On a recent trip with a dear friend to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I was fascinated by this painting—“Portrait of Miguel de la Torre y Pando” (Eliab Metcalf, 1826; Puerto Rico)—which I had previously missed or simply ignored. Although I was on my way to see a series of Victorian paintings that are on loan from the Ponce Art Museum [yes—including Lord Leighton’s “Flaming June”!] this time, the palm trees, the ramparts of San Juan, and the familiar shape of the theater (now Teatro Tapia) stopped me in my tracks.
The subject matter sounded familiar and a quick search (first stop: Wikipedia) reminded me that Miguel de la Torre was a captain general—and subsequently, governor—of Puerto Rico in the 1820s. The Wikipedia information [also see their reference to Relación circunstanciada de todas las obras publicas emprendidas en la isla de Puerto-Rico en el año de 1827] brought to mind those middle school history classes where we learned about various waves of colonial control on the island and what I wrongly recalled as “baile, bebida y baraja” [dance, drink, and deck (of cards)]: “La Torre’s main concern was preventing a rebellion on the island. Carefully controlling the government, he instituted a policy which he called “dance, drink and dice” (baile, botella y baraja, similar to the Romans “bread and circuses”), implying that a well entertained population will not think about revolution.”
Research on the painter, Massachusetts-born Eliab Metcalf (1785-1834), was less available in a thorough online medium, but now I’m on a mission, partly because it is interesting to me that most biographies mention his year in Guadeloupe and ten years in Cuba, but rarely mention Puerto Rico. Most of them state that he lived in “several Caribbean islands.”
For example, the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) writes: “Early in his life, Eliab Metcalf was disabled by a severe illness, and he spent his adulthood moving from place to place, trying to improve his health. Attracted by the climate, he lived on Guadeloupe, a French island in the Caribbean Sea, from 1807 to 1808, and then moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Five years later, he arrived in New York, where he began his professional career as an artist studying painting with Samuel Waldo and William Jewett. His health declined, and in 1819 he moved to New Orleans, then to several Caribbean islands before settling permanently in Cuba. He contracted cholera in the Havana epidemic of 1833, and died on his annual visit to New York City a year later.” [. . .]
[To be continued…maybe.]
NOTE: These musings were written without consulting any of the experts out there, particularly those who have been focusing on Puerto Rico and its representations—among them, Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert (The Oviedo Project), Mary Ann Gosser Esquilín (Culture, Nature, and the Other in Caribbean Literature: An Ecocritical Approach), and María Acosta Cruz (Dream Nation: Puerto Rican Culture and the Fictions of Independence).