Vicente Escobar, Portrait of Agustín Valdés y Pedroso, n.d., oil on canvas
In this portrait, Escobar accentuates Valdés y Pedroso’s presence by painting him to occupy almost half of the canvas. He wears a military uniform with intricate gold embroidery and stands next to a pedestal with two books. Escobar signed the work in the lower left, near Valdés y Pedroso’s right hand. Stylistically, Escobar’s clean lines and stark contrasting background echoes that of his instructors at the Academia de San Fernando in Madrid, towering figures in neoclassical style and thought, such as the artists Raphael Mengs from Bohemia and Salvador Maella from Spain. As mentioned, Escobar later emphasized his study with Maella in an 1820 Havana newspaper where he announced he was relocating his studio (Govantes 1937, 97). In the announcement, Escobar notes he won a prize in a drawing class, perhaps underscoring his connection to Maella, well-known for concentrating on drawing in the execution of his works.
Born in 1760 in Havana, Valdés y Pedroso (1760-1821) belonged to one of the city’s oldest families. In fact, Escobar also painted a portrait of his grandfather, Mateo Pedroso y Florencia (1719-1800), himself a fourth-generation creole. While Pedroso y Florencia, as a merchant and hacendado (landowner), represents the older foundational creole guard, Valdés y Pedroso symbolizes the continuity of a class of creoles still firmly linked to the Spanish Crown. He followed in the footsteps of his grandfather and also served on the Havana town council, positions the Spanish Crown sought to ensure stayed entirely “in the service of the King” (Goncalvès 2004, 2). Moreover, Valdés y Pedroso, also a hacendado, received a title of nobility in 1816 in exchange for contributions to the maintenance of cavalry companies in Cuba and participation in the defense of Spain during the French invasion.
As the Conde de Cañongo, Valdés y Pedroso belonged to a group of creoles whose loyalty to the Crown resulted in substantial and visible benefits, like the aforementioned title of nobility. Their loyalty evidences a “flexible” attitude on the behalf of creoles: they accepted the parameters of Bourbon rule while negotiating for freer trade for their products and slaves. Valdés y Pedroso, then, figures into a group of colonial elites who relied on the protection of the Spanish Crown in the face of rapidly shifting demographics, caused by the massive increases in the importation of slaves to support expanding the production of sugar — a system that Aponte sought to organize against.