I learned that I should not appeal for clemency in writing, but I have no choice, I was not an erudite visitor at the Blanton Museum of Art. I went because my friend convinced me that the exhibition was a rare partnership between Impressionism and the Caribbean. Later on I discovered that the full title of this painting collection is Impressionism and the Caribbean: Francisco Oller and His Transatlantic World.
Every Thursday admission to the museum is free so I picked a Thursday in late July. As soon as I opened the glass entrance door, a gust of wind swept me through and I landed in a realm very different than the broiling atmosphere I left behind.
The open-space layout, indirect sunlight, and blue hues decelerated my rhythm of thoughts and emotions. Stacked Waters by Teresita Fernández was a masterpiece. From afar the blue stripes on the Rapoport Atrium’s walls appeared clean and modern, but at a closer distance, each slate displayed a unique gradient of beautifully marbled blue. These streams of blue eased the burden to fathom the implications of paintings I would soon meet. I let out a happy sigh.
Opposite to the Stacked Waters walls, a large timeline of Francisco Oller’s life beckoned to me. I supposed it was time to walk into the special exhibit section. Oller’s self-portrait welcomed my presence. (I kept seeing an imaginary red biretta on his head.) His eyes followed me for a while.
Francisco Oller was a Puerto Rico born painter. He began his studies in Puerto Rico, and continued mastering the art in Europe. His works put forth social issues in the Caribbean, stimulating the transformation of the region’s idyllic, romanticized paintings into more realistic cultural landscapes. Since I have no further knowledge about him, I shall proceed to his Impressionist paintings.
While blogging, I found myself burrowing into history online. Rafael Cordero was the father of public education in Puerto Rico. The educator provided free schooling for children regardless of their race and social status. This painting elicits Oller’s sentiment for the Puerto Rican education. The children’s dynamics in class and Master Cordero’s countenance (I can’t figure if his gaze is vacant, grave, or weary) emanate a discord that accentuates diversity in their midst.
I usually forgo plantation scenery, but in 1800s, rural labor portrayed everyday life in the Caribbean. I stayed awhile because I fancied enlightenment. Hacienda La Fortuna was a sugar mill complex located in Puerto Rico. A facility of this trade processed sugar cane into raw sugar. The owner then shipped the raw sugar to Brooklyn, to sugar refineries run by the “sugar barons” in New York. According to history, sugar industry had been plagued with slavery and other violations of human rights, occurring primarily in the West Indies (i.e., the Caribbean.) Two year after this painting was completed, a man by the name of Henry O. Havemeyer organized the first sugar trust. The Court’s order soon dissolved the trust on the accusation of sugar monopoly. In 1909, however, an article on The New York Times reported that it was reorganized under a new name, the American Sugar Refineries Company of New Jersey, with a capital of $50,000,000. Havemeyer and his wife, Louisine, were also early collectors of Impressionist art. There are books written about them and their influence on Impressionism in America: “The Havemeyers: Impressionism Comes to America” and “Splendid Legacy: The Havemeyer Collection.” The latter informs, “…Mrs. Havemeyer was perhaps the first American to buy a Monet…” After her husband’s death, Mrs. Havemeyer became a prominent figure in the U.S. women’s suffrage movement.
Against all odds, Colonel Juan Contreras won La Batalla de Treviño during Spain’s Carlist Wars in 1875. In this painting, Oller fused Impressionism and Realism to lay a dramatic stage for the hero, the man on the horse, the Colonel, to shine. The painting was large in size so when I stood closer, my eyes were mainly drawn to the realistic expressions of the soldiers: fear, panic, anger, and so forth. But from a few steps away, the brilliant details with the contrasting sky and terrain converged to a focal point — the tip of the Colonel’s sword. Oller clearly admired him.
The Student rattles me. First, I do not observe any student in the scene. Second, why is the gentleman clasping an undersized skull in his hand? Some art historians believe that the models of this painting were Oller’s famous friend, Émile Zola, and his seamstress girlfriend. Whatever it is that Oller attempts to imply behind his piece remains cryptic to me. But the intricacy of the objects — the wallpapers, the multiple reflections in the mirror, the fabric folds, the hair — escorted by the lights and shadows is indisputably exquisite.
Finally, near the end of my prolonged route — traipsing back and forth to make meaning of the broad spectrum of Impressionistic strokes — I realized that I was more inclined to the undemanding Realist paintings. I’m always fond of Realism, especially in still life food, a forte of Oller. All in all, the free Thursday admission to such a collection is by all means worthwhile!