Unidentified artist, detail, Calle Tacón 12, c.1762-1768, fresco or semi-fresco[?]
Mural paintings, like this one, covered the façades and interiors of Havana buildings around the turn of the nineteenth century. We might consider them the most widespread and popular visual art of the time. A traveler to Cuba, the U.S. clergyman Abiel Abbot, wrote in 1828: that “you continually see painted, birds, and beasts, and creeping things, men and women in their various vocations and amusements, and some things and some images, not strictly forbidden by the letter of the commandment, being like nothing in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the waters under the earth” (Abbot 1829, 126).
Abbot’s description of “men and women in their various vocations and amusements” aptly characterizes this painting, part of a set of twelve panels from the building at Calle Tacón 12 in what was then the walled quarter of Havana. Dated to 1762-1768, the paintings decorated the walls of a bedroom; they feature men and women in eighteenth-century dress enjoying leisure time in a verdant landscape (Pardo Olivaln and Hernández Oliva 1992, 29-30). In this panel, women and men (both white and black) promenade together amidst ornamental shrubbery. In another panel, a group of musicians plays next to men on horseback. The residents of Tacón 12, who lived in a cramped quarter of town with muddy or dusty streets (depending on the weather), may have looked at these tranquil scenes for some visual refreshment.
The large format and freehand-drawn style of these panels characterizes an earlier phase of mural painting in Havana from the mid- to late eighteenth-century. The paintings afterwards became more standardized with purely geometric designs and elements like floral accents and arabesques — all approximating a more neoclassical style. The designs reflect an “increasing Europeanization and standardization of taste” (Fischer 2004, 66). Examples of these later mural paintings can be seen in this image gallery. The Europeanization of these designs also formed part of a broader by colonial elites to reclaim the arts from the hands of free men of color.
At the time, free black men dominated most art and craft trades throughout the city, and they likely painted scenes like this and many other mural paintings in Havana. In addition to private, elite residences, the paintings also adorned the walls of cabildo (mutual aid associations for free men of color and enslaved people) meeting houses. Scholars have long speculated about Aponte’s involvement with cabildos, and it is possible he may have seen paintings there. He certainly would have seen them in his daily life in Havana, and perhaps through his associations with free men of color who were craftsmen, he may have known some of the painters.
To see more details of the paintings at Calle Tacón 12, click on any of these links: detail 2, detail 3, detail 4, detail 5, detail 6, detail 7, detail 8, detail 9, detail 10, detail 11, detail 12.