We are grateful to Dr. Osiris Delgado for the authentication of this work and his assistance in its cataloguing.
PROPERTY OF A PRIVATE COLLECTOR
Painted in 1879, this monumental work depicts the victory of Colonel Juan de Contreras in this key battle in the Carlist Wars - the epic nineteenth-century war over the succession of the Spanish throne. Hitherto unknown, the present work is the fourth and final version Oller painted, and is the culmination of his developing thoughts on, and ambitions for, this major composition. The Battle of Treviño took place on 8 July 1875, when Colonel Contreras led ninety-eight cavalrymen from the royal regiment to an overwhelming victory against an army ten times the size of his troops. A defining moment for the liberal cause, the battle marked one of the decisive victories in the history of the Carlist Wars. The Carlist Wars in Spain were the last major European civil wars in which pretenders fought to establish their claim to a throne. From 1833 until 1876 the Carlists - followers of Infante Carlos (later Carlos V) and his descendants - fought for the cause of Spanish tradition (Legitimism and Catholicism) against the liberalism of the Spanish governments of the day. Upon the death of Ferdinand VII of Spain in 1833, his fourth wife María Cristina became Queen Regent on behalf of their daughter Isabella II, introducing a constitutional regime and splitting the country into two factions - the Cristinos, who supported the Queen, and the Carlists, who supported Carlos V, the brother of the late king and a pretender to the throne.
In 1868, Queen Isabella was overthrown in a coup d'état by liberal generals, who replaced her with Amadeo, the Duke of Aosta. Then, when the Spanish elections of 1872 resulted in government violence against Carlist candidates, the Carlist pretender, Carlos VII, decided that only force of arms could win him the throne. Thus the third Carlist War began, resulting in the defeat of the Carlists in 1876.
As well as a history painting celebrating the liberal cause, the present work had a personal significance for Oller. Contreras's father had been stationed in Puerto Rico in the 1850s as second in command on the island, during which time Juan, his son, and Oller struck up a close friendship. Their paths certainly crossed again as a result of the Battle of Treviño. The present work can be seen in part as Oller's personal tribute to his friend. Oller was living in Paris when he read of his friend's victory in battle. He exhibited the first version of his depiction of the battle, titled El Colonel Contreras en Treviño, at the Exposición General de Bellas Artes in Madrid in 1878 while official painter to the Republican-backed Spanish Court during the reign of King Alfonso XII.
By the time Oller painted the second version in 1877-78 (sold Sotheby's, Latin American Art, November 16, 2005, lot 36), Contreras had been promoted to General in recognition of his victory at Treviño. A third version was painted to coincide with the appointment of Contreras as royal aide to the King, the latter acquiring the painting directly from Oller. Dating from 1879, this third version remains in Spain where it is national patrimony and part of the collection of the Palacio Real of Madrid. Oller's free and spontaneous approach in his painting opposes the conventions of realism and the technical precision of traditional military painting favoured by such artists as Jean-Louis Meissonier or Mariano Fortuny. Instead, he embraces a dynamic, Impressionistic style to capture the atmosphere and drama of the moment.
In The Battle of Treviño, Oller evokes the terrain of the battlefield to palpitating and mesmerising effect, using mere dabs of colour that seem to blend together, and make the action appear to alternate in and out of focus. Even the heroic figure of Contreras himself is almost incidental to the painting's overall effusive lyricism.
In every respect, Oller's style embraces Edouard Manet's assertion that, 'there are no lines in nature that limit the fusion between objects.' Indeed, painted in Paris just two years after Oller had sojourned with Pissarro and Cézanne in Pontoise, the present work displays many of the characteristics of French avant-garde painting.
Born in San Juan, Oller studied and worked intermittently in Madrid and Paris from 1851 to 1884, before settling back in Puerto Rico. During his European sojourns he befriended Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, August Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Jean Frédéric Bazille. It was the combination of their new aestheic and the Realism of Gustave Courbet which he admired above all, that would shape his own unique style.