José Campeche was the first Puerto Rican painter to gain international renown. His works are a good starting point for any history of the visual arts in Puerto Rico.
Campeche was the third of seven children. His father was a freed slave and his mother was from the Canary Islands. He studied at a Dominican convent, but he was self-taught in drawing and painting. His religious upbringing prevented him from painting nudes, though he studied anatomy on his own.
When Spanish painter Luis Paret y Alcázar came to Puerto Rico in 1775, Campeche (who was then 25 years old) found in him a friend and teacher from whom he could learn the techniques that were then in fashion. Although he kept his own style, Campeche’s work in that era shows Rococo stylistic influences. Three years later, Paret y Alcázar returned to Spain and Campechereturned to his self-education. Although the artist would evolve, the Rococo influence is very obvious in his paintings.
El exvoto de la Sagrada Familia, one of his best-known works, shows the technique, which the artist then used, of including miniatures within the larger painting. In the painting is a set of stairs and perspective that corresponds to the hierarchy of the figures shown.
Campeche, who never left the island, reached the peak of his skills in the middle 1790s. One work from that era is the portrait Don Miguel Antonio de Ustáriz. Behind Governor Ustáriz is a window through which can be seen the public works that took place during the governor’s term.
After an attack by the British was repelled, a devotion to the Virgin Mary took root on the island. It was seen in various artistic forms, including several paintings by Campeche (El sitio de los ingleses also addresses this historical event). Nuestra Señora de Belén, which depicts a Virgin with Medieval characteristics, also dates to this era. Paintings with religious themes were a constant among the artist’s work, however, and not limited to any one time period. Campeche was commissioned to create various religious pieces by people in Venezuela, for example.
In the late 1790s, Campeche began what would be his third stage, in which the large format took on more prominence. After 1801, however, Campeche returned to painting miniatures. El niño Juan Pantaleón Avilés de Luna Alvarado, from 1808, is a portrait of a child from Coamo who had no arms. The painting documents a strange medical case. The colors the artist selects and the facial expression he gives the boy lend an air of compassion to the portrait, but also a disturbing peculiarity. This is perhaps the only case in which the artist painted a portrait that was not of a politician or prominent man.
In addition to devoting himself to painting, Campeche was also a musician. He played the oboe, the flute and the organ, and he taught voice classes. José Campeche died on November 7, 1809. His works are estimated to include 400 to 500 pieces.
Author: Alejandro Carpio
Published: April 14, 2012.
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