The summer of 1898 was one of dramatic changes at a global scale.

The United States seemed poised to enter the ranks of the world’s leaders, with politicians and military officials like Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Navy Theodore Roosevelt convinced that the country was ready to compete at the vanguard of modern naval technology. Encouraged by Roosevelt, President William McKinley sent the warship USS Maine to the Spanish-occupied island of Cuba in January 1898 to guard U.S. interests during the Cubans’ fight for independence. When the ship mysteriously blew up in Havana’s harbor, the U.S. yellow press and politicians—eager to avenge the victims of the explosion and flex the nation’s military strength—blamed Spain for sabotage and declared war on the European empire on April 25, 1898.

By the time the Maine blew up, the words of Roosevelt encapsulated the zeitgeist for war and the impetus to upend Spanish oppression: “If we will not fight for the blowing up of the Maine (and personally I believe we should have fought long ago because of the atrocities in Cuba) we are no longer fit to hold up our heads among the nations of the earth,” he wrote. Liberating Cuba from Spanish colonial oppression became the higher moral motive of the war, even as the fighting extended beyond the island to elsewhere in the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean.

The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition “1898: U.S. Imperial Visions and Revisions” explores this pivotal chapter of history through which the U.S. expanded its sphere of influence over Cuba and established sovereignty over Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. The show also explores the congressional Joint Resolution to annex Hawaiʻi, which happened in the midst of the Spanish-American War, and the Philippine-American War (1899-1902), provoked by the United States’ refusal to accept Philippine independence after their military defeat of the Spanish. This exhibition, which I co-curated with historian Kate Clarke Lemay, and with the help of Carolina Maestre, a curatorial assistant in Latino art and history, takes a panoramic and comparative approach, decentering the traditional U.S. narrative of military triumph and territorial expansion, to bring forward the perspectives of each land and archipelago affected by the events of that year.

Two months into the war, following decisive U.S. victories in Manila Bay in the Philippines and Santiago, Cuba, as well as the bombardment of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the naval blockade to the island’s north coast, the Puerto Rican land invasion got underway. Instead of invading the island through the eastern town of Fajardo as planned, Nelson Miles, commanding general of the U.S. Army, changed course in the open sea and invaded the island through the southern town of Guánica. As he later recounted in Harper’s Pictorial History of the War with Spain, “We arrived off that point [Guánica] near daylight on July 25, and the harbor was entered without opposition. The guns of the Gloucester, Commander Wainwright commanding, fired several shots at some Spanish troops on shore. The landing of the marines, sailors and our troops immediately commenced, and after a short skirmish the Spanish troops were driven from the place and the flag of the United States was raised on the island.”

Entry of North Americans into Guánica Bay
Entry of North Americans into Guánica Bay, unidentified artist, watercolor on canvas, c. 1898. Aldarondo & López-Bras, LLC, Attorneys at Law. Photo by John Betancourt

Entry of North Americans Into Guánica Bay, an undated work by an unknown artist, is one of the most dramatic pieces in the exhibition. Painted in black, white and gray watercolor on canvas, the naval scene creates a sense of foreboding by emphasizing the menacing, architectural lines of the heavily armed steel vessels. The painter places the viewer not on dry ground, but on the same plane as the other ships, high over the water. According to historical records, the Gloucester, Massachusetts, Columbia, Yale and Dixie entered the bay, but only four large ships are visible, leading us to believe that the painter was standing on the fifth. A convoy of smaller boats helps the more than 3,400 troops who disembark and set up camp on the sandy shores of the Barrio Carenero.

Chemical studies performed on this artwork situate its making during the first half of the 20th century. The palette and the emphasis on U.S. military power and enterprise lead us to speculate that it was made by or after one of the many artists sent by weekly magazines such as Harper’s, Leslie’s or Scribner’s to illustrate the war and exalt the U.S. The painting suggests foreign power on its way to reorder society. In the words of historian Manuel R. Rodríguez, a curator of political and military history at the National Museum of American History, in spite of the questions this painting raises, “it is a powerful symbolic representation, taking into account that after the U.S. invasion, Guánica Bay became the home of a mighty sugar cane industry that defined Puerto Rico’s economy for the next four decades.”

