Over time, rationality has prevailed. Loyalty to my first love remains intact. Still, my infatuation with Dominican art is here to stay, as evidenced by the two paintings my husband and I brought home.
One is by an artist whose work hangs in Santo Domingo's prestigious Galeria de Arte Moderna. The other is by an artist we located in a guidebook under ''T" for "T-shirts." Their styles - personal as well as professional - illustrate much about the country and its art.
The hours devoted to gallery-going remain among my favored memories of our trip. Beyond the aesthetic pleasure, they provided an enduring appreciation for the national culture and history. A visit to Santo Domingo's Modern Art Gallery introduced us to a number of Dominican artists who enjoy an international reputation - Jaime Colson, Clara Ledesma, Dario Suro, Yoryi Morel and Alberto Ulloa among them.
The Dominican Republic traces its art history back to the last century, when it emerged in the wake of the national Restoration of 1863, a movement that attempted to diminish the emphasis on all things Spanish while affirming the country's own identity.
That identity was evident on the walls of every gallery we visited, from the childlike figures and birds that Candido Bido renders in vibrant tropical colors to the market scenes of Virgilio Mendez and the primitive landscapes of Justo Susana.
The European influence (which also extended to Haiti) is easy to see in the surrealism of Ivan Tovar, the abstractions of Jose Cestero, the early Cubist works of Colson.
It is Bido who appears to occupy the position of artist laureate, whose work seems to embody the national spirit. Prints of his paintings enliven hotel lobbies, decorate restaurants and sell in gift shops, while the originals hang in the Gallery of Modern Art - and in his own gallery, less than a block from his home in a Santo Domingo suburb.
We visited Bido's gallery on what amounted to a private guided tour conducted by an artist we encountered virtually by accident.
He was listed in a guidebook - under "T" for T-shirts. The citation read: ''The most beautiful, original and whimsical T-shirts in Santo Domingo are those created by Polengard (who uses no other name), in his boutique workshop. Though he has favorite themes (Carnival, for instance), he'll execute any idea you may have."
Polengard's workshop was located in Gazcue, a middle-class neighborhood of homes, shops and restaurants - and a pleasant walk from the Gallery of Modern Art. We walked there only to learn that Polengard no longer paints T-shirts, having decided to pursue art more seriously in paintings on canvas that explore his Haitian-Dominican ancestry.
We found him to be talkative, outgoing and exceedingly kind, a one-man embassy with his own hands-across-the-sea policy. Relying on a combination of his nominal English, my nominal Spanish and a flourish of gestures, he ushered us to his car and conducted a tour of boutiques until we located several of his hand-painted T-shirts at one of them.
But the tour did not end with my purchase of three shirts. We should meet Bido, he decided. And when the artist was not at home - he was visiting Bonao, the village of his birth - Polengard led us to the gallery and introduced us to Bido's wife.
It was not a painting by Bido that I bought, however; it was one by Polengard. I had spotted it hanging on the wall of his workshop, a small painting of figures dressed for Carnival.
At home, such an adventure might well have been a hustle. In the Dominican, it was a sincere act of good will. The next day, Polengard chauffeured me around the Colonial Zone, the historic section of Santo Domingo, so that I could take pictures unmolested by offers to illegally change money, unbothered by the need to consult a visitor's guide for directions.
Our other purchase was a painting by Victor Matos Garcia, who won first place in the 1990 Bienal Nacional de Artes Visuales - the country's biennial visual-arts competition.
We had spotted several of his paintings at the Galeria Toledo in the Colonial Zone. Matos Garcia is an expressionist whose current work captures, sometimes with whimsy and sometimes with melancholy, stylized figues engaged in everyday activity. His people pedal bicycles, sit in the sun beneath open umbrellas, stare straight ahead, expressionless, from within their frame.
Later we met him at an art students' reception at our hotel. Such receptions are commonplace in Santo Domingo, we were told, and well-attended by the arts community.
A charming and gracious man - he invited us to his apartment, where his wife proferred glasses of fresh-squeezed orange juice - Matos Garcia spoke about a trip to Europe and expressed pleasure in a review by a leading art critic who had praised his work highly in a recent edition of a Dominican newspaper.
We felt privileged to have met both artists, privileged to have glimpsed the lives that inspired their work. And although a weeklong vacation can be only the barest beginning in terms of understanding a culture, we felt that the painters of the Dominican had provided a unique insight.
On the afternoon we visited the striking gallery of Bido, a sugar-cane vendor passed by with his small wooden cart. It was a telling tableau: a juxtapostion of Santo Domingo's peasant roots with the sophistication represented by Bido's gallery. It showed the contrasts of the country, just as does much of the country's art.