Francisco Manuel Oller Cestero, a pioneer painter in impressionism and realism in Latin American, is one of the most famous Puerto Rican painters of all time. He was able to capture the reality of his era and comment through his art on the society in which he lived.
Oller was born in Bayamón into a wealthy family. He began to study painting at age eleven. At age 14, he painted a reproduction of a portrait that Campeche had done of his grandfather. A year later, Governor Juan Prim offered him a scholarship to study in Rome, but his family would not let him go because of his young age. At 18 years of age, however, he left for Madrid to study at the San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts under the tutelage of painter Federico Madrazo. Two years later, he returned to the island, but he soon went back to Europe, this time to France, to continue his studies. In Paris, he studied with Thomas Couture and Gustave Courbet and attended the Marc-Charles-Gabriel Gleyre academy. Others educated at these institutions include artists of such stature as Manet, Renoir, Whistler and Monet.
Oller returned to Puerto Rico in 1865 and three years later he married Isabel Tinajero. He also opened an art school that he called Salón Washington, where he offered free art classes. In 1884, he founded an art school for women. He also wrote a book about perspective and drawing.
The maestro traveled to Paris and Madrid several times. In Spain, he painted El coronel Contreras en Treviño and Un mendigo. Although he received various prizes and titles (Caballero de la Real y Distinguida Orden de Carlos III, Pintor de la Real Cámara, etc.), and although he exhibited his works in various countries, Oller was never able to live comfortably on his income from his art. Disillusioned with Europe (due to an uncomfortable incident with his friend, Cézanne), he returned to Puerto Rico for good in 1896.
He kept up to date on the island’s political development and opposed social injustice, including slavery in Puerto Rico. This awareness was due in part to his friendship with Ramón Emeterio Betances and Román Baldorioty de Castro, whom he met in Europe.
Francisco Oller was one of the pioneers of impressionism in the Americas. The works he created in Puerto Rico, however, tend toward realism. One of these, El velorio, is his most famous painting. It measures 8″ x 13″ and shows the scene of a wake for a child in a rural home. The dead infant lies on a table, surrounded by flowers, and among the other fourteen people at the wake, only one appears to show sadness over the death. It’s said that the joy of the other people, who are seen drinking, playing musical instruments and looking at a roast pig hanging from the ceiling, is because the wake is a celebration, as the dead child is an angel returning to heaven. The work is preserved at the University of Puerto Rico Museum in Río Piedras.
Oller died on May 17, 1917. Many of his works were lost or damaged, in part due to the island’s climate. Other paintings, such as those at the church in Río Grande, were lost in a fire.
Author: Alejandro Carpio
Published: April 14, 2012.
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