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Vicente Escobar, Portrait of Don Toma  ́ s Mateo Cervantes , c. 1800, oil on canvas. Courtesy of The Cuban Foundation Collection, Daytona Beach Museum of Arts and Sciences. 

Vicente Escobar, Portrait of Don Toma ́ s Mateo Cervantes , c. 1800, oil on canvas. Courtesy of The Cuban Foundation Collection, Daytona Beach Museum of Arts and Sciences. 

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The founding of Havana's fine arts academy of San Alejandro in 1818, initially as a school for instruction in drawing, was modeled upon strategies by the Spanish monarchy to establish art academies and drawing schools for the cultural improvement of the empire. Sponsored by Spanish Intendant Alejandro Ramírez and the city's Royal Economic Society o...

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... Havana possessed a number of artists and artisans executing devotional religious paintings and sculptures, mural paintings for houses, and painted portraits of Spanish officials, elite clergy, Peninsular merchants, and Creole planters. This industry came to be practiced primarily by free people of color, and perhaps even slaves. While colonial painters typically learned by studying European prints and copies of masterworks brought by royal officials and elite clergy, we are still unclear about the training of these artists. Guilds for various artistic trades existed in Cuba, but much more research is needed to understand their regulations and membership. Cuban-born painters in this period become increasingly visible to scholars, receiving numerous commissions and often signing their work, which was a declaration of their own status and an elevation of the art of painting (Deans-Smith 2007, 78 Á 79). Art collections in Havana and the United States house a number of paintings by such artists as Jos ́ Nicol ́ s de la Escalera (born in Havana, 1734 Á 1804), Juan del R ́ o (1748 Á ?), Agust ́ n Rodr ́ guez, Felipe Fuentes (born in Camag ̈ ey, eighteenth century), and Vicente Escobar (born in Havana, 1762 Á 1834). Jos ́ Nicol ́ s de la Escalera is sometimes identified as a man of color, but we are ultimately unsure of his ethnic background or racial categorization. A number of his works can be found today in the permanent collection of the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana, including several religious paintings of saints and holy figures as well as official portraiture. The fact that this artist has a relatively large identifiable body of work for official, ecclesiastical, and private patrons speaks to the increased wealth and pride of place in late eighteenth-century Havana (P ́ rez Cisnero 1959; Castro 1970; Rigol 1971; Juan 1974, 1980). Several of his portraits share conventions of pose common among works in New Spain and Europe, such as the three-quarter turn, the presence of a coat of arms, and a textual band identifying the sitter. Cuban scholars have noted echoes of Spanish baroque master Bartolom ́ Esteban Murillo (1617 Á 1682) in de la Escalera ’ s compositional drama, the calmness of his figures, and the use of emotive colors in his religious narratives. However, his style must also have been informed by the development of local colonial preferences in Havana. ‘ Coronation of the Virgin by the Trinity, ’ a late eighteenth-century oil on canvas, depicts the miraculous crowing of Mary by Christ, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit through characteristic baroque diagonals, billowing clouds, and lack of a naturalistic setting (Figure 1). The absence of a consistent one-point perspective in these kinds of paintings produced a sometimes flat and inharmonious effect, aspects that would be derided by artistic reformers in the early nineteenth century who felt that such artists suffered from a lack of training in drawing. Another artist from this period, baptized in Havana ’ s main parish church in 1762, was Vicente Escobar, a painter of African descent. Born to a father who served as militia captain of the Battalion of Pardos, Escobar ’ s mother was a Creole white. Although legally a ‘ man of color, ’ Escobar ’ s race would change in formal documents with the success of his painting career. His portraiture earned him the recognition of Cuba ’ s Captain-General, Francisco Dionisio Vives, who sent him to Spain, where Escobar was named Painter of the Royal Chamber in Madrid on 15 March 1827 (P ́ rez Cisnero 1959; Rigol 1971). Upon his death, he was listed in the burial registry for whites, meaning that his professional accomplishments earned him a social advancement whereby his race was modified (Calcagno 1878, 258). Escobar painted religious scenes and portraiture today found in various collections in Havana including that of the convent of San Francisco de Asis, the National Museum of Fine Arts, and the City Museum. In portraiture, he executed works for male and female patrons in primarily half-length formats. Escobar developed a consistent repertoire of expressions, emphasizing the sitter ’ s social standing by highlighting clothing and material accouterments, which reinforced the subject ’ s participation in the growing realm of material consumption in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth- century Havana. His works for white patrons served to reinforce the elite sitter ’ s racial whiteness by emphasizing the subject ’ s pale skin tone. Stylistically, Escobar ’ s work has a relatively flat appearance because he neither practiced rigorous life drawing, nor made extensive use of chiaroscuro (light-dark modulation). The artist signed many of his paintings, which reveals an artist ’ s pride as well as the patrons ’ recognition of his skills. In the ‘ Portrait of Tom ́ s Mateo Cervantes, ’ oil on canvas from c. 1800, Escobar represents the young man in conventions for male portraiture (Figure 2). Cervantes appears in formal dress against a background of red drapery with a suspended tassel. The man ’ s white lace cravat contrasts with the dark blue of his coat while his sword, a conventional element of Euro-American elite portraiture, rests on his hip. At the top left of the canvas, a family coat of arms identifies Cervantes as a member of the titled nobility. Below, in a horizontal band, a text indicates his identity and accomplishments. While the portrait serves as a mimetic device, to render a naturalistic likeness of the sitter for purposes of social representation, it is also metonymic and in essence rhetorical, in that the painting ’ s function to provide a link between the sitter ’ s actual appearance and his white social identity. Escobar makes this connotation by attention to the whiteness of Cervantes ’ s skin (albeit somewhat tanned to connote his geographic or ethnic identity as a Cuban Creole) and the European characteristics of his facial structure, which both allude to his purity of blood. While this group of Havana painters produced a number of documented works, we know relatively little about how they defined their profession and status as artists by comparison to painters elsewhere in Spanish America. Historian Susan Deans-Smith examines efforts by painters in early modern New Spain, including Juan Rodr ́ guez Ju ́ rez (1675 Á 1728) and Miguel Cabrera (1695? Á 1768), to reform and redefine the status of their profession (2007, 2009). In certain cases, Novohispanic painters attempted to distance themselves from an artisan population that they felt to be untrained in the art of painting, generating discourses that Deans-Smith argues became racially inflected. The use of racial associations by Novohispanic painters in an attempt to improve the status of painting and simultaneously to denigrate the work of untrained artists presents an important parallel with the situation in Havana. It suggests a late colonial pattern in the transition from guilds to academies, whereby discussions of artistic practice in the colonies became bound up in discourses about race and social categories. In Havana, by contrast, we know little about the views of the late eighteenth- century community of painters, such as de la Escalera and Escobar, towards the status of their profession or how they compared themselves to lower-rank artisans, for example, the city ’ s legion of mural painters. We also know nothing at present of their individual and collective reception of academic art practice in Europe and the Americas. Furthermore, those who were still alive in 1818 leave hardly any indication of their reactions to the presence of the new academy and the fact that none of these artists were asked to serve as painting professors. What we do know is that the spectrum of late colonial painting was complicated by the steady arrival of a number of European artists in Havana by the eighteenth century, including the printmaker Jos ́ B ́ ez, and in the early nineteenth century the Italian painter Jos ́ Perovani, the French architect Stephen Hallet, and eventually the French painter Jean-Baptiste Vermay. The commercial growth of the Atlantic world and the increased wealth of Havana made the city a viable option for itinerant artists seeking gainful employment. Academic classicism had taken root in the city immediately following the 1762 British occupation through public works projects, including paseos (promenades), such as the Paseo de Extramuros and the Alameda de Paula, laid out in the 1770s (Figure 3). Economic investment in civic improvements and additional stimuli from the nascent sugar industry encouraged elite habaneros to look upon their city as a potentially cosmopolitan center by the late eighteenth century precisely as neoclassicism was being introduced by reformers as the modern style. Italian painter Jos ́ Perovani (1765 Á 1835) arrived in Havana by way of Philadelphia in c. 1801 and worked on frescos for Bishop Juan Jos ́ D ́ az de Espada y Landa (served in Havana, 1802 Á 1832) in the city ’ s cathedral. Espada, a man of the Spanish Enlightenment who possessed a taste for neoclassicism, brought his own reform agenda to Cuba and became an active patron of the arts (Garc ́ a Pons 1951; Torres-Cuevas 1990; Espada 1999). Perovani began three frescos for the lunettes over the cathedral sanctuary that combine religious narratives, such as the Last Supper, with classically draped human bodies, depictions of Greco-Roman architecture, shallow, stage-like settings, and austere classical motifs (Figure 4). Perhaps to advance his career, Perovani moved on to Mexico City, where he became associated with the Royal Academy of San Carlos, without finishing the frescos for the Havana cathedral. Also in the first decade of the nineteenth century, Bishop Espada hired French architect Stephen Hallet to design a new public cemetery for an area outside the city walls, inaugurated in 1806 (Niell 2011a, ...


... Another obstacle lies in the fact that Afrodescendant artistic efforts were often curtailed or denigrated by creole elites. Deans-Smith (2009), Fischer (2004), andNiell (2012) have analyzed the exclusionary activities of guilds and artistic academies in Mexico City and Havana, as well as the racialized nature of artistic taste to favor academic art. The suppressive efforts by academicians also hinder scholarly endeavors to recover the names and objects produced by Afrodescendant artists as they were excluded from official institutions and their record-keeping practices (Fischer 2004, 69-70). ...
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In the 1830s, Cuban and Spanish patrons sponsored three public fountains, designed and carved in Italy, for new and redesigned urban spaces in Havana. In their reconfiguration of international forms, materials, and iconographies, the fountains reveal diverging notions of the patria (motherland or homeland) within the Spanish Empire. The iconography of the works partook of broader visual and textual rhetorics that speak to a burgeoning Atlantic world city renegotiating its engagement with empire and its growing conception of itself as a distinctive, local setting. Employing transatlantic discourses, the classicizing fountains addressed the center-periphery dialectic established by Spanish colonialism.