2013 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Carlos Morel, the first prominent Argentine artist. Working with oil painting and lithography, he would produce battle scenes, religious scenes, personal portraits, and other pieces commemorating 19th century Argentine life.
According to argentinidad.com, Morel – born in Buenos Aires on 12 February 1813 – was the son of a prosperous Spanish merchant. When the elder died prematurely, young Morel began to assume a large role in his father’s business. Quite evidently, however, he felt he was suited for other things, as the artistic vocation began to attract him.
Morel entered the University of Buenos Aires and fell under the tutelage of Italian native Pablo Caccianiga. Around this time, Morel’s widowed mother also came under the influence of a native Italian artist, one Cayetano Descalzi, whom she married.
As a young adult, Morel painted portraits of prominent Buenos Aires citizens. However, his more dramatic works were ones depicting either the gaucho way of life or the ongoing civil wars scorching the 1800s Argentine landscape. His “Cavalry Fight in the Age of Rosas” is a stormy visual anthem to battlefield tumult.
In this painting, one pistol-wielding man is about to take a spear in the groin. Another man, already decapitated, is about to have his heart penetrated by a sword. Perhaps his attacker’s adrenaline is so high that he does not realise the enemy is headless and dead.
The scene’s most conspicuous horse wears an expression of dumb wonder, as if to ask: what sort of strange species would cause such destruction to its own? In a background clouded by gunfire, the comparatively detached and peaceful figure of a trumpeter performs his instrument.
Other instruments are depicted in another prominent Morel piece, “Duel in the Taproom”. This scene is a battle of a different sort: a showdown between two barroom guitarists. The contest contains just a hint of the battlefield sentiment, but the undercurrent of barroom revelry is undeniable. Still, this is serious business. Two practitioners of their acoustic craft are locking horns. The bystanders are as focused on the music as the performers.
Shortly after painting his “Duel in the Taproom”, Morel headed to Río de Janeiro, which was becoming an artistic hotbed. It was in Río where expatriate French artists showed him the process of daguerreotyping, which was a new technique in the early stages of photography.
Upon his return to Argentina, Morel released an album of lithographs called “Manners and Customs of the Río de la Plata”. This album would be among his most enduring works. However, for Morel, a long dry season would soon begin. No new works surfaced between 1848 and 1870. There was speculation that the artist had suffered a mental breakdown.
Despite the romanticised image of the brilliant “mad artist” producing masterworks, the common psychiatric contention is that a mental breakdown would impinge on an otherwise gifted person’s ability to produce work of merit. Though, in Morel’s case, the occurrence of such a breakdown cannot be confirmed, we are left to wonder about the reason for this prolonged gap in the life of a successful artist.
By the early 1870s, Morel was residing in Quilmes, where he reportedly worked as a photographer. At that point, he was also painting again. His themes took on a more religious bent as he approached the end of his life. At age 81, he died in Quilmes on 10th September 1894.
You need not travel far to observe Morel’s contributions; the National Museum of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires is ground zero for the work of the nation’s first artist.