Ulpiano Checa Sanz was a Spanish painter, sculptor, poster designer and illustrator, known in the art world as Ulpiano Fernández-Checa y Saiz. He was born in Colmenar de Oreja, Spain on April 3, 1860. He died in Dax, France on January 5, 1916, and is buried in Colmenar de Oreja. He used both impressionistic and academic techniques, and painted mainly historical subjects.
He was born in Colmenar de Oreja, Spain, and exhibited a talent for art since as a young child. At thirteen, he met D. Jose Ballester, the husband of a neighbor in Colmenar who owned the Cafe de la Concepción in Madrid. This event changed the course of his life. After consultation with Luis Taveras, a recognized artist in Madrid, Ballester decided to bring Ulpiano to the capital with his family to begin his art studies.
In 1873, he entered the Escuela de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid and the Spanish Academy of Fine Arts in Rome, where he would paint Invasion of the Barbarians (disappeared in a fire) which won the gold medal National Exhibition of Fine Arts in 1887.
During his formative years, Checa was directed by Alejandro Ferrant, Federico de Madrazo, Manuel Dominguez, and Paul Gonsalves. He was an outstanding student, which led him to get two grants for painting, and a position as assistant professor in the subject of perspective. The course of 1880-1881, he left school to begin work as an artist. He worked as assistant to Manuel Dominguez in the decoration of the Palace of Linares and the Basilica San Francisco el Grande, the two most important decorative projects in Madrid during the last decades of the century.
To mark the bicentenary of the death of Calderón de la Barca, he made his first contribution, an illustration, to the magazine. Interested in artistic evolution, he moved within the cultural circles of Madrid, and served as a founding member of the Círculo de Bellas Artes de Madrid.
In 1884, he obtained a pension section number in painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome. A year later, during the final year of his pension, he travelled to Paris and participated in the Salon of the Champs Elysees with The Rape of Proserpine, causing dissent within the Spanish Academy. After completing his studies, he applied for pension credit for the Academy in Rome, but Benlliure was awarded the pension.
Checa fixed his gaze upon Paris, which had already established itself as the cultural epicentre of Europe. In 1889, Checa settled in Paris and participated in the World’s Fair, held in Paris this year, with his painting In the Church, which was awarded third prize. He met Matilde Chaye, from a wealthy family from Argentina, and in 1890 they married. Checa now split his time between Paris and Bagneres de Bigorre, the small town in the Hautes-Pyrenees where his wife’s family lived, much appreciated within the community. He never forgot his origins, and returned to Spain on several occasions to spend time resting and visiting friends and relatives in Colmenar de Oreja. His restless spirit and their economic position allowed him to travel around the world and this made him an artist of international fame.
In 1890, he got his first triumph in the Salón de Paris, the annual exhibition of the Academy of Arts in Paris. In the Champs Elysees presented his painting of a chariot race and got the third prize. Both the public and the critics praised this work. His name became popular in art circles and was hailed as one of the most promising Spanish painters who work in the French capital. A year later, the Spanish government awarded him the Order of Carlos III.
Checa participated in numerous shows, both in and outside of Paris, and won prizes in many of them. He also entered shows throughout Europe, and in Argentina, Brazil, Algeria and Tunisia. In a few years was confirmed as one of the most influential painters of the time, and in 1894 the French government awarded him the Legion of Honor. In 1895, he made his first solo exhibition at Georges Petit, in which he introduced nearly sixty new works. This year he was a jury member of the committee on modern competition organized to mark the centenary of lithography.
In 1897, he ventured into other art forms. At this time received a commission from the Union of Thermal Baths, located in Bagneres de Bigorre for local advertising, which was used two more times. He published “Le generalife”, his first illustrated book, and produced paintings and murals. During the summer months, Colmenar painted two murals in the chancel of the parish of Santa Maria Maggiore; on the left wall was the Annunciation and the right a presentation of the virgin. Years later he made a third mural, of San Cristobal.
1900 was very important for the painter. He published his treatise on perspective, won a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, with The Last Days of Pompeii, where he also participated with Cheret, Grasset Dinet and advertising in the canopy of Andalusia, time of the Moors with a lithograph, and decorated a small dome of the restaurant “Le train bleu” of the Lyon train station in Paris built for the exhibition of 1900.
In 1901, he was commissioned to design the costumes for the theatrical representation of Quo Vadis? in Paris. In 1902, after attending the first exhibition of Spanish artists living in France in the Modern Artists Gallery, he left for the new world, and traveled to Argentina and Uruguay. He made this trip to settle his wife’s financial affairs, but, after learning of the important art market that was developing there, he extended his stay for several months.
He exhibited in major galleries in Azul, Buenos Aires and Montevideo. In Montevideo, he met Zorrilla de San Martín, who proposed to illustrate his book Tabaré, published in 1904. In 1905, he traveled to Italy, where he painted a great number of works, and a year later returned to Buenos Aires to paint the portrait of the recently deceased General Mitre.
Algeria was one of his favorite destinations. He traveled frequently, especially between 1900 and 1910. In addition to his Orientalist paintings, he documented, painted in and participated in different exhibitions. In 1908, he participated in a show along with other painters, “Les Alhambra”. Two years later, though ill with uremia and continuing to work, his production dropped. He continued sending paintings to the Salon Paris, and 1912 performed a solo exhibition at the Gallery Imberti Bordeaux. This same year the Tunisian government awarded him the Iftikhar Nichan.
After World War I broke out, he left Paris to settle in Bagneres de Bigorre. Soon he moved to the nearby town of Dax where he died on January 5, 1916. At the express wish of the painter, his remains were transferred to Colmenar de Oreja, where he was buried.
Ulpiano Checa’s work is characterized by use of color and light; his drawing technique is offset by and goes unnoticed as a result of the dynamism typical of his work. He was an eclectic artist whose work incorporated aspects of Impressionism, academic art, and “luminosity” without delving into any of them. He painted galloping Huns, barbarians, Pompeii, charioteers, French, Arab or kings. It also abuses the resources of opposing a warm beam and a cold, finding it both as a folkloric history paintings or portraits.
By not making any fundamental contribution to the landscape painting of his time his work was always in the shadow of other artists more committed to their work with their business, although it seems that his work inspired some of the most topical views ancient world produced in Hollywood.
As stated in his exhibition catalog Spanish Dutch master drawings from public collections (1500-1900) published by Boymans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam, we can find Czech Ulpiano drawings along with other Dutch collections of Goya, Velázquez, Murillo, Alonso Cano, Ribera, Berruguete, Pedro de Mena, Paret or Eugenio Lucas.