On the Edge
The often ephemeral and exotic quality of the art of Louisiana may best be grasped by an appreciation of the unique and also tenuous nature of the state’s very being, both in geologic and human time. Louisiana literally rests on land inherited from the rest of the American continent and deposited in sediment layers where open water once lay by the riparian cycles of the Mississippi River. And yet, Louisiana’s hold on this land is tenuous, with a mass equivalent to thirty square miles being washed away with every passing year. The land loss is accelerated by the inexorable collaboration of man and nature: the containment of the Mississippi River and its tributaries by man-made levees, dams, and other erosion-control measures upstream, channeling what sediment remains over the continental shelf. These are coupled with and exacerbated by the gradual settling and subsidence of the coastal soil; pollution and channel-cutting through the marshlands; and then, too, the rising sea levels and increasingly larger and more devastating hurricanes. It is a landscape that clings to and circles back on itself both in reality and in the imagination.
It is a unique terrain and an equally unique culture that has evolved and adapted to it. Artists both native-born and immigrant to the state have been captivated by the compelling, fragile, and elusive quality of the state and its culture. This is especially true in Southeast Louisiana and the environs of New Orleans where the inherent plainness of a deltaic terrain yields a landscape that lacks vast vistas and perspectives, but rather emphasizes the shortened sightlines cut off by bends of a meandering river or bayou and the interiority enforced by the dark canopies of live oaks and their encircling limbs. Thus, it is easy to imagine the fascination by artists across several centuries with the bayous and the aqueous quality of the light suffused through the humid air. The landscape and its indigenous wildlife were literally captured and evocatively preserved for posterity by numerous artists, but few immortalized it more beautifully than the early and monumental work of John James Audubon.
From its founding as a French territory in 1699, and the formal establishment of New Orleans in 1718, through its long Spanish ownership and administration and the eventual acquisition by the Americans, Louisiana has experienced a very different political origin and range of cultural influences than the rest of the United States. Louisiana further defined itself in contradistinction to the rest of the country with the rise of les gens de couleur libres, or free people of color, amidst the surrounding economy supported by slavery, and the continuing cultural linkages to Haiti and France, and later by succeeding layers of immigration of Acadians, Canary Island Isleños, Germans, Croatians, Irish, and eventually Americans.
The earliest works of art, in the colonial period, tended to document as their subjects the ethnographic encounter with the Native Americans and the gradual exploration and establishment of the Louisiana colony. Once the colony was firmly established, the art in the antebellum period evolved toward the documentation of families and their possessions, and also the accumulation of wealth and development of the civic sphere, not to mention major historic events such as the Battle of New Orleans and its heroes, namely General Andrew Jackson. President Jackson was rendered in the powerful and idiosyncratic portrait by Jacques Guillaume Lucien Amans, painted during sittings on the occasion of the former president’s visit to New Orleans in 1840.
In contrast to the largely English and classical architectural styles of colonial New England and the Atlantic coast states, the exoticism of New Orleans and many of South Louisiana’s towns was derived from French and Spanish influences, and the insistent retentions of African styles vividly expressed in worked iron and pyramid roof lines. In this human-built environment, the architecture reiterates and reinforces this interiority and sense of closure, by the enclosed courtyards and narrow streets of New Orleans’Vieux Carré and the similarly constricted roads of the many towns that cling to the banks along the winding waterways of rivers and bayous.
Carpe diem and laissez les bon temps roulez
Mortality is a human reality, but never more insistent and imbedded in a culture than in Louisiana where in the early years of the eighteenth-century colony the annual death rate approached eighty percent, beggaring even the terrible New England winters that halved the Pilgrim settlements. Prisoners incarcerated in the awful and notorious Bastille rioted in protest at the prospect of being released in exchange for servitude in the struggling Louisiana colony, the poorest in the French empire. Even today, the annual harvest of mostly young black men murdered in New Orleans—at a rate more than ten times the national average for homicide—casts a tangible pall over the spirit and consciousness of the city. Small wonder then that such a landscape and culture would nurture vodun and be home to Anne Rice’s myths of vampires. Acarpe diem or seize-the-day mentality underlies and informs the laissez roulezdevotion to the present moment and all the sensual, libidinous, alcoholic, and frantic gaiety that is naturally inherent in such a place. The tenuousness of life itself can help explain the tender and lavish attention artists paid to the beauty of young women and to their own and others’ families, as is evident in Jose Francisco Xavier de Salazar y Mendoza’s late eighteenth-century The Family of Dr. Joseph Montegut and Francois Jacques Fleischbein’s Portrait of Betsy, or Jacques Guillaume Lucien Amans’ Creole in Red Headdress, or the endearing portraits by George David Coulon.
Among the pivotal issues addressed in our contextualization of the art of Louisiana is the advent of the daguerreotype and photography prior to the Civil War, a medium that reached its maturation in the decades following. This new genre played a significant role in not only providing a technology capable of inexpensively documenting subjects and scenes previously the private province of painters, but in turn photography compelled painters to pursue new styles and eventually an entirely new aesthetic.
