Recently, I discovered the article “Juan De’Prey: A Giant Rediscovered” by Michael DR (blogspot.com). Further research led to the book “Painting and Sculpture of the Puerto Ricans” (Plus Ultra, 1978) by the art historian, writer, and advocate for Puerto Rican art and culture, Peter Bloch.
In the book, Bloch was dismayed that thirteen years after De’Prey’s death, many Puerto Ricans were not aware of his art, nor had any art institution on the island purchased his art.
In interviews, De’Prey stated he was born and raised in Puerto Rico. Also, his mother died at birth, and a woman of “Indian ancestry” raised him. However, the 1910 census shows the family name was Deriberprey. Also, Juan’s father, Louis, was a Frenchman who immigrated to Puerto Rico from Haiti in 1909. In addition, the census lists Juan’s elder brothers, Alfonso, Etien, Pierre, and Rose, and a younger sister. Juan is listed as “Gean,” the Spanish spelling for the French “Jean.” Their place of birth is listed as “Haiti.”
Information about De’Prey’s mother, Jean Ciceron, was less specific but indicates her birthplace was “Santa Cruz,” the Spanish name for St. Croix and was of African descent.
At a young age in Puerto Rico, De’Prey sold newspapers, shined shoes, and worked as a water boy in the cane, banana, and pineapple fields. Also, he was a fisherman, longshoreman, and merchant seaman.
In 1929, De’Prey traveled to New York as a seaman and accepted whatever work he could find. During the depression, he worked as a handyman, caretaker, house painter, and elevator operator. According to De’Prey’s obituary in the New York Times, “While operating an elevator in an apartment house, he sold paintings to tenants by hanging pictures one at a time in the elevator car.”
In 1934 De’Prey and Miguel Angel de Leon formed the Pro-Art Group. Later, De’Prey was affiliated with The Latin American Art Group of New York.
In the early 1940s, the sculptor Jose de Creeft, while serving as a juror for the Washington Square Outdoor Exhibit, noticed De’Prey’s work and awarded him first prize. The recognition led to De’prey becoming a full-time artist and three one-person shows at the Galerie St. Etienne. Also, his art was exhibited at the Eighth Street Gallery (1941) and the International Art Foundation (1949), where he received excellent reviews from the New York Times and Art News, among other publications.
De’ Prey’s art was also exhibited at the Whitney Museum of Art and the Galeria Sudamericana. Also, he painted murals for the University of Puerto Rico and Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. In 1962 De’Prey was awarded a gold medal (first prize) by the Friends of Puerto Rico group.
What drew De’Prey to the arts, who his primary influences were, and how he developed his unique style is a mystery that has yet to be unraveled. What we know is, he took to painting at a young age. “I have been painting ever since I can remember. From the time I was able to scratch a stone on a rock,” said De’Prey in an interview.
De’Prey is arguably best known for landscapes that depict a nostalgia for Puerto Rico, often compared to Mexico’s great 20th century painters. Also, for children’s portraits. In Robert Bloch’s opinion, “He was one of the most Puerto Rican of the Puerto Rican painters.” Also, Vanessa K. Valdez describes De’Prey as an “intellectual and historian who attracted elements to the canvas, denied in other spaces, and whose art demonstrates an understanding of the social and racial division of labor, the urban
worker, and industrialization on the island.”
De’Prey’s depictions of Puerto Rico, whether it be through its lush landscapes or its children, demonstrate the impact growing up in Puerto Rico had on his art and him personally.
Juan De’Prey died in his home in Brooklyn on November 30, 1962. His widow, sons Walter and Victor, and daughter, Mary, survived him.
After De’Prey’s death, The Art Gallery of the University of the Sacred Heart in Puerto Rico mounted an exhibit titled, “Discovering Juan De Prey.” Also, the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture added one of De’ Prey’s paintings to its collection.
On a personal note, several sources said, De’Prey led a simple life and was a “modest man, very cordial, never artificial.”
Hopefully, this article will spark a renewed interest and appreciation of De’Prey’s art. He deserves nothing less.
- Collazo, Edwin Velázquez – Juan De Prey – An Afro-Puerto Rican Artist During the Harlem Renaissance
- D R, Michael – Juan De’Prey: A Giant Rediscovered (No Date)
- Giles, E. Elmer, Juan De’Prey Dead: Painter Muralist – New York Times (December 1, 1962).
- Serrano, Basilio – Research
- Valdes, Vanessa K. – The Future is Now: A New Look at African Diaspora Studies (Cambridge Scholars Publishing (January 17, 2012)
- YouTube.com – Rare Historical Footage (No Sound)
- Cello Player – Artist’s Daughter in Three Moods
- Afternoon Serenade Siesta
- Juan De’Prey – Instagram
- Rare footage of Juan De’Prey’s Art Studio in Brooklyn Heights (No Sound)
- February 2022.