Vicente Escobar, Portrait of a Young Woman, 1797, oil on canvas
The portraitist Vicente Escobar (1762-1834) descended from an elite family of free people of color (identified as pardos or mulattos) in colonial Havana. He painted a wide swath of colonial society, including members of the sacrocracia (sugar aristocracy), creole independistas (those in favor of independence), Spanish administrators and even a mulatto musician. He was, for certain, the most prolific portraitist of the era.
Escobar largely taught himself to paint until he traveled to Spain in 1784 to study at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid — making him the first known artist to travel from Cuba to Spain for artistic study. He studied under the Spanish painter Salvador Maella, then known for his portraits and religious paintings. Escobar later emphasized his study with Maella in an 1820 Havana newspaper when he announced he was relocating his studio (Govantes 1937, 97). In 1827, the Spanish King Fernando XVII conferred upon Escobar the honor of Court Painter, following his completion of the portraits of several Captains General of Cuba.
Escobar achieved this success at a time when some of the very people he painted were campaigning to reclaim artistic production from the hands of those like him: free men of color. Colonial elites founded the first fine arts academy in Cuba in 1818, the Academia de San Alejandro, largely as a reaction to the dominance of black painters. The founders excluded black painters from studying there. Thus, while Escobar traveled to Spain to study at the fine arts academy, he did not participate in the founding or subsequent direction of Cuba’s own academy of art. Escobar’s large body of work, and years of success, appears to have mattered little in the face of the racial and cultural politics of the time.
In the very early years of the sugar boom in Cuba, Escobar painted his Portrait of a Young Woman, dated to 1797. She remains unidentified, but may have belonged to one of the elite families that benefited from the coming sugar revolution. In Escobar’s oeuvre, he clearly aspires to capture the personalities of his sitters, much like his instructor Salvador Maella at San Fernando. In his Portrait of a Young Woman, Escobar communicates a sense of his sitter’s psychology in her pursed lips and slightly arched eyebrows. We see a hesitant youthful confidence. Adorned in lacy finery and gold jewelry, she rests her right arm on a simple table next to a decorative fan, an essential accessory for fashionable, affluent women of the period. Elite women used these fans during social encounters, in particular, to form a visual language through an array of gestures and movements. The fan designs ranged immensely, from natural landscapes to pastoral scenes to figures from Greek and Roman mythology. Women likely had a fan for each occasion.
During his trial, colonial Spanish interrogators asked Aponte who created his “book of paintings.” Aponte replied that the book was his idea only and stated that he bought engravings, paintings, and “used fans” to take images from for his book (Pavez Ojeda 2006a, 722). Aponte’s collaging together of these materials allowed him to represent black history using his own unique visual idiom. Aponte thus repurposed the fan from an elite signifier in colonial society to content for his diasporic historical vision in the “book.”