Francisco Oller, Core of ‘Impressionism and the Caribbean,’ at the Brooklyn Museum
By KEN JOHNSONOCT. 1, 2015
“The School of Master Rafael Cordero” (circa 1890), an oil by Francisco Oller. Credit Ateneo Puertorriqueño, San Juan, P.R.
The painter Francisco Oller (1833–1917) was the most celebrated Puerto Rican artist of the 19th century. If he’s not more widely known today, it’s for complicated and not entirely unfair reasons. He was a good painter and, at times, an inspired one. But for most of his career, he was a facile imitator, bouncing back and forth across the Atlantic, spending a total of nearly 20 years sojourning, at different times, in Madrid and in Paris, where he studied with Courbet and hung out with Impressionist painters like Pissarro, Monet and Cézanne.
It wasn’t until he settled down in San Juan, at around the age of 60, that he came into his own, producing a number of haunting landscapes and a handful of mysteriously powerful still-life paintings that can plausibly be called great. Those and other late works are highlights of “Impressionism and the Caribbean: Francisco Oller and His Transatlantic World,” an absorbing but problematic exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum.
The show presents 40 paintings by Oller and 45 by other artists, including his European and American contemporaries and his Puerto Rican predecessors. Therein lies the problem: There are too many pieces by other artists, and they interrupt and confuse your sense of Oller’s evolution. In a section devoted to his extended stays in France, Oller’s modestly adept plein air landscapes are interspersed among considerably more assertive paintings by Courbet, Corot, Millet, Pissarro, Monet and others. In this major-league company, Oller fades away, his most memorable piece being a small, muddy 1864 rendering of Cézanne painting outdoors under a white umbrella.
“Two Women Chatting by the Sea, St. Thomas” (1856). Credit National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon
The show was organized by Richard Aste, the museum’s curator of European art, and Edward J. Sullivan, author of “San Juan to Paris and Back: Francisco Oller and Caribbean Art in the Era of Impressionism” (Yale University Press, 2014).
In his book, Mr. Sullivan makes no exaggerated claims for Oller. He describes him as “a model for the artist as explorer of the liminal, a miner of the interstices of aesthetic trends, and a creator of a distinctly Caribbean form of Modern art.” This approach works well in Mr. Sullivan’s writing, which ties together a lot of different strands into a coherent narrative. But Oller’s story is not so clearly told by an exhibition that mixes his works with so many others that are more or less compelling in their own right. It’s especially confusing because Oller’s oeuvre is such a mixed bag. At different times, he was a realist, an Impressionist, an academic portrait painter, a history painter and a social realist.
Born in San Juan into an upper-middle-class family of Spanish extraction, Oller took to painting and drawing in boyhood. At 18, he went to Madrid to study for two years. Then, in his mid-20s, he began a seven-year stay in Paris (1858–65), where two paintings of his, now lost, were accepted into the Salons of 1864 and ’65. Back in San Juan (1865–73), he painted portraits of prominent Puerto Ricans, married and had two daughters, and established the first of 10 short-lived art schools he would eventually found. He usually offered free tuition to those who couldn’t pay and encouraged young women and minorities to attend.
In 1870, the king of Spain appointed Oller royal gentleman of the Order of Carlos III and, two years later, painter to the royal chamber. Hoping to capitalize on those honors, Oller spent seven years (1877-84) in Madrid. On spec, he produced a history painting called “The Battle of Treviño” (1879), one of the oddest paintings in the exhibition: a wonderfully tumultuous, loosely painted picture of scores of tiny, toylike figures of soldiers on horseback and foot converging on a hill amid much smoke and dust. It didn’t elicit the commissions he was angling for. As Mr. Sullivan notes in his book, “It represented one of several significant misturns in his career.”
“Paul Cézanne Painting Out of Doors” (circa 1864). Credit Collection of Dr. Luis R. de Corral and Dr. Lorraine Vázquez, Puerto Rico
Back in Puerto Rico in the late 1880s and the ’90s, Oller made the best, most personal paintings of his career. Among these are two landscapes depicting the buildings and environs of sugar plantations. These have haunted, abandoned atmospheres attributable partly to the decline of the Puerto Rican sugar industry after the abolition of slavery in 1873. (Oller was a lifelong abolitionist.) But you may also sense that Oller was projecting in these soulful images a sadness of his own as he came to grips with advancing age and his frustrated ambitions.
Even more arresting are two of several still lifes, close-up views of coconuts in one and of green plantains in the other. Harking back to European still-life painting of the 17th and 18th centuries, they are intensely realistic and have a strangely imposing, nearly surrealistic monumentality.
Around the same time, he painted a large posthumous portrait of Rafael Cordero (1790–1868), a free black man who founded the first school for male children of slaves and freed slaves in Puerto Rico. Painted with impeccable academic craftsmanship, “The School of Master Rafael Cordero” (1890–92) shows the aged teacher, surrounded by rambunctious boys, looking out at the viewer with a kindly, tired expression.
While “The School” represented Oller at his most idealistic, his ultimate masterpiece, “The Wake” (circa 1893), allegorized the social degradation in Puerto Rico that he felt should be overcome. Measuring 8 by 13 feet, it depicts a raucous funeral party for an infant in a lower-class rural home, a crowded, unruly scene populated by frolicking children, barking dogs and clergymen of doubtful moral stature.
Oller felt so strongly about “The Wake” that he took it with him on one last trip to Paris, intent on showing it in the Salon of 1895. But while it was listed in the catalog, no one knows for sure whether it actually appeared in the exhibition.
Unfortunately, that painting isn’t in the show, but is represented by a large photographic reproduction. Considered a Puerto Rican national treasure, it’s not allowed to travel from its home in the Museum of History, Anthropology and Art at the University of Puerto Rico’s Río Piedras campus.
“Impressionism and the Caribbean: Francisco Oller and His Transatlantic World” runs through Jan. 3 at the Brooklyn Museum; brooklynmuseum.org, 718-638-5000.
A version of this review appears in print on October 2, 2015, on page C29 of the New York edition with the headline: Soulful Painter of Puerto Rico . Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe