Visual surprise is natural in the Caribbean; it comes with the landscape, and faced with its beauty, the sigh of History dissolves.” — Derek Walcott, Saint Lucian poet and playwright
History takes on a new meaning when you have the opportunity to enter Old San Juan’s hidden treasure, Galeria Botello. The gallery has been located at 208 Calle Cristo for 60 years, but the building dates back 375 years. When you enter the premises, your eyes will be drawn to the large Botello sculpture. Juan Botello, the owner and son of the famous Spanish artist Ángel Botello, is always gracious and willing to share his father’s story and the creation of their gallery with visitors who stop by.
Juan took me through the Botello Museo on the second floor of the gallery. The art in the museum is a collaboration of the three children and his mother. Christiane Botello, the wife of Ángel Botello, is still living and working. She lovingly organized her husband’s legacy in chronological order.
Ángel Botello was born in Galicia, Spain in 1913 and died in Puerto Rico in 1986. He worked in many artistic medias: oil paintings, drawing, printmaking, bronze sculptures, wood carving, photography and mosaics. He was named “The Caribbean Gauguin.”
Beginning his career as an architect, he switched to art. He was trained in the school of impressionism in France. Playing with light is a big component of impressionism, so when he moved to the Dominican Republic, he discovered a different type of light and color. This is very apparent when you enter the museum and see the first paintings he did in France and Spain. His style is easy to recognize. The women have extended necks and flat heads.
Juan told me that when Ángel was in Haiti, he noticed that many women carried baskets on their heads. Therefore, he emphasized this in his art and sculpture. He also used dark straight lines to help define his subjects in his paintings. Another feature representative of his style is the red dot that adorns woman and children. The voodoo religion would brand women and children on their cheeks with a red plant dye, which signifies beauty and purity. His art also expresses his humor. He loved his children and many of his oils are stories about them. One large painting shows Juan’s brother feeling anxious about doing his homework.
There are many niches in the museum that were designed by Ángel to showcase his many “santos,” or wooden statues of saints. He was not a churchgoer, but he felt the “santos” were an important expression of Puerto Rican art. At one time in Puerto Rico’s history, there were different religions taking hold. Missionaries were converting new believers to their faith and having them burn their old bibles and “santos.” Therefore, you may notice some of the “santos” are burned because Ángel rescued them from destruction.
The frames of his paintings are artworks in themselves. He loved to work with wood. Therefore, he designed intricately cut wooden frames to enhance his paintings.
Ángel learned about bronze sculptures when he met Lindsay Daen, another famous sculpture artist in Puerto Rico. Before meeting Daen, Ángel sculpted in cement, wood and clay.
Ángel Botello’s life story is amazing! His sculptures and art are indelible. Juan Botello is giving and loving with the retelling of his father’s journey from Spain, France, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Haiti and finally to Puerto Rico. Why Puerto Rico? Juan explained that the political climate in Haiti where Ángel lived was changing, and he was offered a teaching job in Puerto Rico. How lucky for us that he came here.