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Cuban cigars, Cuban independence

Willard Metcalf's 1902 painting, "Havana Harbor," captures the beauty and tranquility of Cuba. Commissioned for a luxurious New York cigar store, it uses Impressionist techniques to evoke a tropical paradise. However, it also masks a complex history, including Cuba's struggle for independence and hardships under Spanish and American rule. Created by Beth Harris, Smarthistory, and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(gentle music) - [Steven] We're in the Art Institute of Chicago. We're looking at a painting that is actually part of the Terra Foundation for American Arts collection. It was painted by Willard Metcalf in 1902, and it's called Havana Harbor, and it's beautiful. It's a place I want to go. - [Katherine] And you've hit on the exact thing that Metcalf is trying to convey. We're looking at something exotic and peaceful and beautiful. He wants to engage the viewer and make us think that this is where we want to go. - [Steven] We're overlooking the Port of Havana, but a port that is surrounded by this lush vegetation. You can feel the warmth of the sun and the cool breeze that blows through. - [Katherine] Metcalf is using some of what he has learned from Impressionism by trying to convey the brushiness of these different plants, but he is also carefully portraying for us what he is seeing when he's in Havana, so those are palm trees. This is a little bit exotic, but of course, a beautiful sunny day. Everything is calm and peaceful. - [Steven] And those rich colors were intended to be vivid reminder of the tropics for a very different context. This is a painting that was intended to be seen in New York City. - [Katherine] Willard Metcalf is commissioned by Stanford White, an architect friend of his. Stanford White is hired to design the interior of Havana Tobacco Company Store in New York City. So Willard Metcalf is commissioned to go to Cuba for a few weeks in early 1902 and make these paintings. - [Steven] This store interior is not to be underestimated. It was described as one of the most luxurious stores ever created. It had beautiful white columns, paintings, palms. It was meant to recreate a luxurious vision of the tropics. - [Katherine] Stanford White knew what he was doing. He uses mostly white marble with these columns and the floor but then puts real potted palms into the store, has Willard Metcalf work on these really brightly colored paintings. The idea is that buying a cigar in this store is like as if you could go to Havana through this one act of entering into the store. - [Steven] But it's important not to forget the historical context in which this painting was produced. It was made in 1902 in Havana. 1902 was the year that the island was turned over from the United States to Cuba itself. It was first moment in centuries that the island had been independent. - [Katherine] It's true that there is troubled history here, and Metcalf is not indicating that at all, but we cannot forget that 1902 date, because just four years earlier, it's the US military that takes over control of Cuba from the Spanish government, and it's only a few months after Metcalf's visit that the Cubans governed themselves independently. - [Steven] Although, importantly, with American oversight. The United States was not willing to cede total control. As we look at this beautiful, lush painting, with its Impressionist brushwork that so softly renders this tropical paradise, it's so easy to forget that in the years before this painting was made, Cuba had suffered terribly under the Spanish. An enormous percentage of the island's rural population had been placed into what were essentially concentration camps, and hundreds of thousands of people perished. - [Katherine] And even under US rule, the island is not without diseases, economic difficulties. We're not getting that in Metcalf's image. And of course, anyone wanting to buy a cigar in New York City would not want to be reminded of that. But here's Metcalf giving us a view overlooking something really peaceful, but he still is distanced and up above perhaps a kind of patriarchal overlooking, without getting into any of the seamier sides of the city. - [Steven] And so this is really interesting conflict, because we have an image that is incredibly beautiful, that is visually luscious, and yet it's also erasing a very complicated history. - [Katherine] And it's hard to know exactly how much the people going into the Havana Tobacco Company Store in New York would know about all that history. What they were interested in is purchasing very high-end, hand-rolled tobacco from Cuba, but today, looking at the exact moment when Metcalf is there, we need to be understanding of that whole context. - [Steven] The composition is so skillful in this painting. My eye enters into the lower right. It's caught by that brilliant red. It slowly proceeds in and around the trunks of the palms and then down to the buildings below. - [Katherine] The red roofs of these quaint buildings, even though some of them are larger structures, catches our eye because of that exotic red flowering bush in the foreground. We have palms. We have ferns. It's actually a carefully constructed composition with foreground, middle ground, background, the curve of the harbor echoing those soft curving hills. Even the palm trees seem to be moving in the wind. Everything is designed to catch our eye and help us to move around the painting. So Metcalf is skillful at creating a composition that looks almost casual but is in fact carefully constructed. - [Steven] And I love the way that he is able to imply that tropical breeze. Not only do we see its effect on the tall palms, but if you look for instance at the colors of the smaller palm in the foreground, you can see the dark tops of the leaves, and then it seems almost as if the fronds have actually been blown over so we can see the lighter undersides. - [Katherine] That little puff of smoke coming out of a chimney seems to be pushing in the breeze. There's a sailboat in the far distance. Everything is designed to help you think you are in fact there, and you can feel also the warmth of the sun and the soft breeze of this exotic city. (gentle music)