The visual arts have been a thriving art form in Puerto Rico  for centuries, and its artists’ output runs the gamut from baroque European-influenced paintings to contemporary conceptual pieces that challenge the definition of art.
Puerto Rico’s best-known early artists were José Campeche (1751–1809) and Francisco Oller (1833–1917). Campeche was of mixed race, born in San Juan  to a freed slave, Tomás Campeche, and a native of the Canary Islands, María Jordán Marqué. He was primarily a self-taught artist, first learning the skill from his father, but he studied for a time with Luis Paret, an exiled Spanish painter who lived in Puerto Rico for awhile. As was common at the time, Campeche primarily painted portraits of wealthy landowners and religious scenes in heavily ornamented detail, which was in keeping with the rococo style of the day. He painted more than 400 paintings during his lifetime, the majority of them commissions. Campeche’s The Virgen de la Soledad de la Victoria was the first acquisition of the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico , where you can see many other examples of his work.
Oller was born in Bayamón and studied art at the Academia de Bellas Artes in Madrid from 1851 to 1853. He also studied in Paris from 1858 to 1863, where he was a contemporary of Pissarro, Cézanne, and Guillaumins and exhibited at several Paris salons. Influenced by realist and impressionist styles, his work encompassed portraits, landscapes, and still lifes. But once he returned for good to Puerto Rico  in 1884, his work became primarily realist in nature, typically rendered in somber colors. His subjects tended to focus on traditional Puerto Rican ways of life. One of his most famous paintings is El Velorio (The Wake), which depicts a rural family gathered in a home for an infant’s wake and which can be seen in a gallery at the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras. Oller’s work has been acquired by many important museums, including the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
Two other important early artists were Miguel Pou (1880–1968) and Ramón Frade (1875–1954), whose paintings celebrated the dignity of jíbaro (peasant) life.
Another internationally recognized artist was island transplant Jack Delano (1914–1997), a significant photographer who chronicled the Puerto Rican people and way of life from 1941 until his death. Born in Kiev, Ukraine, he first came to Puerto Rico in 1941 on assignment for the U.S. Farm Security Administration in conjunction with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. The program sent many famous photographers throughout the United States to document rural life. In addition to Delano, they included Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Marjory Collins, and Gordon Parks, among others. After the war, Delano returned to Puerto Rico in 1946, settled there permanently, and continued to photograph the island’s changing culture. His work is journalistic in nature but is deeply imbued with a respect for the human condition. In addition to his photography, Delano was a musical composer of sonatas.
Beginning in the 1940s, a radical new art form exploded in Puerto Rico  that reflected growing concern among artists and writers that the island’s native culture was being subsumed by American influence. That sentiment was expressed in visually striking representations of graphic poster art, called cartels. Originally funded by the local government, artists produced colorful illustrations of important books, plays, songs, and poems, as well as political slogans and quotations. Eventually the art form evolved away from its boosterish origins. Some artists used the form to criticize the government and social issues, while others celebrated the island’s natural and architectural beauty. Today it’s most commonly seen advertising festivals. Among its most celebrated artists are Lorenzo Homar (1913–2004), who was a recipient of the National Medal of Honor and cofounder of the Centro de Arte de Puertorriqueño, which played an important role in advancing the graphic art form. The Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico  has a gallery devoted to an excellent collection of cartels.
Another significant artist was Rafael Tufiño (1922–2008), whose somber paintings captured the island’s people and customs, as well as its pockets of squalor. Tufiño was also a cofounder of the Centro de Arte de Puertorriqueña and a faculty member for the Puerto Rico Institute of Culture’s art school, Escuela de Artes Plásticas.
Puerto Rico ’s arts scene continues to evolve. Recognizing the positive impact art can have on the economy, then-governor Sila M. Calderón initiated in 2001 a $25 million program to fund the Puerto Rico Public Art Project, which has put in place scores of contemporary site-specific public art installations throughout the island. Many works are meant to be functional, in the form of bus stops, park benches, and vendor kiosks, or to enliven the roadways of major thoroughfares and stops along the new commuter rail service (Tren Urbano). Pieces vary from murals to conceptual multimedia installations to earthworks, and 20 percent of the works are created by Puerto Rican artists. Among the local and international artists participating are Ana Rosa Rivera, Víctor Vázquez, Ramón Berríos, Lourdes Correa Carlo, Charles Juhasz, and Liliana Porter.
For details on the project, including maps and descriptions of the pieces, visit www.artepublicopr.com , in English and Spanish.