Francisco Oller was the first Puerto Rican painter who had the opportunity to study in Europe and whose work was recognized internationally. His impressionist paintings portrayed the realities of Puerto Rican life. He is also considered the first pictorial arts educator in Puerto Rico. His work contributed to the development of Impressionism.
Born in 1833 in the town of Bayamón, his parents were Cayetano Juan Oller y Fromesta and María del Carmen Cestero Dávila. Beginning at age 11, Oller studied with painter Juan Cleto Noa in San Juan. At 18, he traveled to Spain, where he studied at the Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid, the most important school of the time, with Federico Madrazo, director of the Prado Museum. In 1858, at age 25, he continued his studies in Paris. He attended the Tomás Couture workshop, the Swiss Academy and L’Ecole Imperiale et Spéciale de Dessin. During this time he came to know French painter Gustave Courbet, known as the father of modern realism. The perspective of realism that the role of the artist is to portray common and everyday people without idealizing them, defined Oller and influenced him throughout his life. Oller also lived in the era when art was revolutionized by impressionism, a style he preferred for his landscapes and still life paintings.
In 1865, he returned to Puerto Rico, where he continued painting in the realism style, capturing the social problems of the island, although his landscapes reflected impressionist influence. Revolutionary pictorial artists such as Cezanne, Pisarro and Monet were his friends, and his work was exhibited in Paris alongside theirs. Art historians and critics consider him a realist within impressionism who adapted his style to the subject of his paintings. The luminosity of the colors, the brushstrokes and the chromatic richness, all part of impressionism, appear in Oller’s Puerto Rican motifs.
In 1868, Oller established the Puerto Rico Free Academy of Art and in 1869 he published a manual on drawing and painting nature scenes. In 1872, he was appointed court painter by King Amadeo I of Spain. He continued to travel to Europe, presenting his work until 1884, when he settled permanently on the island. In that same year he founded an art school for women, the National University. Among his most outstanding works are La escuela del maestro Rafael Cordero, La hacienda Aurora (Ponce Museum of Art), Paisaje con Palma Real (Puerto Rican Athenaeum Collection) and El estudiante. The latter is in the d’Orsay Museum in Paris.
His painting El velorio (1893), considered his masterwork, portrays a baquiné, a wake for a child. The people in the scene enjoy the party while the parents weep. Oller painted this work as a chronicle and as criticism. It is a non-idealized representation that integrates portrait, landscape and scenes of Puerto Rican life. It is in the Museum of Anthropology and History at the Rio Piedras campus of the University of Puerto Rico.
He died in 1917 in Cataño, where a high school carries his name. In New York, P.S. 61 in the Bronx is also named for him.
By the PROE Editorial Group
Alegría, Ricardo y Eladio Rivera Quiñones. Historia y cultura de Puerto Rico: desde la época pre-colombina hasta nuestros días, Ediciones Puerto, San Juan, PR, 1999.
Gran Enciclopedia de Puerto Rico
Author: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: September 03, 2014.
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