Attributed to Juan Lovera (Venezuelan 1778-1841)
Attributed to Juan Lovera (Venezuelan 1778-1841)

Portrait of Simón Bolivar (painted from life)

Attributed to Juan Lovera (Venezuelan 1778-1841)
Portrait of Simón Bolivar (painted from life)
indistinctly inscribed 'President Simon Bolivar painted from life by Sigr. Juan Lovera of Caracas South America and presented by Lovera to John Neagle, artist of Philada. Pa. N. America April 1835' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
32 x 26½ in. (81 x 67 cm.)
Painted circa 1827.
John Neagle, Philadelphia.
Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Lot Essay

In Latin America during the era following the independence of the Spanish colonies, artists who had previously created Colonial religious paintings turned their attention to the patriotic heroes and leaders of the revolution. The Caracas-born Juan Lovera (1776-1841) was one such transitional figure, who studied under the Dominicans at the convent of S. Jacinto in Caracas and with the painter Antonio José Landaeta, and began his career producing pictures of saints and other sacred images. Witness to the events that led to independence, Lovera could not ignore history in the making, and began to depict the new nation's founding fathers, including José Antonio Páez, Cristóbal de Mendoza, Mariano Herrera Toro, and Casimiro Vegas. The most important was Simón Bolívar (1783-1830), leader of the independence movement of a large portion of South America.(1) He envisioned the political unity of Latin America, which he achieved for a short time as Gran Colombia (1819-1830): roughly present-day Panama, Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador. Internal conflicts contributed to the dissolution of the short-lived republic and the exile of Bolívar, but he was hailed a hero by many at the time and later his reputation was revived as "the Liberator," or as some would have it the George Washington, of South America.

Like Washington before him, Bolívar was frequently portrayed in stone and in paint, sometimes sketched from life but often copied after prints or earlier paintings. Such imagery played an important historic role, constructing and consolidating national identity in these new-born republics. An early engraving of Bolívar by A. Leclerc (1819) with a youthful face, moustache and ample curly hair provided the starting point for a number of images. In Ecuador Antonio Salas was said to have painted him from life on several occasions, and made numerous variations on his own portraits. In Lima the mulatto José Gil de Castro created a well-known portrait that combines the stiff presentation and textual inscriptions of colonial art with a freshly observed treatment of the figure that portends 19th c. realism. (2) About 1827 when this portrait is thought to be painted, the political tides were turning against Bolívar, whom Lovera rendered as the mature statesman whose youthful idealism has been sorely tested but not destroyed.(3) Since photography had not been invented in Bolívar's lifetime, we have no photographic image to gauge the likeness. But Daniel Florence O'Leary, his loyal aide who saw him most days, recorded in his private notes a description of his visage:

Gl. B's forehead was very high, but not unusually broad. It had many wrinkles. His eyebrows were thick, but well shaped; his eyes were dark and keen; his nose rather long and handsome. His cheeks sunken ever since I first knew him (May 1818). His mouth was ugly, his lips being thick, the upper one longer. His teeth were regular, white and beautiful. He took particular care with them. His jaw bones and chin were long. His ears were large. His hair, which he wore long (until it began to turn gray, 1822), was extremely black and curly his skin was dark and rough; his hands and feet were remarkably small and pretty.(4)

To judge from this written description, Lovera captured a particularly good likeness in this half-length portrait. Like most representations of him, he appears at a slight angle to the picture plane wearing the full military uniform of a general: a French-inspired military tailcoat with standing collar complete with gold epaulets and bullion embroidery decorating the cuffs and edges of the coat with laurel clusters, over a Morocco leather sword-belt. Details of the uniform including a distinctive belt-plate bearing the sitter's enwreathed initials "S.B.", is done with a level of specificity suggesting direct observation. Several other features are distinctive within Bolívarian iconography. Frequently we see him staring past the viewer, but here he makes eye contact, if cautiously, from the corner of his eye with his head slightly turned to his left. Rarely did he have his hands visible (perhaps because they were in O'Leary's words "remarkably small and pretty"); bust length renderings would not include them in any case but even in full length his hand tucked inside his jacket in the manner of Napoleon Bonaparte (whom he had met in Paris). Here, however, his right arm is bent and the index finger of his gloved hand points across his chest.(5) These details, combined with the specifics of the belt plate, give this picture an air of individuality and immediacy characteristic of a portrait done from life.

An inscription written on the back of this canvas by John Neagle reads: President Simon Bolivar
Painted from life
By Sigr. Juan Lovera of Caracas, South America
And presented by Lovera to John Neagle, artist of
Philadelphia, Pa N. America April 1835
(see Lovera's letter of presentation to Neagle)(6)

Neagle was a well-known Philadelphia painter, who had also portrayed the Liberator (Bolívar Birthplace, Caracas), apparently based on an engraving, for John Alderson.(7) An Englishman living in Philadelphia in 1817, Alderson had commercial dealings in Venezuela with close ties to Bolívar. He is therefore a logical link between Neagle and Lovera, who could have painted this work at Alderson's estate outside Caracas, where Bolívar is thought to have retired briefly from his campaigns in Spring 1827. The portrait's subsequent appearance in 1835 in Neagle's Philadelphia studio built on the city's strong ties to Latin America. Alexander von Humboldt had stopped there towards the end of his five-year expedition in the Americas (1799-1804), where he was guided around the city by artist Charles Willson Peale. From 1826 to 1830 another Philadelphia painter Francis Drexel headed for South America in order to portray Bolívar. And Alderson, friend of Neagle and Lovera, was part of the city's network of Latin American revolutionaries. This handsome Portrait of Bolívar was bequeathed by Neagle to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania where it remained until now, an important visual document of pan-American artistic and political relations.

(c) Katherine E. Manthorne, Professor of Modern Art of the Americas, The Graduate Center, CUNY.

1) Juan Lovera y su tiempo, Ed. Petróleos de Venezuela, 1981, and C. F. Duarte, Juan Lovera, el pintor de los próceres, Caracas, Fundación Pompero, 1985.
2) A. Boulton, El Rostro de Bolívar, Caracas, Macanao Ed., 1982, is the standard reference.
3) Several early sources mention an undiscovered portrait of Bolívar done by Lovera in 1827. The sitter's appearance and the fact that in 1827 he was in Caracas along with Alderman and Lovera, point to 1827 as the date of this portrait. See Landaeta Rosales, "Los antiguos pintores Venezolanos Juan y Pedro Lovera," El Constitucional, November 8, 1906.
4) J. Lynch, Simón Bolívar: A Life, London and New Haven, Yale University Press, 2005, 22.

5) Careful examination of the gloved right hand shows that the gently bend index finger visible here was painted over an earlier straight index finger.

6) The letter from Lovera referred to is currently unlocated, and being sought in various archives. Neagle was known for accurate record-keeping. See R. W. Torchia, John Neagle. Philadelphia Portrait Painter, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Historical Society, 1989.
7) For an illustration see the inventory of portraits at
8) K. E. Manthorne, Tropical Renaissance: North American Artists Exploring Latin America, 1839-1879, Washington, D.C. and London, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989, pp. 37, 103, 35-36, 182-3.


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