Leopoldo Romañach, Paisaje marino, Caibarién (Marine Landscape, Caibarién)
Courtesy Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

Although the current art scene is a major focus for Cuban Art News, from time to time we like to look back at earlier artists and eras—especially for readers beyond the island who may not be that familiar with Cuban art history. With that in mind, we are pleased to share this essay by MSc. Delia Ma. López Campistrous, a curator at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana, on the renowned late 19th- and early 20th-century artist Leopoldo Romañach.

At 90, he still painted” was the headline in Havana newspapers about his death.

No Cuban artist fought for his creative vocation or clung to the brush as tenaciously as Leopoldo Romañach Guillen.

Romañach was born on October 7, 1862 in Sierra Morena, Las Villas, but he spent his early years moving between his parents´ homeland of Spain and several towns, such as Remedios and Caibarien, in the island’s interior.

Like many Spanish emigrants, Romañach’s parents steered him toward a business career. His first encounter with art education took place under the painter Miguel Melero. In a gesture of filial disobedience, on his way to a business position arranged by his father, Romañach headed straight to the San Alejandro Academy to study coloration. At 27, his art studies were underway.

A longtime dream to study in Italy became a reality, thanks to a grant, supported by generous hands, from the Provincial Council of Santa Clara.

Leopoldo Romañach, Retrato de Amelia Peláez (Portrait of Amelia Peláez), 1916
Courtesy Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

Italy defined Romañach’s early days as an artist, accented by a late thematic romanticism and a turn-of-the–century tenebrism [dramatic contrasts of light and dark]. He made his first major works at this time, catching international attention. In his account of Romañach’s history, Jorge Mañach called this the artist’s etapa patética, his “passionate stage.” His time in Italy, which lasted from 1890 to 1895, coincided with that of renowned artists who came to influence his painting.

On Via di Ripetta, in the heart of Rome, Romañach freely attended classes at the Academy of Fine Arts. It was a young institution, founded in 1872 in response to the reluctance of the more traditional San Lucas Academy to reform its approach to teaching.

Among Romañach’s main teachers was Filippo Prosperi, an artist of broad philosophical training. Primarily a sacred artist, Prosperi’s style had evolved from an early neoclassicism to Nazarethism, a graceful if sentimental style popular in Rome in the first half of the 20th century.

Romañach’s ties to his mentor did not end until Prosperi’s death in 1913. It’s no coincidence, then, that Romañach had two strong influences that contradicted the rote and precious approach then prevalent in academic training, and drew him toward spirituality as the fullest expression of art.

Leopoldo Romañach, Retrato de Amelia Peláez (Portrait of Amelia Peláez), c.1925
Courtesy Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

As a Cuban, Romañach could not aspire to an official place at the Spanish Academy in Rome. But he was able to attend the classes in drawing from a live model that were offered six months of the year at the Academy. There, he took in the teachings of Manzini and Innocenti, as well as a visit to Spanish artist Francisco Pradilla (who was still triumphant in Rome), and advice from Spanish artist Enrique Serra Auqué, which he would never forget.

Nor he was separate from other artistic movements that flourished in the late 19th century, such as Decadence—represented in Italy by Gabriele D’Annunzio in literature—with its aesthetic of escaping from reality and condemning the modernization of the fin-de siècle world and its social consequences.

Among the various modernist currents of the time, the Decadent movement also ventured into marginal and disreputable spaces, and not only as a source of creative inspriation. As a movement, it grew in opposition to Naturalism and Positivism, and was definitely an anti-academic attitude.

Leopoldo Romañach, Nido de miseria (Nest of Misery)
Courtesy Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

Reflecting this current of thought is Nido de Miseria (Nest of Misery), the second composition that Romañach sent in 1891 to the Provincial Council of Santa Clara to demonstrate the progress in his studies. It presents a vision of extreme poverty unleashed by uncontrolled progress. At the same time it proposes a subjective solution, in the person of the woman at the door, an anonymous guardian angel come to alleviate the last gasps of poverty and disease.

With a sketchy treatment that does not bother to with smooth brushstrokes, Romañach brings to Cuban painting one of its first tests, in the backlighting that dominates the composition. A major magazine retitled the work Un rayo de esperanza (A Ray of Hope); with this piece, Romañach introduced the themes of heroic misery, exemplary attitudes, and extreme contrasts that characterized his early work.

It was only the beginning. Rome made him a formidable and restless painter, who was forced to abandon the Old World when he was cut off from official support by the resumption of the Cuban War of Independence in 1895.

Already known in his homeland, Romañach received financial support for his return to the Americas from the great benefactor Marta Abreu. He joined a large group of compatriots who were seeking refuge from persecution and the hardships of war in the United States. It was Romañach’s second sojourn in the north; he spoke English well, and his stay was enriched by new reflections on art.

He told the Diario de la Marina: “I was in the United States in 1897. The greatest painters of Europe had been there: [Théobald] Chartran, [Hubert von] Herkomer, [Giovanni] Boldini, Carolus-Duran, [Antonio de] La Gándara, not to mention others. None had the same impact as [Joaquín] Sorolla.”

Leopoldo Romañach, Marina (Marine Study)
Courtesy Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

He remained restless. Romañach returned to his homeland to secure his future and create the major works of his mature career. But Europe continually called to him: he longed to know what was happening in Rome, and this disturbed the serenity of the professorship he had gained in 1900 through the efforts of Marta Abreu and Raimundo Cabrera.

