Fairy-tale quality in Puerto Rican's art. Campeche, though untrained, succeeded in several fields

``Jos'e Campeche and His Times,'' the Metropolitan Museum's full-scale exhibition of Puerto Rico's first important native-born painter, is both charming and full of pleasant surprises. It also stands as a reminder that there probably are a number of other little-known American artists - from both north and south of the equator - who are worthy of more serious attention. Although Campeche (1751-1809), the son of a former black slave, received no formal art training, he quickly fell under the influence of Luis Paret y Alc'azar, an outstanding Spanish artist exiled to Puerto Rico in 1775. When Paret returned to Spain in 1778, Campeche discovered that his own accomplishments now made him valuable to both government and Roman Catholic clergy. He was commissioned to produce not only portraits and religious pictures, but designs for buildings, monuments, parade standards, ornamental sculpture - even military uniforms. Success came quickly and lasted all his life. Unfortunately, his personal effects, which could have helped document his life, were burned in 1809 after he died of an infectious disease.

The exhibition, organized by Dr. Ren'e Taylor, emeritus director of the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico, and coordinated by Kay Bearman, consists of 47 paintings. Many are small, precisely detailed, and possess the kind of charm usually associated with portrait miniatures of the European aristocracy. ``Lady on Horseback'' and ``The Wife of Governor Dufresne'' are delightful peeks into a thoroughly Spanish society maintaining its rituals and fashions thousands of miles from Spain. The costumes, painting styles, and the landscape and interior settings of these works, bear no evidence whatever that they were executed in Puerto Rico.

Because of this - and because Campeche's lack of formal art training reveals itself in some awkwardness of drawing and composition - a kind of fairy-tale quality pervades the exhibition. The subjects come across as going about their business in a carefully staged and beautifully rendered never-never land. I, for one, however, didn't mind. In fact, I found the show both modestly successful and quite appealing. At the Metropolitan Museum through Sept. 25. -30-{et

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