Under the heading of “Be Sure to See” is the show of Francisco Oller’s work at the Brooklyn Museum which demonstrates how Oller (1833 – 1917), one of Puerto Rico’s foremost painters, put the techniques of European painting in the service of depictions of Caribbean life.
By exhibiting 40 of Oller’s works along with 45 by Caribbean and European artists, the show essays to place Oller in the context of the worlds – Puerto Rico and Europe; the artistic styles – realism and impressionism; and the genres – landscape, portraiture, still life, through which he moved. Like the previous sentence, the subject can get a bit lost. The show opens with paintings by several Caribbean artists, including Jose Campeche – a formidable portraitist and one of Oller’s teachers – and the 18th century painter, Louis Poret Alcazar, then wends on to depictions of the Caribbean by European and American artists (with several oils by Camille Pissaro (who was born in St. Thomas) and a few watercolors by Winslow Homer), all of which present lush, verdant, tranquil locales with no hint of strife or slavery.
Another section features the still lifes that Oller painted between 1912 and 1914, evocative of the European style of composition and technique, and featuring very detailed native fruits such as plantains, mangos and coconuts. Their setting, on wood tables with a few utensils against plain backgrounds, simultaneously accords the produce prominence and intimacy.
Further on you’ll find about half a dozen portraits by Oller, which tended to be large scale, with the subject in a very formal, three-quarter length pose against a simple background. Two of his more notable subjects were President William McKinley (who did not sit for Oller and never saw his likeness) and Jose Julian Acosta y Calbo, President of the Liberal Reform Party and ardent abolitionist. I was struck by the almost photographic quality of this latter portrait, and how his gaze seems so knowing.
While we’re talking about portraits, I’d like to turn to one that’s in a different section, and completely different in mien. In The School of Master Rafael Cordero (1890-92) Oller’s affection for his subjects couldn’t be clearer. In this masterwork we see a teacher of color surrounded by young boys of all backgrounds, some seemingly very quiet, others more rambunctious. Master Cordero looks directly at the viewer with an expression somewhere between exasperation and patience, and underlined with sagacity. Cordero was the legendary founder of the first school for enslaved children in San Juan in 1810, which he eventually opened to children of all social strata.
Oller painted some great landscapes, which often included local people of color, in a very straightforward, unvarnished style. You’ll find some lovely “portraits” of sugar plantations here, which reconcile Oller’s tendencies towards realism and impressionism. Some show a thriving landscape, but others depict unblinkingly the plantations that were abandoned after the abolition of slavery rendered sugar cultivation economically unsustainable. Throughout the exhibition, the explanatory labels refer repeatedly to devastating effects slavery, and European and American colonization had on the Caribbean economy, but the added commentary is not always that illuminating.
Unfortunately, “The Wake,” considered to be Oller’s masterpiece could not travel. There’s a large-scale reproduction in the exhibit, as well as three earlier studies which allow us to see how Oller’s conception of the painting changed over time.
Oller studied in Madrid from 1851 to 1853, and sojourned there again between 1877 and 1884, during which time he was court painter to King Amadeo I. A small room displays a few of Oller’s work and influences from Madrid, which include an impressive large scale portrait of Colonel Francisco Contreras by Oller, and a magnificent portrait of the French painter Ingres by Frederico de Madrazo, one of Oller’s instructors in Madrid.
The last gallery is focused on Oller’s time in Paris, which he visited three times, living there for a total of about 12 years, and becoming friends with Camille Pissaro and Paul Cezanne, among others. This section contains some wonderful landscapes by Corot, Claude Manet, Gustave Courbet, Charles Francois Daubigny and Alfred Sisley for starters. Some of these works are placed side-by-side with Oller’s, which allows you to appreciate how he so effectively applied the styles and techniques he learned in France to his local subjects, creating art that was both international and indigenous; however, this arrangement doesn’t really let Oller’s paintings breathe on their own.
Overall, I enjoyed this exhibit, and I hope you’ll make the time to see it.