Francisco Oller (1833-1917) was a Puerto Rican Impressionist painter.
When you think of Impressionism, you probably don’t think of Puerto Rico. Yet Oller was a Puerto Rican artist who was part of the Impressionist movement in Europe and brought Impressionist technique back to the island. He transformed painting in the Caribbean.
If you know Puerto Rico, you know we have the most outrageous light. And life in Puerto Rico is a little bit surreal which points to the beginning of the Impressionist movement as a step on the journey from realism to abstraction. It actually makes perfect sense that there would be Puerto Rican master of light and movement.
Oller was born in Bayamón, Puerto Rico on June 17, 1833. He was a niño bien (rich kid) who got to study art in San Juan. His natural talent opened doors to Europe.
Madrid and Paris
When he came of age around 1851, the artist moved to Europe where he continued his studies in association with the Prado Museum in Madrid and then the Louvre museum in Paris.
Oller spent about twenty years working in Europe where he was part of the Impressionist scene.
The legendary Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne was briefly his student. Oller was close with Camille Pissarro, the Dutch-French Caribbean painter from what is now St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.
Oller founded the Free Academy of Art of Puerto Rico in 1868. In 1884 he founded an art school for women.
The artist died in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1917. He is buried in Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery, basically the national cemetery in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Paintings of Plantation Life
Oller gives us a view into Puerto Rican life a hundred years ago. A Spanish Catalan Puerto Rican sugar mill owner commissioned Oller to paint all five of his sugar mills.
In “Hacienda la Fortuna” you can see the field workers. The landscape shows the planter’s colonial mansion, a warehouse on the left and the mill on the right. The painting was gifted to the Brooklyn Museum so you can see it there in the Beaux-Arts Court, East, 3rd Floor. The Museum exhibited Oller’s work in Impressionism and the Caribbean: Francisco Oller and his Transatlantic World in 2015-16.
Oller’s “La ceiba de Ponce” (1888) is a landscape with a famous ceiba tree in Ponce. To the Taíno and many other cultures, the ceiba is a sacred tree. We went to Ponce partly to see it. The government turned the nearby river into a concrete flood control channel. The great ceiba of Ponce started dying. It’s still there, and even has the shape you see in the painting, but sadly it is dead. The original painting is in El Museo de Arte de Ponce. museoarteponce.org
His “Hacienda Aurora” (1899) shows Puerto Rico’s Indigenous sacred mountain El Yunque in the background. It’s a view that is familiar to Puerto Ricans in the San Juan metropolitan area.
Sugar produced on these plantations would have been shipped to Brooklyn which became the world’s leading sugar refiner after 1860.
Characteristics of Impressionism include working in natural light with ordinary subjects and suggesting movement over time.
It was a reaction to Romanticism which glorified the emotions of the heroic individual in medieval times.
Impressionism abandons the hard lines of the illustrator for softer brush strokes. The interplay of these brush strokes offer the sensation of movement through shifting light and invite you to feel the scene instead of just see it.
This was the beginning of Modern Art which in a series of movements explored ever subtler ways to express movement and feeling.
The Puerto Rican Landscape is Living Impressionism
To really understand Oller, you need to spend some time in Puerto Rico. Like the French countryside, the heavens, the sea, and the mountains of Puerto Rico are Impressionism in real life.
The winds, waters and jungles of the Puerto Rican landscape are constantly in motion. Every time you look up, there is something simply beautiful to see, and it’s always gently moving.
Perhaps because the light near the equator is more intense, the range of colors in Puerto Rico is something to behold. Computers can now show more colors than the eye can see. But no computer image can capture the range of colors in a Puerto Rican landscape.
It’s not about what the eye sees, it’s what the brain sees. Looking at the Puerto Rican landscape, one wonders who or what could possibly create such beauty. God used all the colors to create Puerto Rico.
Modern Art was More Universal Than We Were Taught
In relations between Europe and the Americas, Americans (of the American continents) were always taught that the culture of Europe was superior and the culture of the Americas was inferior.
It’s not true, European culture is more European and American culture is more American, but neither is inherently better than the other. The inferiority complex was imposed as a means of control during the Colonial Period.
The reality is that Europe influenced the Americas and the Americas influenced Europe. In fact, advances in human culture and technology often arise spontaneously in multiple places around the same time.
We were taught about the great work of the Europeans. We were not taught about the great work being done in the Americas.
The art world understands this now. That is why we are seeing more exhibitions of artists beyond the male-only, Euro-centric, traditional time periods of art. This is why the MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art shut down for the summer of 2019 to restructure its exhibitions to be more inclusive in time, region and gender.
The change is occurring not just for politically correctness. It is happening because great art was made outside the traditional frames of reference.
Francisco Oller is one of these artists.
Museo de Arte Francisco Oller
There is a Francisco Oller art museum in Bayamón. It’s not so much a museum of his art, as a museum of contemporary artists’ reactions to Oller’s work.
Museo de Arte Francisco Oller
13 Cll Degetau, Bayamón, 00961
The Museum is in downtown Bayamón on the central plaza. It is near the Deportivo station of the Tren Urbano train system.
If you want to have a beer or a hamburger nearby, we recommend El Nido. elnidopuertorico.com