New century, nouvelle vie. In 1900, Cuba, on the threshhold of its long-desired political independence, was preparing to participate in the Universal Exhibition of Paris. The Pearl of the Antilles was represented in this contest by industry, agriculture, science, and the arts. Considered a leading exponent in that last category, Romañach participated with La Convaleciente, for which he was awarded a bronze medal in the fine arts.

Many intellectuals have ascribed to a Spanish philosopher these words: “Cuba has obtained a gold medal in sugar, and in painting, a bronze. Ah, what a great country Cuba would be if the gold medal had been for its paintings and the bronze for its sugar!” Romañach took this incentive seriously. He redoubled his efforts to teach diligently, and to search for new methods of art education. These pursuits gave urgency to his need to travel, see new things, and grow as an artist. In 1902 he headed to Paris, epicenter of the international art world. He spent three month there—not enough to appease his craving for the new, but enough to confirm him in the road he had undertaken.

On his return to Cuba, Romañach married Rita Suárez, who, rather than providing him with a stable family life, joined him in his artistic flights.

The 1904 Louisiana Exposition was the definitive test for Romañach. Designed by Cass Gilbert as a Palace of Fine Arts, the magnificent pavilion was inspired by the ancient Roman Baths of Caracalla. There, Romañach presented La Convaleciente, Abandonada, and other paintings produced in Rome and Havana. He shared the gold medal in fine arts with Sorolla, whose most important work, La otra Margarita, had an inspiration similar to that of Romañach´s first work.

The ship taking the award-winning paintings back to Cuba sank in the Mississippi River. It was a severe blow; for Romañach, his paintings were like his children. A Los Angeles museum offered $10,000 for his painting La última prenda (The Last Garment), but the work remained in Cuba.

The desire for creative renewal was a constant for Romañach. Among the artist’s papers are lengthy travel applications, and requests to visit teaching organizations in the countries he visited.

In 1912–1913, a long tour of the US and Europe allowed Romañach to grasp the lessons of light offered by Sorolla’s work. Traveling through Madrid and Italy again allowed him to closely study Velázquez and the Spanish realism that was the root of el luminismo sorollesco. His interest progressed from studio-style portraits to the search for popular and regional types that characterized his career.

Leopoldo Romañach, Mujer en la playa
Courtesy Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

He returned with a work produced en plein air, full of impasto and endowed with a conservative Impressionism, limited to a lexicon of three colors and light but retaining the inspiration of its origins. This is the phase of MadrileñaLa echadora de cartas. He also brought a method of teaching back with him, and above all a respect for the student that made him a teacher of generations.

At the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, Romañach again won two gold medals, and received a proposal from the Carnegie Institute of Pittsburgh, for two of his works in the Exposition to be part of a show scheduled to tour several cities in the United States. The two works, La promesa and Cumpliendo el voto, had captured the attention of a committee of experts from the American Federation of Arts. Romañach agreed to everything except getting rid of the works, which represented a stage in his art that he was already leaving behind.

Although for some time to come, his paintings continued to depict two light sources, large planes of color eventually began taking over the works, their backgrounds bathed in a light that caused their atmospheres of ochres and grays to vibrate. New colors and values invaded his palette, and other changes—even in his teaching—were apparent in the requests that Romañach submitted for travel to Europe between 1921 and 1922.

Cuban salons of the 1920s featured a full complement of formal innovations from artists like Amelia Peláez, reflected in the titles themselves, such as “Impessionism” (Concha Ferrant). Meanwhile, the embrace of a racially mixed cubanía had a decisive influence on such students as Victor Manuel and Eduardo Abela.

Leopoldo Romañach, La niña de las cañas (Girl with Sugar Cane)
Courtesy Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

La niña de las cañas, reflecting a mixed-race cubanía no longer interested in exoticism, became an unstoppable influence in the new creative climate. Our beloved Gitana tropical finds its genesis in this self-absorbed criolla who, arms full of cane, gazes down on her future progeny.

The marine studies may represent the final maturity of Romañach’s art. From the Bahía de Cádiz to the Playas de Marianao, from the fisherman dipping his nets in the gray waters of the Mediterranean to the sea wolf on the coast of Caibarien, the whites and yellows of Romañach’s palette are much more than simply the sun that drenches these scenes.

Leopoldo Romañach, Pescador
Courtesy Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

Changes of shapes reflect an explosion of color, in almost solid waves of air that embrace the tide. The graceful sea and ardent coast, the figures in the foreground reinforcing the depth of the sea in the distance, the contrast of shadows in a hat on a face are lucid amid the play of backlighting. The sea, dying in its bright and peaceful shoreline, clasps to its green bosom the mysteries of nets and candles.

Leopoldo Romañach with his works
Courtesy Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

“At 90, he still painted.” Leopoldo Romañach Guillen´s long life did not diminish his interest in painting. He conceived a substantial ornamental work for the Presidential Palace built in 1920, and in the early 1930s worked on La reconcentración de Weyler, a mural destined for the Capitolio Nacional. The political and economic situation at that time prevented the final execution of this historical work. But it was not his “ladies of long ago,” those dueñas of crinoline and muslin, or the commissions he received throughout his long career, that would establish his lasting memory.

There are later works, many of them, with a quality that only deepened over the years. But the manchas, or “stains,” of sky and sea that he made—like a tropical Courbet –until his last days, those rooftops in Vedado pointing to heaven, were already a step toward a glory that never seemed to arrive. So he painted until he died on September 10, 1951. The tributes were like incense.

The “Romañach Room” in the Cuban Building of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes is a dream that waited until 2001 to be fulfilled. It is nurtured by the legacy that the artist left behind, by collectors who treasure his greatest work, and from his students and friends. There have been many exhibitions since then, but there is still the need for a great compilation, critical and well-reasoned, of his work.