Regardless of the artist’s identity, the artwork’s narrative is eventful and tense but without denouement. Much in the same way, although dramatically different in mood, El desembarque de los americanos en Ponce, 27 de julio de 1898 (“Americans Disembarking in Ponce, July 27, 1898”), by Manuel Cuyàs Agulló, depicts U.S. ships disembarking in the port of the island’s southern capital, two days after the invasion through Guánica. The large military vessels remain in the distance, parallel to the picture plane, almost protecting the bay, rather than advancing toward the viewer.

El desembarque de los americanos en Ponce, 27 de julio de 1898 (Americans Landing in Ponce, July 27, 1898)
El desembarque de los americanos en Ponce, 27 de julio de 1898 (Americans Landing in Ponce, July 27, 1898), by Manuel Cuyàs Agulló, oil on canvas, 1898. Museo de Arte de Ponce; The Luis A. Ferré Foundation, Inc., gift of José and Mary Jane Fernández

But the focus of the painting is the movement of goods, people and animals in the foreground, a movement perhaps related to those ships in the background. This artwork is imbued with a cautious optimism that suspended questions about how the U.S. invasion would impact Puerto Rico’s long-sought autonomy that had been recently granted by Spain. With their hopes placed on the values of freedom and democracy that the U.S. represented, and a faith in the modernization they could bring, the economic and political elite of Ponce greeted the Americans with diplomatic openness, instead of armed confrontation.

These artworks introduce compelling commentary and questions about how Puerto Ricans encountered a new relationship driven by the U.S. invasion. What would this new relationship bring? Would the U.S. assert its power over Puerto Rico unequivocally, as the Guánica painting suggests? Would the hope for the U.S. bringing democracy and prosperity evoked in the Cuyàs Agulló painting concretize?

In contrast, Francisco Oller y Cestero’s portrait of U.S. President William McKinley offers a more finite approach to this uncertain moment, laying out the facts. In the fall of 1898, Oller, a preeminent Puerto Rican painter, veered drastically from his typical body of work—landscapes depicting his island’s countryside, still lives of tropical fruit and portraits of Puerto Rican intellectuals—by painting a portrait of McKinley. Born in a colonial society, Oller understood how crucial it was for validation and survival to find patrons in the colonial authorities. In parallel to developing his iconography of Puerto Rican identity, in the early 1870s, he had been named painter of the Royal Chamber by King Amadeo I of Spain, and he had created portraits of Spanish officials and military.

President William McKinley by Francisco Oller
President William McKinley, by Francisco Oller, oil on canvas, 1898. Collection of Dr. Eduardo Perez and family. Photo by John Betancourt

As art historian Edward J. Sullivan and historian Max Antonio Mischler have documented, Oller used a bust-length photograph as his source material. He extrapolated an elegant waist-length portrait of the president standing against a wall covered in golden fabric. With his gaze averted from the viewer, McKinley grasps a partially rolled map, unfurled just enough to reveal Puerto Rico’s west coast. On a nearby table sit two inkwells, a pen and a miniature eagle-topped obelisk. Although McKinley’s portrait does not possess the fluidity of Oller’s portraits of his compatriots, the painter’s adherence to the conventions of state portraiture—the painting’s academic realist style, its elegance and its formality—make it clear he is presenting himself to the new colonial authorities as, potentially, their official portraitist.

Significantly, Oller included two postmarks that turn this portrait into a representation of the transformations that took place with the War of 1898. The map of Puerto Rico that McKinley holds reads at the top “July 25, 1898,” referencing the U.S. invasion. Maps, like landscapes, have been used for centuries in state and aristocratic portraits to denote possession of the land. In no uncertain terms, this date and the president’s tight grasp illustrate the control the U.S. established on the day of the invasion through its military occupation.

The second postmark is not in the painting, but on it. Below his signature, Oller wrote “Puerto-Rico. 8.bre 18 de 1898.” The painter spelled octubre—“October”—by combining the Latin prefix of number eight: “octo,” followed by the suffix “bre.” The date’s political significance is inescapable. International recognition of the new territorial extension of the U.S. over Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam was only formalized with the Treaty of Paris, signed on December 10, 1898. However, in Puerto Rico, October 18, 1898, marked a before and after. At noon that day, 400 years of Spanish rule over the island ceased, as the U.S. flag was raised in every military, insular, municipal and civil office.

