You can almost hear the music in Jaime Colson’s painting Merengue. Musicians and dancers fill the composition, set under the roof of an open terrace in the countryside. Two male figures are locked in song in the foreground as they play their instruments, and their harmony moves the three couples behind them. Two figures with their backs turned toward the viewer frame the crowd on either side of the composition. On the left, a woman in a white dress fans herself and looks toward the man in suspenders playing a güira on the opposite side. The 1938 painting is colorful and vibrant in its capture of Dominican culture, music, and people.
The Dominican spirit through the modernist lens
The title and the musicians evoke the rhythms of merengue. Developed in the Dominican countryside during the 19th century, this music was quickly adopted by all sectors of society becoming, in all its regional variations, a national sound. Merengue brings together the artist’s reencounter with the Dominican Republic after 20 years abroad in Europe and Mexico.
Colson’s career and style were defined by his European education. Born near the city of Puerto Plata on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic, he left for Spain at age 17 in 1918. He immersed himself in the artistic scenes of Barcelona, Madrid, and Paris for the next 16 years. Colson met the Spanish artists Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris in Paris, and during his time there he quickly made Cubism his own. Colson initially explored the multiple perspectives and limited color palette of the Cubism of Picasso and Braque but soon developed a more individual approach.
He leaned toward brighter colors and focused on the possibilities of cubism in representing the human body, such as we see in his Metaphysical Figures, created during his time in Paris in dialogue with Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical compositions. He stylized his figures to emphasize the more geometric qualities of their anatomy, having also been heavily influenced by Fernand Leger’s cylindrical cubism. We see this too in Merengue, where the almost stoic faces and the cylinder-shaped necks and arms give the figures an unreal, sculptural quality.
To understand Merengue, we must also consider Colson’s years living in Mexico City from 1934 to 1938, where he became familiar with Mexican muralism and the work of Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros.  These three painters were concerned with the representation of Mexican history and identity through state-sponsored murals that featured historical figures, as well as images of everyday people and their customs.
Colson does something similar with Dominican culture in Merengue. He makes merengue the main subject, prominently featuring the musicians and their instruments. The accordion and drum in the foreground, and the güira in the middle ground, allude to the mixed origin of merengue itself. Merengue fused Spanish and African music in the territory, building particularly on the Spanish contradanza. The first two instruments trace their origins back to European and African influence respectively, and the latter is an instrument developed in the Caribbean. The dynamic poses of the musicians contrast with the apparent stillness of the dancers, highlighting the interest in the music itself. The figures in the composition also point to the diverse Dominican society that enjoyed merengue. White, Black, and mixed people come together to enjoy themselves.
Art under dictatorship
The recognition and inclusion of Black figures as intrinsic to what is Dominican is deeply important in the context of the dictatorship and the racist politics of Rafael Trujillo (who was in power from 1930–61). Merengue was painted in 1938, during this tumultuous time. This was also the year that Colson traveled from Mexico to Cuba, where he stayed for a few months before returning to Santo Domingo (the Dominican capital, known as Ciudad Trujillo during the dictatorship). During the 1930s, artists in the Dominican Republic turned their attention to the representation of local customs and traditions, the countryside, and the mixed and Black population, similar to artists in the wider Caribbean, such as in Cuba.
On Dominican soil, artists like Celeste Woss y Gil and Yoryi Morel captured in oil what was considered distinctive to their country in the aftermath of the United States’ occupation, which lasted from 1916 to 1924. This military occupation was promoted by economic interests in the Dominican Republic (including those of U.S. banks), and it facilitated the establishment of foreign corporations in the country. The U.S. occupation was also felt on a local level, seen in the growing popularity of evangelicalism and baseball.
As mentioned above, 1930 also marked the start of Rafael Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, which would last until his assassination in 1961. His regime was deeply repressive, characterized by anti-Black policies and rhetoric and attempts to put the interests of white Dominicans first. Many of Trujillo’s efforts were aimed toward the Haitian population, which had a significant presence in the territory since the 19th century. After the Dominican war for independence and the proclamation of the republic, economic and cultural relations with Haiti continued to be important, especially along the border between the two countries.
During these years, Dominicans saw the expression of their cultural distinction as part of an opposition to the U.S. occupation. These included their traditions, music, and the racial mixing that characterized the genetic and cultural make-up of the population. Under Trujillo the construction of what was considered Dominican that was promoted by the government often emphasized the Hispanic European heritage over other cultural and racial influences that came together during earlier colonial periods. African heritage, both racial and cultural, was rejected and often associated with Haitians, who were openly and violently targeted by Trujillo’s government.
In this context and in the wake of his recent travels, Colson may have been moved to respond with Merengue, producing a painting about Dominican music enjoyed by a racially diverse group of people. What once was part of the expression of Dominican identity during and after foreign occupation became a tool to push against an oppressive and racist regime. The political context that surrounds the art of the period must be taken in consideration, as under Trujillo many artists found in the representation of local customs and of the Black and mixed Dominicans a way to more truthfully portray their diverse society. 
Woss y Gil and Morel, and later on Colson, consistently visualized Black and mulatto figures in their work as part of Dominican society through a wide array of images, from genre scenes, portraits, nudes, to cubist compositions. Colson left the Dominican Republic for France in 1938, after just a few months disheartened by the political situation. When he returned permanently in 1950, the subject gained even more prominence in his work in the waning years of the dictatorship. He even developed a series of drawings and paintings dedicated to the representation of Haitians, after a trip to the neighboring country.
While Colson and many fellow artists were forced into public expressions of admiration toward Trujillo and his government, through their art they elevated important aspects of Dominican culture—including the presence and contributions of Black Dominicans and Haitians. Merengue set an important precedent for Colson’s future work and made an important contribution to the expression of Dominican identity as the country grappled with tyranny.
 Ricardo Ramón Jarne, “Jaime Colson en el Museo Bellapart,” Colson Errante (Santo Domingo: Museo Bellapart, 2008), p. 38.
 Diego Renart González, “Resiliencia artística en Ciudad Trujillo. El antitrujillismo en las artes dominicanas a mitad de siglo,” Revista Eletrônica da ANPHLAC, no. 30 (São Paulo: ANPHLAC, Jan.-Jul., 2021): p. 165.
Marianne De Tolentino, “Las pasiones de Colson,” Colson Errante (Santo Domingo: Museo Bellapart, 2008), pp. 112–38.
García de Jesús, Itzel Vanessa. “Reivindicación de lo afro en dos obras de Celeste Woss y Jaime Colson durante la construcción de la nacionalidad dominicana bajo la dictadura de Trujillo,” Revista Humanismo y Cambio Social. Número 10. Año 4 (Managua: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua, Jul.-Dec. 2017): pp. 81–89.
Ricardo Ramón Jarne, “Jaime Colson en el Museo Bellapart,” Colson Errante (Santo Domingo: Museo Bellapart, 2008), pp. 19–108.
Jeannette. Miller, Importancia del contexto histórico en el desarrollo del arte dominicano: Cronología del arte dominicano – 1844-2005 (Santo Domingo: Secretaría de Estado de Educación Superior Ciencia y Tecnología, 2006), pp. 21–157.
Diego Renart González, “Resiliencia artística en Ciudad Trujillo. El antitrujillismo en las artes dominicanas a mitad de siglo,” Revista Eletrônica da ANPHLAC, Nº 30 (São Paulo, Associação Nacional de Pesquisadores e Professores de História das Américas, Jan.-Jul., 2021): pp. 157–81.