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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Francisco Oller

El Velorio, ca. 1893, Francisco Oller. Believe it or not, this depicts a funeral, celebrating                     
death of a child going straight to heaven without a "preliminary background check."                    
It's strange that sometimes we think we know something about something which turns out to be something not entirely accurate, at best, and sometimes totally false. For instance, it's fairly accurate to say that Impressionism originated in France. The assumption, therefore, is that all the original impressionists were French. Neither the original premise nor the assumption are totally accurate. First of all, Impressionism was a European art movement, not just one of France. Yes, the big names were pretty much all French, and the movement was the outgrowth of the en plein air Barbizon School a generation earlier, but almost from the beginning there were Spanish, Italian, Swiss, German, and English impressionists. There was even a Puerto Rican impressionist. His name was Francisco Oller.
French Landscape I, 1877, Francisco Oller
...another artist's abandoned working kit, (probably taking a bathroom break).
Francisco Oller Self-portrait, ca. 1910.
Although many are familiar with the work from non-French impressionists, the assumption (again not entirely accurate) was that they were all second-generation followers rather than pioneers like Monet, Renoir, and Pissarro. Oller hit Paris as early as 1858, studying first under Thomas Couture then under Gustave Courbet. Of course, neither of these men were impressionists but both were highly influential, not just as painters, but as rebels, serving to break the academic mold which allowed impressionism to spring forth like garden sprouts in early April. Though modern-day historians all seem to claim Oller as the first Puerto Rican Impressionist; and he certainly was in the right place at the right time to have made a major contribution to the movement, I could find very few of his works which appear to be truly Impressionist. One, however, French Landscape I (above) from 1877, not only gives us a chance to inspect Oller's impressionist credentials, but also presents an interesting visual essay as to the difficulties en plein air painters had to overcome in "backpacking" their "studio" outside. (Likely painted after he returned to Puerto Rico.)

'La Ceiba de Ponce, Francisco Oller, a Puerto Rican Impressionist painting.

President William McKinley,
ca. 1900, Francisco Oller.
Francisco Manuel Oller y Cestero was from Bayamón, (north central) Puerto Rico, the third of four children. Born in 1833, by the age of eleven, young Francisco was studying art with a local painter. By 1848, the boy's talent so impressed the island's governor that he offered to send the boy to Rome to further his studies. The offer was rejected by Francisco's mother who feared her son was too young to travel so far by himself. She was probably right--he was only fifteen. However, by the time the boy was eighteen, his mother relented and young Francisco was off to study art in Madrid. From there he moved on to Paris where he studied painting at the Louvre while supporting himself by singing Italian opera. He had a booming baritone voice. Within a year after arriving in Paris, Oller exhibited some of his paintings next to those of Bazille, Renoir, Monet, and Sisley--all impressionists. For a short time, Paul Cezanne was one of his students.

Hacienda La Fortuna, 1885, Francisco Oller
Coronel Francisco e Contreras,
1880, Francisco, Oller
Oller might have made a stronger name for himself in the annuls of Impressionism had he remained in Paris longer. Apparently, around 1860, he returned to Puerto Rico taking with him his impressionist tendencies (at least insofar as landscapes were concerned) but also his earlier Realist influences, painting portraits of important island social and political personages such as his impressive Portrait of Coronel Francisco e Contreras (right), from 1880. He even did a portrait of President William McKinley (above, left, probably not from life, perhaps even posthumously). By returning to San Juan, as a professional, European-trained artist, Oller became something of a "big fish in a small pond." He founded, in 1868, The Free Academy of Art of Puerto Rico, and later, in 1884, also started an art school for young women. Local sugar plantation owners commissioned Oller to paint landscapes of their holdings much like the Hacienda la Fortuna (above) dating from 1885. Any Impressionism is minimal. At the time, Impressionism was still "catching on" (and slowly at that) in France. It's unlikely such a "arty" manner of painting would have been embraced by Oller's well-to-do clients on this side of the Atlantic.

The School of Master Cordero, Francisco Oller

Platanos Amarillos (detail),
(Yellow Plantains),
Francisco Manuel Oller
During the latter years of his career, Oller began to dabble into Puerto Rican genre scenes such as his El Velorio (top) dating from 1893. His The School of Master Cordero (above) is indicative of both his genre painting style and his intense interest in educating the children of Puerto Rica. About the same time Oller began to apply his hand to still-life painting (below) as seen in his Still Life with Bananas, Pitcher; and Pajuiles (cashew fruit), and his Platanos Amarillos (right). Oller died in 1917 at the age of eighty four. 
Still Life with Bananas, Pitcher; and Pajuiles,
Francisco Oller

A Self-portrait? The date is uncertain. The artist isn't.

For more of Oller's work, click below--
Museo Francisco Oller


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