Louisiana Landscape Painting: Sublime Swamp | The New York Book Review

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Collection of Roger Houston Ogden / NOMA

Richard Clague, Trapper’s hut, Manchac, 1870

The part of Earth containing southern Louisiana has spent most of its history switching between earth and liquid. It is only in the past 5,000 years that sediments from the Mississippi River have lifted New Orleans out of the water, placing the city, along with the rest of Southeast Louisiana, on a “doormat.” »Alluvial at the edge of the continental crust. Many landscape painters crawled through low caves and climbed mountains, or waded through meadows and wheat fields, but relatively few captured the vast, changing, and young swamp of the state.

The recent exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art, “Inventing Acadia: Painting and Place in Louisiana,” is the first in nearly thirty years to attempt a study of landscape painting in nineteenth-century Louisiana, and the first to place the tradition within broader national and international artistic movements. Curator Katie Pfhol did a masterful job with the resources available, but the exhibit is somewhat cursed by the uncertainty of the land: many of the sites depicted in the paintings are now deforested, eroded, or underwater ; the paintings themselves are among the few of their kind to have survived the constant humidity, as well as the floods and other disasters that plague the region; and even the museum itself is in a part of the city which is still regularly flooded and was, until the second half of the 19th century, largely uninhabitable sludge.

Among the sixty paintings in the American collections, there are some masterpieces by relatively well-known artists, such as Théodore Rousseau and Robert Duncanson, but it is the unknowns that stand out: Alfred Boisseau, Toussaint François Bigot, Richard Brammer, Marie Adrien Persac, Blanche Virginia Blanchard and Charles Giroux, among others, artists who came to Louisiana from all over America and Europe.

This presents the first of many problems for the show. These names are not only unknown to most onlookers, but would be obscure to seasoned scholars of nineteenth-century painting. While the “salvage” of forgotten artists and objects is generally welcome in the arts, Louisiana landscape paintings from this period are small and subtle, and they are stuck at the crossroads of several areas of neglect.

On the one hand, there is the subject. Landscape painting has, with few exceptions, suffered for a long time from the so-called “hierarchy of genres”. (André Félibien, 17th century French administrator and historian, placed history painting above all else, placing landscape behind portrait and genre painting, and only before still life.) There is also the question of l American art before WWII, which is barely taught in universities and constantly struggles to beat its reputation for being of European descent. And then the most decisive is the fate of the regional tradition. Louisiana has produced very few painters who achieved national or international fame, and the most famous, arguably, are: John James Audubon, who only arrived in Louisiana in his thirties, self-taught artist Clementine Hunter , and George Rodrigue, who after decades of landscape painting – unveiled his “Blue Dog” to the world in the 1990s (an ill-suited and mostly unwelcome mascot of Louisiana).

The New Orleans Museum has cleverly tried to counter the accumulated neglect by adding some urgency to the exhibit. The marble-clad lobby is currently bordered by a hundred-foot panorama by contemporary artist Regina Agu, showing ghostly views of Louisiana’s waterways. Agu photographed a number of sites depicted in 19th century paintings and then distilled the images into rapid composites, in which the reeds of bayous and swamps and oil refineries blend into each other and fade away. like fog. As the local environmental emergency continues to unfold – land subsidence, rising waters, more severe storms and disappearance of wetlands – the Agu facility speaks in a warning to the perfect future: that’s what it will be. was Louisiana.

In the galleries, the exhibition begins with two of Louisiana’s first landscape painters, Toussaint François Bigot and Richard Brammer, who traveled to New Orleans, respectively from France and Ireland, in the first half of the 19th century. Bigot Alchapalia, Louisiana (1848) is one of the highlights of the exhibition. It shows the intersection of five deep rivers in the Atchafalaya Basin, which is still the largest river swamp in North America. In the foreground, the earth is divided into two lobes: a group of natives gather near a fire on one, and on the other, an alligator watches a wild cat tear a snake. Further on, there are bald cypress trees, root systems emerging from the mud and boats crossing the bayou.

