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  Alfredo Ramos Martinez. "Habana, El Morro,"
Martinez, Habana Harbor
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.


Copyright 2003, William R. Talbot