Celebrating National Hispanic Month by shining a light on Cuban artist René Portocarrero

By Daniel Fulco, Ph.D., Agnita M. Stine Schreiber Curator

In celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month, we hope that you enjoy this painting in our collection.


René Portocarrero (Cuban, 1912–1985)
Gran Familia (Great Family), 1952
Watercolor, gouache, and ink on paper
14 9/16″h x 10 11/16″w
Gift of the Pan American Union, Washington, DC, A0966,57.0216
Collection of Washington County Museum of Fine Arts

In Gran Familia, Cuban modernist René Portocarrero created a whimsical painting in which a group of abstracted figures, animals, and fragmented forms are carefully suspended in space. As the work’s title suggests, these compositional elements are positioned to display a variety of relationships, as if they were a family or group. On the left, a bird with a large eye gazes out at the viewer while a creature in the center with horns (as well as feathers or nets) hovers around an assembly of fragmented dolls and heads (visible throughout the work). Portocarrero draws our attention to each of his characters by rendering them with lines and shades of green, red, white, and black that contrast with the light violet and pink background. The inclusion of dripped ink and pigments reveals Portocarrero’s artistic process and novel experimentation with his media. This painting was part of a group of watercolors from the 1950s that reflect the artist’s interest in dreams and fantastical imagery. In particular, the paintings exhibit the influence of Expressionism and Surrealism, most notably the work of Paul Klee and Joan Miró.

Portocarrero was born in the neighborhood of El Cerro, Havana. Trained at the city’s San Alejandro Academy of Fine Arts, he left at an early age to pursue a career as a studio artist. In addition, he was a sculptor, ceramicist, stage designer, and book illustrator, publishing his own books such Las Máscaras (The Masks, 1935) and El Sueño (The Dream, 1939). In addition, Portocarrero painted public murals, including works for the Havana Prison, the Cuban National Hospital, Cuban National Theatre, and Hilton Hotel, Havana. Over the course of his life, Portocarrero worked in different styles, at first embracing abstraction in the 1940s and 50s, and later transitioning to more representational subjects in the 1970s. Notably, the artist was associated with the Santiago de las Vegas Workshop, led by Dr. Juan Miguel Rodríguez de la Cruz. There, Portocarrero worked alongside renowned Cuban artist Wilfredo Lam and their colleague Raul Milián.

In 1956, former WCMFA Director, Bruce Etchison, visited the exhibition René Portocarrero and Raul Milián of Cuba, held at the Pan American Union (the first showing of both artists work in the Washington area), with the intent to acquire works by Latin American artists for the museum’s collection. Following Etchison’s visit, the Pan American Union generously donated Gran Familia to the WCMFA in 1957. The Union (now the Organization of American States, OAS) was originally formed in 1890 to promote cooperation among the countries of Latin America and the United States.
This WeekendArt is sponsored by Ashley & Dean Notabartolo

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