Lot 63
  • 63

José Campeche (1751-1809)

150,000 - 200,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • José Campeche
  • Virgen de la Merced
  • 20 1/4 by 14 3/4 in.
  • (51.4 by 37.5 cm)
oil on wood


Private Collection, San Juan


The surface of the painting appears to be in good condition. The wood panel was previously cracked through the middle but the vertical joints have been well set with glue and inpainted. There is light craquelure throughout the painting but the surface is in stable condition. There are scattered lines of inpainting along the edges consistent with frame abrasions and a few small spots scattered throughout the background. These are all consistent with the age of the painting and overall it is in very good condition.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

Born in 1751, the son of a liberated slave, the mulatto José Campeche would emerge from his humble lineage to become one of the most accomplished Spanish colonial painters of the second-half of the eighteenth century and the first to express a sense of Puerto Rico's burgeoning national identity.

Campeche's education began under the tutelage of his father, a gilder, decorator and painter, and as was common for many artists from the Americas, sustained through his study of engravings of Old Master paintings and his limited access to important art books from the period. However the serendipitous arrival of the exiled Spanish court painter Luis Paret y Alcazar in 1775 would prove to be decisive for the young artist's career and training. Paret schooled Campeche in all aspects of European painting, including the Rococo, a style the Spanish artist favored and for which he was considered one of its most accomplished practitioners. And, while Campeche's later style would evolve further to embrace a more academic and neoclassical approach to painting, Paret's influence is indisputable and was felt immediately in the artist's work. As art historian Arturo Dávila well notes, "Paret's recipe of Bourbon blues, gold and white highlights, [and] grays and vermilions carefully blended to achieve the rich tonal gradations characteristic of the Rococo, are very much present in Campeche's palette, along with the Spaniard's particular treatment of  the pictorial space."1

La Virgen de la Merced (or The Virgin of Ransom)—so named, because of her cult and promotion by the Mercedarian Order whose task it was to support the welfare and security of the Christian captives of Islam and to negotiate their ransom2— is one of several versions painted by the artist. In keeping with her role as the Patroness of the Mercedarian Order, Campeche depicts her in the charitable task of ransoming or freeing captives. Seated on a throne of clouds, she holds the Infant Jesus in her arms who bestows a scapular of the Order to a small child adorned with a red turban, a possible reference to Algerian slaves.3 At the Virgin's feet are two captives, one freed and the other still captive as indicated by his chains. Two sets of cherubs on either side of the top corner of the traditional pyramidal composition balance out the remaining space and further imbue the painting with an overall sense of benevolence and innocence. This painting is remarkably similar to the version currently in the collection of the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña in San Juan, a relevant detail that allows us to draw the conclusion that this present version was probably painted on or around the same period during the 1790s. In both works, Campeche's delicate and fine brushwork, coupled with his use of color and light convey the otherworldly qualities of his subject. The Virgin Mary's porcelain features and the rich drapery and folds of her garments, as well as the dynamic foreshortened figure of the infant Jesus complemented by the remaining figures amply display Campeche's talents as a miniaturists and a draftsman.

Art historian René Taylor has rightfully identified the source for Campeche's composition as a devotional engraving from the period, a frequent point of departure for much of the iconography and compositional solutions employed by the artist in his religious paintings. 4 Scholar Alfredo Boulton supports this observation when he asserts that the frequent subject of the "Virgen de la Merced" among colonial artists was largely due to the wide circulation of these engravings by the Church. Not only did these religious "estampas" or engravings serve as a primary impetus for artist's renderings, but they often provided the formula for those depictions and hence the similarities among various artists, as is evident in paintings of the subject by the distinguished Venezuelan Juan Pedro López and another by a follower of the Mexican painter Miguel Cabrera. 5

And while Campeche's life was cut short at the peak of his artistic maturation, by the end of his career the humble son of a freed slave had garnered enormous success as a painter as is evident in his countless commissions at home and throughout the Caribbean, most notably Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Cuba. 

1 Arturo Dávila, "José Campeche" in José Campeche (1751-1809) y el Taller Familiar (Rio Piedras: Museo de Historia, Antropología y Arte, Facultad de Humanidades, Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1999), p. 8.

2 See René Taylor, "Nuestra Señora de la Merced," in José Campeche and His Time (Ponce: Museo de Arte de Ponce, 1988), p. 175.

3 See Arturo Dávila, "Nuestra Señora de la Merced" in José Campeche (1751-1809) (San Juan: Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, 1971), p. 108.

4 See René Taylor, p. 175.

5 Alfredo Boulton, Historia de la Pintura en Venezuela, Tomo 1, Época Colonial (Caracas: Ernesto Armitano, 1975), pp. 196-197.