The legacy of Hispaniola’s diverse peoples, from the Taíno inhabitants to European settlers and Haitian emigres, has translated into a mix of artistic voices and styles. Walking city streets lined with some of the finest examples of Spanish colonial architecture in the New World, you’ll hear a soundtrack of merengue beats. Many writers are preoccupied with politics, history and questions of national identity and a through line in the visual arts has been a romanticization of the Dominican rural life.

Architecture

The quality and variety of architecture found in the Dominican Republic has no equal in the Caribbean. Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonial, a well-preserved grid of Spanish colonial buildings, is a showcase of landmarks. An imposing fortress – the oldest still intact in the Americas – stands adjacent to mansions and Dominican and Franciscan convents. The Americas’ oldest functioning cathedral, the Catedral Primada de América, whose construction began in 1514, stands in the center. You’ll see plenty of the baroque, Romanesque, Gothic and renaissance styles which were popular in Europe during colonial times.

Elsewhere in Santo Domingo and Santiago you can see examples of Cuban Victorian, Caribbean gingerbread and art deco. The buildings in Puerto Plata vary between the vernacular Antillean and the pure Victorian; sometimes English, sometimes North American. Sugar magnates in San Pedro de Macorís built late-Victorian style homes with concrete (it was the first city in the DR to use reinforced concrete in construction). And rural clapboard homes – Monte Cristi in the far northwest has these in spades – have a charm all their own: small, square, single-story and more colorful than a handful of jelly beans, you’ll find yourself slowing down to take a longer look.

More contemporary and postmodern architecture is best seen in homes commissioned by wealthy Dominicans, in upscale neighborhoods in Santo Domingo and Santiago. Elsewhere, including Jarabacoa in the central highlands, along the southeastern coastline around Punta Cana, and around Puerto Plata on the north coast, are enclaves of vacation homes; these communities are worth a look for creative and high-concept design.

Easily the best book on architecture in the country is Arquitectura Dominicana: 1492–2008, edited by Gustavo Luis More (available at bookstores in Santo Domingo and the Museo Centro León in Santiago). Another excellent resource is Interiors, a book of photographs by Polibio Diaz, which shows glimpses into the homes of ordinary Dominicans with respect and care.

Painting

The Dominican art scene is today quite healthy, thanks in no small part to dictator Rafael Trujillo. Although his 31 years of authoritarian rule in many ways negated the essence of creative freedom, Trujillo had a warm place in his heart for painting, and in 1942 he established the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes (National School of Fine Arts). Fine Dominican artwork predates the school, but it really wasn’t until the institution’s doors opened that Dominican art underwent definitive development.

If the artwork looks distinctly Spanish, it’s because the influence is undeniable. During the Spanish Civil War (1936–39), many artists fled Franco’s fascist regime to start new lives in the Dominican Republic. Influential artists include Manolo Pascual, José Gausachs, José Vela-Zanetti, Eugenio Fernández Granell and Juan Fernández Corredor.

In the late 1960s in Santiago, Grupo Friordano, as well as other small groups of socially engaged artists, began politically conscious and ideological aesthetic movements. Painters such as Daniel Henríquez, Orlando Menicucci and Yoryi Morel considered their work as engaged critiques of society; Morel painted traditional rural scenes and helped develop a distinctly Dominican vernacular style. The 1970s brought an opening up to movements and styles being generated elsewhere, like abstract expressionism and minimalism.

If you visit any of the art galleries in Santo Domingo or Santiago, keep an eye out for Cándido Bidó’s bright, colorful paintings of scenes from his native Cibao valley (Bidó passed away in 2011); Claire Ledesma’s Marc Chagall-like playful and colorful dreamy scenes; Adriana Billini Gautreau, who is famous for portraits that are rich in expressionist touches; the Picasso-reminiscent cubist forms of Jaime Colson, emphasizing the social crises of his day; Luis Desangles, considered the forerunner of folklore in Dominican painting; Mariano Eckert, representing the realism of everyday life; Juan Bautista Gómez, whose paintings depict the sensuality of the landscape; Guillo Pérez, whose works of oxen, carts and canefields convey a poetic vision of life at the sugar mill; Ivan Tovar’s surrealist Dali-esque works; the traditional realist paintings of Ada Balcácer; Marian Balcácer, a photographer who lives in Italy; the steel sculptures of Johnny Bonnelly; and, finally, the enigmatic and dream-like paintings of Dionisio Blanco.

Also well represented is what’s known as ‘primitive art’ – Dominican and Haitian paintings that convey rural Caribbean life with simple and colorful figures and landscapes. These paintings are created by amateur painters – some would say skilled craftspeople – who reproduce the same painting hundreds of times. They are sold everywhere there are tourists; you’re sure to get an eyeful regardless of the length of your trip.

A good resource on Dominican art is the authoritative Enciclopedia de las Artes Plásticas Dominicanas (Encyclopedia of Dominican Visual Arts) by Cándido Gerón. Illustrations and Spanish text are followed by English translations; look for copies at used bookstores in the Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonial.