NEW YORK – Sotheby’s announced that its fall sales will feature two rare masterpieces by Puerto Rico’s most acclaimed eighteenth- and nineteenth-century artists, José Campeche y Jordan (1751-1809) and Francisco Oller y Cestero (1833-1917). On the afternoon of November 12, Sotheby’s London will offer Oller’s epic painting La Batalla de Treviño (est. £340/380,000) as part of The Spanish Sale, and on the evening of November 18, Sotheby’s New York, as part of the Latin American Art Sale, will offer a fine example of one of Campeche’s most beloved religious subjects, La Virgen de la Merced (est. $150/200,000).
The cosmopolitan artist Francisco Oller y Cestero is considered Puerto Rico’s most celebrated nineteenthcentury painter. Born in San Juan, Oller studied and worked intermittently in Madrid and Paris from 1851 through 1884, when he finally established himself permanently in Puerto Rico. During his European sojourns he became a member of the extended mid-nineteenth century Parisian School, counting among his fellow pupils Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Frédéric Bazille, Paul Cézanne and Camille Pisarro. It was the combination of their new aesthetic and the Realism of Gustave Courbet that would have a lasting impact on the development of Oller’s own distinct style.
Executed in 1879, La Batalla de Treviño depicts the victory of Colonel Juan de Contreras in this key battle in the Carlist Wars – the epic nineteenth-century war over the succession of the Spanish throne. Hitherto unknown, the present work is the fourth and final version Oller painted, and is the culmination of his developing thoughts on, and ambitions for, this major composition.
The Battle of Treviño took place on 8 July 1875, when Colonel Contreras led ninety-eight cavalrymen from the royal regiment to an overwhelming victory against an army ten times the size of his troops. A defining moment for the liberal cause, the battle marked one of the decisive victories in the history of the Carlist Wars.
La Batalla de Treviño embodies Oller’s mature work and was executed during his final and most extensive European sojourn, during which time he was appointed as the official painter to the Spanish Court of King Alfonso XII. As well as a history painting celebrating the liberal cause, the present work had a personal significance for Oller. Contreras’s father had been stationed in Puerto Rico in the 1850s as Vice Governor on the Island, during which time Juan, his son, and Oller struck up a close friendship. Their paths certainly crossed again as a result of the Battle of Treviño. The present work can be seen in part as Oller’s personal tribute to his friend. Oller also painted a smaller, less expansive version of the Battle in 1878 that is in the Collection of the Palacio Real in Madrid. A related study, Study for la Carga de Trevino, was sold by Sotheby’s New York in November 2005, lot 36 for $102,000, which remains the record for the artist at auction.
These related works all pale in comparison to this version due to its overall scale (37 x 67 inches, 93.7 x 170 cm) and the depth and quality of Oller’s rendering of this historic event. Oller’s free and spontaneous approach in this painting opposes the conventions of realism and the technical precision of traditional military painting. Instead, he embraces a dynamic, Impressionistic style to capture the atmosphere and drama of the moment. In La Batalla de Treviño, Oller evokes the terrain of the battlefield to palpitating and mesmerising effect, using mere dabs of colour that seem to blend together and make the action appear to alternate in and out of focus. Even the heroic figure of Contreras himself is almost incidental to the painting’s overall effusive lyricism.
While Francisco Oller’s accomplishments are unparalleled in the history of nineteenth-century painting in Puerto Rico, José Campeche y Jordan’s extraordinary artistic production defined the preceding century and would have a lasting impact on generations of artists to come including Oller. Born in 1751, the son of a liberated slave, Campeche is one of the most accomplished Spanish colonial painters of the second-half of the eighteenth century and the first to express a sense of Puerto Rico’s burgeoning national identity. In a career spanning nearly four decades, Campeche proved to be equally adept at portraying religious subjects and portraits of notable citizens. As a pupil of the Spanish court painter Luis Paret y Alcázar, Campeche absorbed his teacher’s penchant for the Rococo, favoring a delicate palette of blues, golds and whites along with grays and vermilions carefully blended to obtain rich tonal gradations, soft and curved forms as well as a particular approach to the structuring of the pictorial space.
La Virgen de la Merced (or The Virgin of Ransom) whose task it was to support the welfare and security of the Christian captives of Islam and to negotiate their ransom— is one of several versions painted by the artist. In keeping with her role as the Patroness of the Mercedarian Order, Campeche depicts her in the charitabl task of ransoming or freeing captives. Seated on a throne of billowy clouds, she holds the Infant Jesus in her arms, and her bestows a scapular of the Order to a small child adorned with a red turban. At the Virgin’s feet are two captives, one freed and the other still imprisoned as indicated by his chains. Two sets of cherubs on either side of the top corner of the traditional pyramidal composition balance out the remaining space and further imbue the painting with an overall sense of benevolence and innocence.
Although some differences are notable, the painting is remarkably similar to the version currently in the collection of the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña in San Juan—a relevant detail that allows us to draw the conclusion that this present version was probably painted on or around the same period during the 1790s. Based on a popular devotional engraving of the same subject, Campeche’s Virgen de la Merced reflects the eighteenth-century painter’s unparalleled mastery of his subject and medium. The artist’s talents as a miniaturist and his precise and subdued use of color are displayed by the Virgin Mary’s porcelain features and the rich drapery and folds of her garments, as well as the dynamic foreshortened figure of the infant Jesus, complemented by the remaining figures.