Pre-Raphaelites in Puerto Rico: Ponce Museum of Art

Update: Flaming June, (see below) is now on view at the Frick Collection in New York until September 6, 2015 at 1 East 70th St., NYC, tel: 212 288 0700. See a NYTimes review here. 

Not only is The Ponce Museum of Art a beautiful building in a beautiful city, (it was designed by the architect Edward Durell Stone), it is an example of an art museum which manages to create a thematic environment that brings together disparate pieces in a new and meaningful way. Although the artwork in the museum spans many centuries and comes from a variety of Latin American and European traditions, there is a certain aesthetic unity to it all. Perhaps this is due to the fact that it is based on the original art collection of Mr. and Mrs. Luis A. Ferré, who apparently had an eclectic taste with a uniquely Caribbean perspective: Spanish, Baroque, religious, African and American all in one.

The central focus of that aesthetic is the Pre-Raphaelite collection. The Ferrés collected paintings from this school before 1950 and were thus able to acquire many brilliant pieces. But just as interesting is the collection of earlier paintings and later works that seem to foretell and echo the same surreal, lush, emotional and epicurean vision of the world. This is a verdant, colorful world with the human figure at its center and a spiritual rapture at the core of those humans.

One encounters two oil paintings by Gustave Doré in an entry gallery. He debuted as an oil painter at the Salon de Paris in 1851, before becoming known for his book illustrations of the Bible, Shakespeare, Dante and Cervantes. The first painting is called Paisaje en un Bosque, (Interior of a Wood), and it shows a dark, mysterious overgrown forest with a bright opening in the distance, a dry round hole of twigs filled by a deep aquamarine sky. The other is La serenata, (The Serenade), painted in 1862-3.  In this dark post-sunset scene, three fantastically garbed gypsy men serenade five young Spanish women, all dressed in black and wearing black mantillas.

The tone is set in this introductory gallery by these and similar paintings that depict a sort of Nineteenth Century magic realism. There are landscapes and allegorical figures, and La Batalla de Treviño, (The Battle of Treviño), a newly acquired masterpiece by Puerto Rican painter, Francisco Oller  y Cestero. It is a furry swirl of uniforms, smoke and carnage from 1879 and it sits prominently just inside the main hall.

La Batalla de Treviño, by Francisco Oller. Public Domain

The Pre-Raphaelite collection itself is small but full of beautiful, monumental pieces. It includes an enormous oil painting by Edward Coley Burne-Jones, The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon, interpreting the final scene of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. His painting of the dying Arthur was his grand reflection on death and he worked on it during the last seventeen years of his life, effectively allowing it to consume him, both creatively and physically. In his later years, he even took to dressing as the dying Arthur of his painting.  At the center of the painting, surrounded by idyllic, long-haired women with nearly translucent skin, is Arthur on his sick bed on the enchanted island of Avalon. As the legend below the image states, in letters that extend across the entire width of the painting, the work was completed on June 17, 1898, as though announcing for all posterity the end of the artist’s productive life.

Edward Burne-Jones.The last sleep of Arthur
Edward Burne-Jones. The Last Sleep of Arthur

Edward Burne-Jones [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There is also an oil painting by Ford Madox Brown (1868-71), entitled Jacob and Joseph’s Coat. It is crowded with colorful, furious characters, ancient implements and incredible detail; even the sky has texture. Another richly detailed painting, this one by a French painter influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, Marie-François Firmin-Girard, is Toilette Japonaise, in which a group of three geishas manipulate an impressive array of Japanese toiletries as understood by a Nineteenth Century Frenchman.

As both complement and contrast to the Pre-Raphaelites, is a painting by another Frenchman, who might have considered himself rather a Raphaelite, as he cited Raphael as one of his inspirations. He painted in the Academic tradition of the late Nineteenth Century Paris salon, with classically posed figures in formal compositions. Lejos de Casa, (Far from Home) from 1868 is a beautiful blend of cloying theatrics and fine art. It shows two beggar childen with their studied pathetic expressions in front of classical Roman buildings. In contrast to the Pre-Raphaelites, he was known for subdued colors, which help to make the blatant kitschyness palatable.

One of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite school, Sir John Everett Millais is represented with The Escape of a Heretic, 1559, which was painted nearly 300 years later, in 1857. It shows a young couple in the foreground, the woman dressed in penitent garb, apparently condemned to death by the Spanish Inquisition for heresy. Her companion, an ardent young man, is dressing her in the stolen robes of a priest, who can be seen gagged and bug-eyed in the background.

The Belgian painter, Baron Gustaf Wappers, who was the teacher of Ford Madox Brown, is present with an 1852 painting, The Judgement of Solomon. Most of the surface is taken up by the two women, one sensual, fleshy and imploring, the other haughty and adamant, and holding the unfortunate baby in a brutal armlock.

The most famous work in the Pre-Raphaelite collection is Flaming June, by Lord Frederic Leighton. Painted in 1895, a year before his death. Its subject is a young woman asleep curled up on cushions before a melancholy sunset sea. But rather than showing a flaming sun, it is she who is burning with color, as her brilliant, diaphanous clothing swirls and leaps out at the viewer. This is the quintessential Victorian painting. More famous than the artist himself, it is either loathed or loved in the extreme. When it traveled to the Tate Gallery in London in 2008, The Independed ran an article which presented the contrasting points of a debate as to whether it is really art or just decoration.

Flaming June, by Fredrick Lord Leighton, (1830-1896). Public domain

Perhaps in London that would be a concern, but not here. In the context of this wonderful museum in Ponce, those arguments are irrelevant. Flaming June, and all the great and luxurious paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites and their associates fit very comfortably into an aesthetic stream that flows throughout the building and indeed throughout the Caribbean culture of the island beyond, an appreciation of brilliant color, emotion and Latin vitality. Here earnest concerns about maintaining prescribed standards for art are not as important as the instinctive connection that people feel inside themselves, and this museum has managed to demonstrate the cultural legitimacy of those instincts. The Ponce Museum of Art is an institution with a character that finely blends both the artistic masterpieces it presents to the public, and the cultural traditions of the society around it.