Great Paintings: El Velorio by Francisco Oller

Today, I want to take some time to talk about one of the most important and well known paintings in the history of Puerto Rican art: Francisco Oller’s masterpiece, El Velorio.

Oller, an impressionist who studied in France, is perhaps the most famous and celebrated Puerto Rican painter. Oller was particularly dedicated to causes of social justice, and his work celebrates the lives of everyday Puerto Rican, portraying their struggles with nuance and compassion. As I mentioned above, El Velorio is his masterpiece and one of Puerto Rico’s national treasures.

Measuring eight by thirteen feet, El Velorio (which literally translates to The Wake) is truly a monumental work. It portrays a baquiné, a wake held for a dead infant. The baquiné is a traditional practice that has its roots in African cultures; the ceremony, which is essentially a wake, celebrates the child’s ascension to Heaven after his or her death and is underpinned by the belief that the dead infant is now an angel.

The piece depicts the inside of a one-room, jibaro house; the dead child is the focal point of the image. The baby, festooned with flowers, lies on a table in the center of the room. Oller’s portrayal of the child is reminiscent of the iconography used in paintings of the Christ Child, a symbol of the infant’s purity and sanctity. There is a symbolic split in the room, with the child’s body as the dividing line. To the right, the inconsolable parents mourn the child with a priest, dressed in the black. To the left, there is a scene of chaos; mourners dance, shout, and play music; children cry, dogs run through the house, and a man has just entered carrying a roast pig.

Oller’s painting is one of contrasts. Here, we see the clash of death and life, sorrow and joy, and the sacred and the secular, but also how these oppositional forces can exist in the same space. On a symbolic level, the piece explores how these forces interact with and complement each other. In particular, the painting highlights the fact that death is, in fact, part of life. The pulsing vitality of the house around the dead child is a symbol of renewal and rebirth, part of the endless cycle of life and death. Yet, it is also the inherent contrast between these states of being that creates a sense of dynamism and visual tension within the painting.

On a more literal level, it also holds anthropological significance, evidence of the culture and traditions surrounding death in Puerto Rico in the nineteenth century. As I mentioned above, Oller was particularly interested in depicting the lives of ordinary people, and his painting captures a unique aspect of Puerto Rican life. However, it’s dangerous to read the painting purely as an unbiased representation of history.

The creation of art requires the artist to make choices, which are informed by his or her lived experience. Oller’s piece is carefully organized to create a painting that is visually appealing, while also communicating a meaningful symbolic message. Intentionally or unintentionally, Oller’s compositional choice tap into long standing traditions of Christian iconography. In images of the Last Judgement, the damned are traditionally on Christ’s left, while the saved are on the right. In this painting, that dichotomy is reflected the scenes of debauchery on the left and the mourning parents, confronted by the priest on the right. This careful positioning sanctifies the parents in their grief and implies a certain sinfulness to the reveling mourners on the left. However, this reading is complicated by the fact that Last Judgement scenes universally show the damned in torment and the saved in paradise. In this case, this deviation from the formula reinforces the notion these oppositional states of being are two sides of the same coin: there is joy hidden in sorrow and pain present in ecstasy.

Originally published at https://artisthesolution.blogspot.com on February 7, 2020.

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