Saturday in the Museum with Francisco

Image: Francisco Oller, Hacienda La Fortuna (1885).

For our Saturday art post we go to the Caribbean. This year we have been focusing on pieces that have the subject of where food comes from. This painting captures a moment when food production was shifting as a result of slavery ending.

Francisco Manuel Oller y Cestero was born in Puerto Rico in 1833 into an aristocratic Spanish family. At eighteen, he moved to Madrid to study art under the Don Federico de Madrazo y Kuntz, the director of the Prado, and later studied at the Louvre under Courbet. He became known as the first Puerto Rican and Hispanic Impressionist artist. He moved back and forth across the Atlantic throughout his life. In 1868, he founded The Free Academy of Art of Puerto Rico. In 1884, he founded an art school for young women. In 1872, he became the official painter of the Spanish royal court. He returned to Puerto Rico for good in 1896. Puerto Rico remained his central and most important subject.

This painting presents another legacy of the cross-Atlantic links between Spain and Puerto Rico. One of the great surges in Barcelona’s wealth came from plantations in the Caribbean. This painting shows one of those sugar plantations and mills in the years after slavery ended, which also reduced the riches gained for the barons in Barcelona. One of the barons, José Gallart, commissioned Oller to paint his sugar operations, called ingenios. Oller finished two of the paintings that were then displayed by Gallart in Barcelona.

This painting, Hacienda La Fortuna, is now in the Brooklyn Museum, which mounted an exhibition of Oller’s work in 2016. They explain its context:

“Puerto Rico’s sugar production, like that of almost all Caribbean islands, depended on the labor of enslaved people. When the island abolished slavery in 1873, the sugar industry declined dramatically. In his sparsely populated “portraits” of Gallart’s ingenios, Oller seems to refer to the increasing obsolescence of a commerce once fueled by the sweat of human chattel.”

Oller remained in Puerto Rico until he died on May 17, 1917, in San Juan.


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