in the visual arts. One of the greatest figures of French impressionism in the 19th century, Camille Pissarro (1831-1903), was born on St. Thomas. His time on the island ─ from his birth until age 12, when he went to France to study, and later intermittent visits ─ served as the basis for incorporating images of life in St. Thomas and neighboring islands into his diverse catalog of work.

The National Discourse in the 19th Century

The 19th century saw artists who put their own stamp on depictions of the Caribbean through their lines and colors. One example is Isaac Mendes Belisario (1795-1849), a Jewish painter known as the first Jamaican artist. His style is the result of the training he received in England, where he learned portraits and landscapes. Scholars have observed, however, that unlike other artists, who portrayed the brutalities of colonial society, Mendes Belisario opted for a superficial depiction that is attributed to the preferences of buyers and patrons.

Michel Jean Cazabon (1813-1888) of Trinidad, meanwhile, portrayed the Trinidad society in his works, from its scenes and characters to the landowners and traders of Port of Spain, the island’s capital. The landscapes of Trinidad appear in many of his paintings.

El maestro Rafael from Puertorrican painter Francisco Oller

El maestro Rafael from Puerto Rican painter Francisco Oller

Not only Caribbean artists have carried the responsibility of recording history through their art. In fact, Spanish painter Víctor Patricio Landaluze y Uriarte (1830-1889) settled in Cuba to present the colonial society of the island and he displayed in his paintings ─ along with his caricatures ─ themes of daily life and a handful of traditional activities, such as Three Kings Day, dances and colloquia.

With his still life paintings and depictions of the culture in which he was born, Puerto Rican painter Francisco Oller y Cestero (1833-1917) is responsible for channeling the island’s identity. He studied in Puerto Rico and in Spain, but it was in Paris in 1862 where he absorbed the realism of French painter Gustave Courbet. It was possibly this teaching that led to his desire to portray his country as he saw it with his own eyes. In Paris, in academia and in the cafes, he rubbed elbows with a group of impressionists ─ a collection of artists whose work focused on the light on the items represented and painting outdoors ─ among them Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, Pierre Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet.

The island countryside and black characters are, respectively, the setting and the key figures in Oller’s body of work. Both, along with the traditions of the island, are emphasized in works such as El velorio. The artist not only displayed his work locally and internationally, but also founded various art schools in Puerto Rico with the goal of contributing to the island’s visual arts. Without a doubt, Puerto Rican art would not be the same without this restless, culturally aware man.
Undoubtedly, the teaching experience played a great role in developing national art in the Caribbean, as demonstrated in master-artist relationships. In the Dominican Republic’s capital of Santo Domingo, Spanish painter Juan Fernández Corredor (19th century) founded an academy of drawing and painting that existed from 1883 to1886. One result of this initiative was an exhibition of works by the artists in 1885 and the development of important students such as Abelardo Rodríguez Urdaneta (1870-1933).

In the Dominican Republic, the nationalist awakening also was felt in art that addressed historical topics and the landscape. Portraits were also part of the repertoire of artists such as Alejandro Bonilla (1820-1901), Leopoldo Navarro (1862-1908), Luis “Sisito” Desangles (1861-1940) and Abelardo Rodríguez Urdaneta, to mention a few.

A little later, during the 20th century, the work of Haitian artist Hector Hyppolite (1894-1948) flourished. This artistic delay, Alexis states, was due to the lack of support for the visual arts in Haiti between 1800 and 1900, when there were few art schools and other institutions to promote their development. The work of Hyppolite, a Vodou priest, clearly displays the worship of the dead and spirits, as well as a variety of sacrifices related to these religious practices.

His use of color and his naive paintings ─ art by artists who are self-taught or who lack academic preparation and that have a strong expressive approach although the figures are not correct ─ are momentous in Haitian history because of their links to the Vodou tradition and their amalgam of symbols. His work ─ which also includes references to Catholicism, in syncretism with Vodou ─ was praised by various artists such as the father of surrealism, André Breton, of France, who considered Hyppolite as someone who could change the course of painting.

Also in Haiti, the emergence and development of painting was related to the Centre d’Art, a cultural center in Port-au-Prince whose roots date to 1943. Art scholars have found that prior to the 1940s artistic practices were related to artists trained under the European style. But an American, Dewitt Peters, arrived in the Haitian capital to teach English, and eventually felt it was necessary to have a place to develop art. That was the origin of Centre d’Art, a place where artists ─ such as Hyppolite and his contemporaries ─ would receive the essential materials for their work, in addition to support in commercializing their works.

The intersection of cultures that generate pictorial displays, both similar and distant from each other, must be considered in order to survey the beginnings of the art that emerged in the Caribbean. Colonization and the mixture of races are as relevant to the origins of Caribbean painting as their characters and landscapes.

Autor: Carmen Graciela Díaz
Published: February 21, 2012.

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