What emerges from Bigot’s work is that water is not rendered as a brown-green slurry; it is limpid and pale, like a clean slab of ice. Bigot, Brammer, and another contemporary, Marie Adrien Persac, who painted muddy plantations with perfect palisades and patches of straight cabbages, all tended to use a fine brush and muted colors that result in swamps and floodplains. whole a glassy and brittle appearance. The earth is not hot and sick; nor does it bear traces of movable slavery or the displacement of indigenous peoples. Instead, it’s as if the cool, pleasant blue weather of a vaguely Nordic climate has descended on swamps, cypress knees, and Spanish moss. The style suggests how conflicting the desires of the settlers were: to tame the land, to make it attractive and profitable; and, right away, bask in the untamed wilderness.

While Bigot and Brammer worked in New Orleans, the dominant landscape tradition in the United States was the hugely popular Hudson River School in the mid-19th century. The Cheeky The magazine reported in 1853 that “landscape painting has acquired in our country a dignity and character… which cannot be claimed by any other branch of the fine arts”. This not only breaks the rule of landscape as a neglected genre, but breezes it to the point that “Hudson River School” has become synonymous with American landscape painting as such, effectively stifling various regional traditions.

By the 1840s, Louisiana landscape painters were already influenced by Hudson River artists such as Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand – whose works had found their way into the New Orleans collections – but what is remarkable is how the local painters developed a vernacular of theirs. There was no place for swamps in the existing mold of the Hudson River: its contrasting “picturesque” and “sublime” modes; the tranquil shores of John F. Kensett and the booming and symbolic panoramas of Albert Bierstadt; the patriotic fever of New England’s past, embodied in the Catskills, and the pull of the nation’s future in the West at Yosemite and Yellowstone. Louisiana was not monumental and was hardly considered American (given its ties to Latin America and France). And God was not waiting for artists among the tupelo gum trees, brackish marshes or duckweed.

A new generation of painters in the decades following the 1850s reacted more immediately to the ambiance and flora of Louisiana’s wetlands. There were roughly two strains: one naturalistic and the other romantic. The leading naturalist was Richard Clague, a Frenchman who attended the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and became the legatee of the École de Barbizon (which included French artists such as Théodore Rousseau and Charles-François Daubigny, who painted landscapes with a less sentimental eye beginning in the 1830s). In Louisiana, Clague faced difficult, low swampy lands, and he responded with simple compositions and crude brushstrokes. In pieces such as of the fisherman Camp (undated) and Return from Algiers (c. 1870-1873), Clague painted open skies and flood plains, uniformly lit and interrupted mainly by trapper’s huts and rickety huts.

Clague’s romantic counterpart was Joseph Meeker, an American who studied at the National Academy of Design, a Hudson River School hotspot in New York City. During the Civil War, Meeker served as a payer on a US Navy gunboat in Louisiana and sketched the swamps in his spare time. Many of his paintings show solitary streams surrounded by thick walls of cypress trees. The trees are dark, almost silhouetted and contrast with a bright sky that sometimes seems filled with juice, red or lemon.

In Evangeline’s country (1874), a painting based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem “Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie” (1847), a canoe ran aground in a peaceful thicket of swamp. A woman, Evangeline, in search of her lost lover Gabriel, lies under a canopy on a bed of earth barely larger than her body. The wilted leaves are mint green and calming, and the water is calm. But in a swamp, everything crawls, crisscrosses and drains; there is mystery, even threat. The light abruptly dies in the painting as if a drain were installed at the back of the composition – with the color being sucked from the foreground until it turns gray and dead – and Spanish moss hangs from the branches, rubbing the edge of clean lines, like contrails or smeared ash. As in much of Meeker’s work, the painting vacillates, lost somewhere between the picturesque and the sublime: it is restful and restless, restrained and haunted.

“Inventing Acadia” points out that 19th century landscape artists in Louisiana were notable not only for what they painted, the charm and novelty of their views, but for what they often chose to exclude. Women, slaves, and natives are largely invisible in the landscapes as the century wore on, and though civil war, reconstruction, and racial terror can be read in a destroyed skiff, a glowing cypress, or twilight. , they are ultimately absent. He leaves a feeling of melancholy hovering over the show. The wounds of history fester at the edge of each canvas, and the future of the earth gradually fades from within.


“Inventing Acadia: Painting and Place in Louisiana” was at the New Orleans Museum of Art from November 16, 2019 to January 26, 2020.

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