In my dissertation, “Artistic Production, Race, and History in Colonial Cuba, 1762-1840,” I address the works of art of two free men of color, Vicente Escobar (1762-1834) and José Antonio Aponte (date of birth unknown-1812), who lived in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Havana. I offer the first consideration of these two artists together in order to illuminate the scope of visual artistic practice of free people of color prior to the foundation of the fine arts academy, the Academia de San Alejandro, in 1818. Creole and Spanish elites who supported the foundation of the school expressed concern that blacks had been “dominating” the arts and excluded them from studying there. Existing scholarship suggests that during this period in Cuba, painting was “merely a trade.” Drawing from extensive archival evidence, however, I show that Escobar and Aponte were self-realized artists who elevated their art beyond “trade” status.
I posit that both Escobar and Aponte worked as self-aware artists prior to the elite project of the fine arts academy, which followed an unclear path after its foundation. Escobar painted the portraits of colonial society’s Spanish and creole elites. The works span the dates from 1785 to 1829. Aponte’s only known work of art – a so-called libro de pinturas (book of paintings) found in 1812 – no longer exists. However, a textual description of the book survives in the court record that documents his trial for conspiring to plan slave rebellions across the island. Aponte collaged together an array of images to depict a “universal black history” that we are now forced to imagine as the original work of art has been lost.
I argue that both artists, through their artistic practices, embodied a self-awareness as artists that they directed to transformative ends. While Escobar used art to transform his own identity, Aponte used it to transform the history of a larger community of black individuals, both enslaved and free. I situate my analysis of Escobar and Aponte’s careers in the context of early colonial Cuban race relations and demonstrate that artists like Escobar and Aponte managed to craft their works amid racial hostility. Escobar and Aponte carved out distinctive artistic niches, making original contributions to the academic genres of portraiture and history painting and ultimately transforming both genres prior to the establishment of the fine arts academy. Finally, I sustain that the category of “artist” is central to Escobar and Aponte’s individual social identities.