The Afro-Caribbean Rococo Painter
José Campeche y Jordán was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico on December 23rd, 1571. He died in San Juan on November 7th, 1809. Campeche was the son of Tomás Campeche, a freed slave, and María Jordán, a white woman from the Canary Islands in Africa.
Hence, José Campeche was black, or more specifically, a mulatto.
Campeche was, until Francisco Oller came along, the most celebrated Puerto Rican visual artist. But, whereas Oller painted on the impressionism style, Campeche painted on the rococo style that was current during the late 18th century.
Rococo art (also known as late Baroque) is an elaborated, heavily ornamental style, characterized by the use of pastel colors, asymmetrical composition, sense of motion and drama in the canvas, and lots of fancy details.
It is also a very white European art style and a style associated with the upper classes. Recently, Bonham’s auction house sold an original Campeche for $149,000. Wow. The previous record sale for a Campeche was $120,000, and that was for one of the unsigned ones.
Therefore, how did a Puerto Rican negro, the son of a former slave, a member of the lower class, and without formal instruction became the giant artist we remember and celebrate today?
In short: talent, the church, and luck, in that order.
There is barely any information available about José Campeche. Even the biography written by the respected historian Alejandro Tapia y Rivera does not tell us much, and Tapia admits what little he reports is based on second and third-hand accounts.
Nevertheless, there are over five hundred paintings that speak for themselves about the talent and quality of the person who created them.
Here are five lessons from this great and little known Puerto Rican artist. Moreover, they will motivate you to pursue success.
Lesson One: Work in Silence
Tapia y Rivera told us Campeche used to lock himself for a few hours and paint. Granted, he had his two brothers and his nephew in his workshop helping him.
He also lived by all accounts a very ascetic life. He was practically a monk. The bulk of his oeuvre is religious art painted by commission.
A lay member of the Dominican order, he listened to mass and prayed the rosary daily. He never married, busy caring for his siblings, especially his two unmarried sisters, Lucía and María Loreto.
The lesson here is that Campeche did not suffer from distractions. He worked daily (except Sundays) and in silence. He let his artwork do the talking.
Although there is barely documentation about him and he rarely signed his work, the world remembers him because he did the work.
Humbly, quietly, meticulously.
Lesson Two: Be Prolific
Again, we know so little about Campeche. And yet, his contemporaries loved and respected him, and those who came after him named him an influence.
He was the Socrates to Oller’s Plato. The mentor who wrote nothing but was praised and popularized by his disciple. Why?
He was all about the work, the creation of his paintings. As a poor mulatto, he knew the faster he finished a commission, the sooner he would get paid and could work on the next one.
Hence, for him, time was indeed money since he could not afford to not paint.
Think about it, five hundred plus divided by 39 years (assuming he started painting at 18) gives roughly 12.5 paintings a year. That is a commitment to his art.
Campeche is gone but there are hundreds of breathtaking paintings as his legacy. We remember him not only because he was so good but because he was so prolific.
Lesson Three: Take Breaks
Before you think Campeche was a workaholic (okay, he was), it must be said he was not all about the work.
Tapia y Rivera says he would take daily breaks, up to two hours, to walk, study, pray, play two rounds of pool, and just wandered around town and observe.
I can see him taking a walk around Old San Juan, around El Morro, and then going back to his studio after feeding the pigeons or watching the ships on the port.
I would venture he was so darn prolific because he took daily breaks to recharge his batteries.
That is an important lesson to remember during our current ‘always connected/always working’ hustle corporate culture. Take a break!
Lesson Four: Be Original While Staying Current
Art historians agree Campeche had two periods, before 1775 and after 1778. What happened between 1775 to 1778?
Luis Paret happened. Talk about serendipity.
Luis Paret was one of Spain’s greatest rococo painters. He painted commissions for the king himself.
He was exiled to Puerto Rico by King Charles III for (I am not making this up) helping prince Ferdinand meet young girls.
While in Puerto Rico, Paret heard of Campeche and taught him how to paint using the current European techniques. You can see a notable improvement in Campeche’s art technique after learning from Paret.
Yet, Campeche did more than copy his mentor. He incorporated criollo elements (criollo as in native Puerto Rican) into his art. Whether it was painting rural or working-class views or incorporating native fruits and instruments, he brought a few Boricua traits to his portraits.
The lesson is while is good to have a mentor, don’t copy, innovate. You can be both, current and original.
Lesson Five: When Opportunity Knocks, Take It
This is more a lesson on what not to do rather than something Campeche did. After Luis Paret was pardoned by the king and asked to return to Madrid, he wanted Campeche to go with him. Moreover, he sang Campeche’s praises to King Charles III.
And yet, Campeche chose to stay in San Juan.
We don’t know his reasons. We could infer he was afraid of leaving the world he knew for the intrigues of the royal court. Most likely, he was afraid of leaving his two solterona sisters unprotected.
Although his reasons may have been altruistic, he missed a great opportunity.
Can you imagine how big Campeche’s name would be today in the art world if his art would have adorned a royal palace or a famous cathedral instead of some rural parish in Puerto Rico, hardly the art center of the 18th century?
Campeche never internationalized himself as Antonio Paoli did despite having the opportunity to do so. Let that be a lesson for everyone. Opportunity only knocks once. When it does, grab it.
Don’t be afraid of change.
Campeche’s Greatest Lesson
We know so little about José Campeche, but what little we know is impressive.
His mastery of color, light, and composition was second to no one. He was admired for bringing character to his artwork. He did not just paint, he photographed the souls of its subjects.
Furthermore, at a time where there was no literature or much literacy (only the religious and ruling class could read or write) his art became de facto the first testimony of what Puerto Rico was and meant.
He was a very religious and conservative man and his artwork reflected so.
Nonetheless, pieces like La dama a caballo or El niño Avilés have nothing to envy the European masters. El niño Avilés is a discomforting portrait of suffering.
Nevertheless, José Campeche’s greatest lesson is an obvious one, particularly considering the time and laws he was born into.
If the uneducated black son of a former African slave in the 18th century could become the third most respected man in Puerto Rican society (after the governor and the archbishop), thanks to his talent and his work ethic, what is stopping you?
José Campeche teaches us our circumstances are not destiny and that limitations exist only in our minds. Let that be the final lesson from the seminal master painter.
Reader, do you like José Campeche’s art? What is your biggest takeaway from the man and artist?