Alfredo Ramos Martinez. “Habana. El Morro,” 1901.
Watercolor. Image size: 5 1/2 x 8 1/4". Framed size: 13 x 15 3/4". Signed
and titled by artist in l. l. corner: Ramos Martinez / Habana. El Morro. Fine
condition. Beautiful archival presentation in gold-wash frame and silk box mat
with gold fillet.
The Mexican modernist Ramos Martinez painted this marvelous watercolor of the
entrance to Havana Harbor en plein air and with such immediacy that it is possible
to identify the historic moment he captured. One clue lies in the American flag
flying over El Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro, or El Morro Castle,
one of two Spanish forts built in 1589 at the harbor mouth just north of the old
walled city of Habana Vieja. The American flag flew over the fort for only three
years—during the period of U. S. intervention in Cuba from 1899 to 1902—its
brief presence nonetheless signifying a turning point in the political history
of the Caribbean.
A Cuban landmark, El Morro Castle played an important role in the saga of colonial
conquest and control. Shortly after the Spanish settled Havana in 1519, the need
for fortification of its harbor quickly became apparent. The city had become the
rendezvous point for the twice-yearly Spanish fleets hauling their New World plunder
off to Europe. Pirates noticed these activities and mounted a devastating raid
in 1555, prompting the city to create a proper system of defense. To protect the
narrow canal leading into the harbor, the Spanish built El Morro Castle on the
north point of the opening and La Punta fort on the south point. El Morro in particular
possessed strategic importance, for whoever controlled the garrison would control
the port of Havana, one of the best natural harbors in the world. The value of
Havana harbor made it a primary target for European colonial powers challenging
Spanish authority in the Caribbean. In 1762, the British succeeded in taking El
Morro and then Cuba, which they subsequently returned to Spain at war’s
end in exchange for Florida. In succeeding centuries as Spain’s hold on
the New World was steadily chipped away, the Spanish flag over El Morro came to
symbolize that country’s last foothold in America.
The Spanish-American War in 1898 dealt the final blow to Spanish ascendancy in
the Carribean when Cuba came under possession of the United States. The U. S.
intervention of the island began on January 1, 1899, and was aimed at creating
a Cuban republic under American jurisdiction. The new era in Cuban history became
official when the Spanish flag at El Morro was lowered and replaced by the American
flag. U. S. intervention ended in May 1902 with the inauguration of the first
president of the newly created Republic of Cuba.
Ramos Martinez’s watercolor portrays the old garrison on a bright day in
which relatively calm waters of the Caribbean flow into the narrow channel at
the mouth of the harbor. He represents, perhaps, a sunny quiescence in the island’s
history, a momentary interim between past and future. Ramos Martinez’s high-keyed
palette signals his recent encounters with the techniques of impressionism, as
he was at the time studying in Paris. Saturated colors delineate the stone geometry
of the old fort and the nineteenth-century lighthouse that dominates the rocky
headlands of the harbor entrance.
Initially schooled at the National Academy in Mexico City, Ramos Martinez sought
an escape from its rigid nineteenth-century European academism. Freedom came in
the form of patronage from Phoebe Hearst, who financed twelve years of study for
the young artist in Paris. When Ramos Martinez returned to Mexico in 1910, he
came armed with the tools for an artistic revolution just as his country headed
into political revolution. By 1913 Ramos Martinez had established Mexico’s
first Open-Air School of Painting and began to teach the next generation of artists
a new way of seeing, thus freeing them from the restraints of the past. In the
first group were David Alfaro Siquieros, Francisco Diaz de Leon, and Mateo Bolanos,
all future initiators of the modernist movement whose subsequent innovations earned
Ramos Martinez the sobriquet of “father of Mexican modernism.”
This is a fine early Impressionist work by Ramos Martinez, small but mighty in
its historical implications.