Following the Civil War and the defeat of the South, the “natural order” of things and the economic system founded on slavery was overturned and all the attendant economic, political, social, and even psychological disturbances that ensue from such a transformational event were in evidence nowhere more clearly than in the art of the period. Thus was generated a remarkable body of work, especially in the rendering of the Louisiana landscape, that evaded the trauma of the historical moment in glorious idealizations of Louisiana’s unique and exotic landscape. Richard Clague, Jr., and his disciples in the Bayou School, such as William Henry Buck, and Joseph Rusling Meeker, among others, left a legacy of exceptional and distinctive beauty.
As the twentieth-century beckoned, the art of Louisiana was already beginning to evolve toward modernity under the dual influence of international styles of art and an increasing involvement of the United States in the affairs of the world, in eventually what was dubbed the American Century. The signal and transformational role of the Woodward brothers, William and Ellsworth, at the turn of the century and well into it, would have been remarkable for any artistic community in the world. Similarly, the increasing cultural magnet of the bohemian French Quarter would inform the quality and aesthetic not only of the art its denizens produced, but of the character of the city of New Orleans as the world would conceive of it for the next century. Perhaps the most unlikely source of artistic transformation was occasioned by the relentless chauvinism and artistic patronage of Governor Huey Pierce Long, whose new State Capitol building became the embodiment of the aesthetic power of the moment, demonstrating in literally monumental ways the power of art to embody a culture, a people, and a place. In an enduring counterpoint to the power and glory assembled in Baton Rouge, itself in the shadow of the burgeoning petro-chemical corridor, such artists as Clementine Hunter created her own body of monumental work in such locales as the gentler and more rural environs of Cane River.
For all the accomplishment of the previous periods, the last half-century has seen a burgeoning of the number of artists in unprecedented numbers. The catalogue of artists for this period dramatically overshadows in sheer numbers the others combined. No doubt the future will sort out their ultimate influence and importance, as we ourselves have those of preceding centuries, but for now their work is vital and expressive of the times. Our idiosyncratic Louisiana culture is powerfully expressed in the work of native-born sons as diverse as Francis Pavy, who imbeds his works with iconic images and symbols from the French parishes, and John Scott, known for his churning woodcuts of street scenes and whose work also thrums to the rhythmic plucked tones of the African diddly-bow, a visual referent in so many of his kinetic sculptures. The graceful and soaring sculptures of Lin Emery have transcended Louisiana itself and now populate and influence the art of the world. There is so much more to Louisiana culture and geography and the forms of its expression, but one cannot close without mentioning that in the open grassy plains and cheniers of Southwest Louisiana, a different dimension of Louisiana is to be found; no artist captures this landscape more eloquently than Elemore Morgan, Jr., with his wide plein air paintings that compel the eye off into the peripheries. In truth, the times have indeed changed. In contrast to the late nineteenth century, contemporary artists look to the tragedies of the moment to inform their work, much as Australian transplant Simon Gunning has accomplished with his rendering of the iconic blue bridge reaching into the Lower Ninth Ward following the ravages of Hurricane Katrina.
Louisiana is barely part of the continent to which it adheres, but its art—spanning the two centuries of its admission into the Union, and the preceding century of colonization—both captures and transcends its moment. The full panoply of this work is an unprecedented wonder to behold, and seen in a truly unique slant of light.
A Unique Slant of Light
Arguably the most tangible, durable, and important artifact produced as part of the celebration of the bicentennial of Louisiana statehood in 2012 is this history of the art of the state, from its founding as a colony in 1699 to the present day. As in so many respects in the evolution of history, the art of a period endures when the transient events, passionate issues, and mutable values and verities of the past have not. The title of this history, A Unique Slant of Light: The Bicentennial History of Art in Louisiana, is chosen to express the idiosyncratic identity of this state and its forms of artistic expression. It is commissioned by the Louisiana Bicentennial Commission chaired by General Russel Honoré.
This handsome commemorative hardcover book, featuring nearly three hundred artists, is the leading edge of a three-part project that innovatively weds a traditional print artifact to the newly emerging digital technologies in order to extend its depth and impact. The book itself, with its beautiful reproductions and catalogue of the art and artists, has been converted into a digital version to both enhance its accessibility and searchability, and is also in turn linked to fully articulated entries on each artist and genre here in KnowLA: the Digital Encyclopedia of Louisiana History and Culture, the most recent project of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities (LEH). The KnowLA entries include a full biography of each selected artist and a much more elaborated image gallery of their work, bibliography, and additional resources than this book can accommodate. As a digital artifact, the book will be searchable on the Web and the KnowLA entries will further be linked to scores of feature articles on the artists published in Louisiana Cultural Vistas magazine, the quarterly arts and culture publication of the LEH, which itself also is digitized and accessible on the Web. A truly collective and collaborative effort, these entries are authored by dozens of notable scholars, and the images have been contributed by private collections along with major museums and archives, including, among others, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, The Historic New Orleans Collection, the Louisiana State Museum, the LSU Museum of Art, the Meadows Museum at Centenary College of Louisiana, The Norton Gallery of Art, and the New Orleans Museum of Art.
The ambition and underlying concept of A Unique Slant of Light: The Bicentennial History of Art in Louisiana is first and foremost to document, feature, and validate the broadest conceivable range of art and artists whose work merited notice—both renowned and obscure—across the span of Louisiana history. But in order to fully appreciate the art, the scholars and editors have made every effort to contextualize it in the framework of historical events, the artists’ own lives, and the evolving styles and principles of art itself. These are catalogued across four major historical periods and six genres we felt deserved special elaboration.