As Ángel Rivero Méndez, a Puerto Rican artillery soldier for the Spanish Army, relayed with a heavy heart, “the Washington anthem was played, and the troops in formation made the honors of war” on La Plaza Alfonso XII (today La Plaza de Armas) in front of San Juan’s City Hall. The military government that would rule the island for two years was also installed on that day. It was replaced in May 1900 by the civil government established under the Foraker Act, which established a temporary civil government with U.S.-appointed functionaries and severely limited local participation.

Records in the National Archives, also referenced in the Catalog of American Portraits, show that on May 9, 1900, with the assistance of the military governor of Puerto Rico, George Davis, Oller sent McKinley’s portrait to the White House, along with a cover letter and photograph of himself, both now lost to time.

To this day, no records have been found documenting the president’s reaction to his portrait or stating how long the artwork remained in the White House before finding its way into a private collection. What is certain is that Oller understood the power of state portraiture as a visual tool to validate a political leader, and the possibilities to reference achievements iconographically, through symbolic objects. The map in McKinley’s grasp, and the two postmarks he includes, are Oller’s most explicit ways of alluding to the geopolitical changes of the War of 1898 under McKinley for the U.S. and for Puerto Rico. At the same time, the play between the date on the map—as part of the composition—and the place and date on the painting, as part of the signature, create a meta aspect to the portrait, turning it into an artistic affidavit of that transition.

We do not know how present the rest of the U.S. “imperial archipelago,” to use the words of Puerto Rico-based sociologist Lanny Thompson, was in Oller’s mind. Nevertheless, as curators of the exhibition, we placed this artwork as the first work the viewer encounters to amplify its symbolism beyond the occupation of Puerto Rico. The map in McKinley’s grasp could be replaced by that of Guam, the Philippines, Hawaiʻi or even Cuba as a U.S. protectorate, and Oller’s metaphor still holds. The War of 1898, a name we use intentionally instead of the Spanish-American War, left the fate of these islands in the hands of McKinley and the U.S.

Like the other two works mentioned earlier, Oller’s portrait of William McKinley leaves the specifics about how the U.S. would govern Puerto Rico, or for how long, open-ended. Would the United States be the force for democracy that Puerto Ricans were hoping for? It does not answer the question of “Does the Constitution follow the flag?” that tried to discern how applicable the U.S. Constitution would be to the new overseas territories. Oller’s portrait, instead, stays in the realm of certainty, verifying the geopolitical shift that had just taken place.

The consequences of 1898 have been enduring, particularly for Puerto Rico and Guam, which remain unincorporated territories of the U.S. under the plenary power of Congress, a decision sustained by the Supreme Court in the Insular Cases of 1901. With such an impact, it is dismaying that the year’s events occupy such a small space in the prevailing narrative of U.S. history, a paradigm I hope the exhibition upends.

Puerto Ricans, myself included, understand the year 1898 as a landmark of our modern history. The relationship and power dynamics between the U.S. and Puerto Rico established then are the axis of people’s political orientations, whether they favor the status quo (that is, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, established in 1952), statehood or independence in any of its variants. They have defined 125 years of sociopolitical struggles to attain full democracy on the island and for the social and political empowerment of diasporic Puerto Ricans in the continental United States.

1898 has also had a profound cultural impact. It has been a shaping force in the articulation of a Puerto Rican identity that is not subject to national sovereignty and that can exist in the vaivén, or the back-and-forth movement between the island and the U.S., to cite Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute and an anthropologist at Florida International University. Conversely, through 1898, Puerto Ricans have also become part of the U.S. cultural fabric, with indelible expressions that include their key role in the Harlem Hellfighters, their creation of venerated artistic landmarks as El Museo del Barrio and the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, and their foundational contributions to salsa, hip-hop and urbano music.

By shedding light on that historical juncture, the exhibition “1898: U.S. Imperial Visions and Revisions” launches a conversation that allows us to consider the profound social, cultural and political impact and consequences of the War of 1898 in the United States and the span of lands it brought under its control.

“1898: U.S. Imperial Visions and Revisions” is on view at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery through February 25, 2024.

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