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Edward J. Sullivan on Francisco Oller and Caribbean Art

Today we’re very pleased to share some words from eminent scholar Edward J. Sullivan, author of, most recently, From San Juan to Paris and Back: Francisco Oller and Caribbean Art in the Era of Impressionism, which is hot off the presses.  The book offers new insight into both Oller and the bigger picture of the development of art in the Caribbean in the nineteenth-century.

Edward J. Sullivan—

Francisco Oller, Caribbean ArtMy new book From San Juan to Paris and Back: Francisco Oller and Caribbean Art in the Era of Impressionism took some six years to write but in many ways I had been thinking about its subject since I was a graduate student. As a historian of the arts of the Americas, especially the Hispano-Portuguese nations of the New World, I have been working in Latin American art my entire career but I have always felt that the Caribbean deserves special attention. My first trips to the region took place when I was researching my doctoral dissertation for the NYU Institute of Fine Arts, where I now teach. I went to Ponce, Puerto Rico to look at the distinguished collection of European Early Modern art at the Museo de Arte de Ponce. Later I traveled more widely throughout the Anglophone, Francophone and Hispanophone islands. It became abundantly clear that the multiplicity of cultures present there – the indigenous populations and their interactions with mainland Meso- and South America; the importation of enslaved persons from Africa; the arrival of South Indian workers in the nineteenth century; lingering cultural baggage of colonialism (French, Spanish, English, Dutch and Swedish) – has produced a truly “global” mix. The Caribbean as both crossroads and vortex of cultural and artistic creativity was an idea that captivated me early and kept growing in my imagination.

The Puerto Rican artist Francisco Oller (1833-1917) is a paradigm of the back and forth, peripatetic wanderings of Caribbean artists and intellectuals from the region to other places (a phenomenon that continues to this day in the ever-expanding Caribbean diaspora). His early training took place in San Juan, but the more than twenty years that he spent in Madrid and, especially, Paris were critical for his formation. He is perhaps the only artist from Latin America to have had direct and highly fruitful interchanges with such key figures of the mid-to late nineteenth century as Federico de Madrazo, Gustave Courbet, Thomas Couture, Paul Cézanne and Camille Pissarro. He created a unique body of work that evidenced his experiences abroad and, more significantly, created an iconography and a mode of vision that expressed his deep affiliation to his native country. Puerto Rico’s political and cultural identities were marked by its colonial status, first as a possession of Spain and then, after 1898, as one of the United States. Oller was conscious of this interstitial nature of his island and worked to configure a visual language to express its dilemmas and its history. Oller’s landscapes and still lifes offer a strong contribution to the history of western art of the nineteenth century. His portraits and history paintings provide for us a series of images that reflect his sometimes conflicted affinities with the places outside of his native island.

As an academic I was especially interested in Oller’s great dedication to pedagogy. He opened approximately ten schools in and around San Juan. These were principally art academies. He strongly believed (taking his cue from the French anarchist and philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, whom he much admired) in the power of education to promote a more positive future for his nation, especially in a time of conflict and political change. In fact, one of Oller’s most iconic works is a portrait of Master Rafael Cordero, the legendary founder of the first school for enslaved children in San Juan in 1810. Cordero was the son of slaves and his school, only blocks from Oller’s own house in the colonial sector of San Juan, eventually accepted children of all social ranks. Included among them were a number of boys who later became ardent leaders in Puerto Rico’s abolitionist movement. Oller’s own strong abolitionist sensibilities were certainly shaped by some of Cordero’s former students, whom Oller befriended and even depicted in evocative portraits.  The impact of Oller’s paintings on the imagination of contemporary Puerto Rican artists has been continuous and virtually incalculable. Some of his best-known works are national icons to many, even if they do not even know the artist’s name. The epilogue to From San Juan to Paris and Back is devoted to the subject of the ‘after life’ of Oller’s imagery within the country that had so obsessed him during his lifetime.

Not wanting to write a traditional monograph on Francisco Oller, I conceived of this publication as an inquiry into the multiplicity of Caribbean visual cultures in the mid- to late nineteenth century. Some of the most important information and analysis I offer is, perhaps, a set of observations regarding the nature of productivity, hybridity, and absorption of information to make a form of art that is at once geographically specific and transnationally relevant.

Edward J. Sullivan is Helen Gould Sheppard Professor of Art History at the Institute of Fine Arts and the Department of Art History, New York University.

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