Gift to Smithsonian taps rich culture of Puerto Rico Teodoro Vidal donates treasure trove of works on display until March 8


WASHINGTON - The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American Art is home to many venerable paintings by American artists that date back to the time of the American Revolution.

A visitor might be surprised to learn, however, that the oldest painting in the museum's collection wasn't created in Colonial Virginia or Massachusetts during the 18th century, but by an unknown Caribbean artist who lived on the island of Puerto Rico in the late 1600s.

The work, a delicate oil panel portrait titled "Santa Barbara," has joined the museum's collection as part of a treasure trove of Puerto Rican artworks recently donated to the museum by Teodoro Vidal, a native Puerto Rican who has long dedicated himself to preserving the island's rich cultural heritage.

In tribute to Vidal's gift, a diverse sampling from his collection recently went on display at the NMAA.

"Colonial Art from Puerto Rico: Selections from the Gift of Teodoro Vidal" contains 26 works created during Puerto Rico's Spanish colonial period (from 1508 to 1898). The show will remain on view inside a third-floor gallery at the museum through March 8.

In selecting the Smithsonian as a new home for his collection, Vidal saw an opportunity to make his works available to a wider audience. Moreover, he also knew that the institution's strong conservation facilities could provide many of his works with much-needed restoration and climate-control care.

Vidal first began collecting Puerto Rican art and artifacts during the 1950s, and eventually amassed over 3,000 works.

"Mr. Vidal did not just collect things, he collected the whole notion of an island's culture," said NMAA curator and display organizer, Andrew Connors.

The NMAA has received 63 paintings, icons and statue objects from Vidal, while the large balance of his holdings have gone to another Smithsonian branch, the National Museum of American History.

Puerto Rican art reflects a blend of indigenous, European and African influences, as well as the unifying spiritual power of the Catholic Church.

Many of the pieces presented here are devoted to religious iconography, especially among the show's rich assortment of LTC carved and painted wooden statues known as "santos," or saints.

Each santo varies in size and shape, and was made for a particular devotional purpose. The show includes two full figure santos of Saint Benedict and Saint Catherine of Alexandria, and a unique open palm hand rendering, "La Mano Poderosa (The All-Powerful Hand)," which represents the crucified hand of Jesus Christ.

Another highlight of the display is a selection of paintings by celebrated Puerto Rican artists, Jose Campeche (1751-1809).

The son of a former slave who bought his own freedom, Campeche was a multifaceted talent who not only distinguished himself as a painter, but also as an architect, graphic designer and artisan workshop owner.

One Campeche canvas on view, a ca. 1795 portrait of "Don Jose Mas Ferrer," has a particularly interesting history to it.

It is believed that the work was seized by a British officer from a fleeing French carriage during the Spanish peninsula campaign against Napoleon in 1813, and brought back to England, where it ended up in a private collection. The painting was mistakenly credited as a work by the renowned Spanish artist, Francisco de Goya, and remained that way, until Vidal rectified its attribution through careful research.

In addition to the painting of "Santa Barbara," the NMAA was also the beneficiary of another noteworthy Vidal item: a carved cedar santo of "Our Lady of Sorrow."

Created some time around the late 17th century by yet another unknown artist, the work now represents the oldest sculpture in the museum's collection.

About the museum

Location: The National Museum of American Art is at Eighth and G streets N.W., Washington.

Hours: Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily.

Admission: Admission is free. The NMAA is closed on Christmas Day.

Where to call: The museum's phone number is 202-357-2700, or check out the Web site at:

Pub Date: 12/07/97

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