New Orleans landscape painting of the nineteenth century

Editorial Staff Art

By W. JOSEPH FULTON; from The Magazine ANTIQUE, August 1980.


            As in the rest of the United States, landscape painting as such seems to have received much slower acceptance in New Orleans than portrait painting; it was not really established here until the late 1860’s. We must speak with caution, however, since European artist-chroniclers accompanied expeditions to Louisiana as early as 1592, and our knowledge of what was done in the eighteenth century is virtually nil because of the great fires of 1788 and 1794 which almost destroyed the city. There may well have been more landscape, genre, and still-life painting in New Orleans than in the North and East, since the culture of the principal inhabitants was rooted in the French and Spanish traditions.

            Documentation even in the nineteenth century is limited largely to newspaper accounts of arrivals and departures, exhibitions, artists’ notices, family affairs, and obituaries, as well as unpublished manuscripts. Exhaustive searches of these local sources have been made, with profitable results, but it is hoped that this article may elicit news of pertinent reference material in other localities. The Louisiana State Museum maintains as complete files as possible on artists known to have worked in Louisiana, and is eager to add even the most meager information about these artists and the present location of their works.

            One of the first painters of landscape in NewOrleans to be mentioned is “a good Spanish landscape painter Romegas.” (This is the man recorded by Groce and Wallace in The New-York Historical Society’s Dictionary of Artists in America 1564-1860 as Romegar, a painter of portraits as well, working in Louisiana as early as 1772.) Romegas exhibited at the St. Louis Exchange about 1838, according to artist George David Coulon, who made one of the first attempts to recount the history of art in New Orleans in a three-page manuscript written in 1901, preserved in the Louisiana State Museum.

            But Toussaint Francois Bigot (b. Rennes, France, c. 1794; d. New Orleans, 1869) was the first clearly recorded landscape painter to live for an extended time in New Orleans (Fig. 1). He arrived in the city about 1816, after studying in the “first schools” of France, and remained as a painter and teacher of drawing until at least 1858.

            The popularity of the theater and opera in NewOrleans, and the demand for theatrical artists, brought painters to the city and supported them. Notable is Antoine Mondelli, active as a decorative and scenic artist from 1821 to 1856. He was principle artist at the Camp Street (American) Theatre from 1824 to 1832. Leon Pomarede (c. 1807 to 1892), his pupil, future son-in-law, and fellow landscape painter, came to New Orleans from St. Louis in 1830, having just arrived from France. Besides landscapes, these two painted murals in New Orleans churches and civic buildings, particularly the murals at St. Patrick’s Church on Camp Street. The Easterner Hugh Reinagle (1788-1834), one of the founders of the National Academy, worked in New Orleans for a few months before his sudden death from cholera. He became chief scenic artist of the Camp Street Theatre, succeeding Pomarede, and he painted the local landscape in a theater-influenced style, manneristic in color and technique.

            Adrien Persac (b. France, 1823; d. Manchac, Louisiana, 1873) was one of the surprisingly few who depicted the great sugar and cotton plantations that lined the river above and below New Orleans. Our Lady of the Lake Plantation (Fig. 2) is typical of the gouaches, meticulous and poetic at once, which he produced as he traveled the river from 1857 to 1861, surveying properties for his maps. Since he was primarily surveyor, engineer, and architect, he was aloof from the mainstream of French painters and their influences.

            George David Coulon (b. Seloncourt, France, 1823; d. New Orleans, c. 1904) came to New Orleans when he was ten years old and his first art education was in the New Orleans public schools with Toussaint Bigot. His active career spanned sixty-five years, from his apprenticeship with Mondelli in 1838. He also studied with Fleischbein, a Munich artist active in New Orleans, with Pomarede, and with Julien Hudson, a local portraitist. Coulon frescoed the ceiling, later destroyed, of the old Criminal Court in the Cabildo, assisted Pomarede in painting the Transfiguration in St. Patrick’s Church, and was one of NewOrleans’ first restorers of oil paintings. One of his specialties was making portraits from death masks (he did over one hundred); another, in the 1870’s, was painting portraits over photographs. He was praised in the Courrier de la Louisiane of 1854 for painting banners for the many firemen’s companies. Ironically, Coulon’s landscapes, for which eh is most appreciated today (Fig. 3), are barely mentioned in his short manuscript autobiography.

            John Genin (b. Lyons, France, 1830; d. New Orleans, 1895), who came to NewOrleans in 1865, first won attention with his literacy and genre subjects. His interest in portraying the Negro preceded that of the more famous W.A. Walker by ten years. His French heritage is most evident in his landscapes (Fig. 4). Originally he had studied with Leon Bonnat, and he maintained closer ties with France than the other painters active in New Orleans, returning frequently to study in Paris.

            Harold Rudolph (b. c. 1850; d. New Orleans, c. 1883) and his Danish brother-in-law, Brutus Ducomman, were partners in the “portrait painting business” in New Orleans from 1873 until Ducomman committed suicide in 1877.After that Rudolph concentrated on landscapes (Fig. 5), though he could find little market for them, according to the Daily Picayune in 1884. He had a special interest in unusual effects of light.

            Everett D. B. Fabrino Julio (b. St. Helena, 1843; d. Kingston, Georgia, 1879) came to New Orleans in 1867 for reasons of health after studying art in Paris and anatomy and composition in Boston with the famous Dr. William Rimmer. He painted landscapes in New Orleans and in St. Louis, but he supported himself by portraiture, teaching, and exhibiting his large painting The Last Meeting of Lee and Jackson and selling engravings after it. Julio studied under Leon Bonnat in Paris in 1873 and 1874, when he returned to New Orleans and opened a studio. Landscape on Bayou Teche (color plate) probably dates from 1876.

            When Richard Clague (b. New Orleans, 1816; d. New Orleans, 1873) established his studio in New Orleans in 1867, the “native” landscape group was founded, for though educated in Europe Clague was born in New Orleans, the son of a prominent businessman. Paris was the center of Clague’s artistic training, where he is said to have entered the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and to have studied at various times with Ernest Hebert, Horace Vernet, and Ingres; in NewOrleans he studied briefly with Pomarede. By 1851 he was painting portraits in New Orleans. In Paris in 1856 he describes himself as an “artiste photographer.” In 1857 he was back in New Orleans, where he thereafter appeared frequently in the city directories as a painter-portrait, “journeyman,” or landscape. Although Richard Clague was a fine portraitist, he made the landscape of the Louisiana back country – the bayou, the swamp, and the lake shore – his own subject. At his prime, he captured the distinctive quality of the scene without minute description, easy and familiar, sure in technique (Fig. 6). His style does not stem directly from any one French school, though it is close to that of the Barbizon painters and Courbet.

            Clague had two distinguished pupils, William Buck (b. Norway, 1840; d. New Orleans, 1888) and Marshall Smith Jr. (b. Norfolk, Virginia, 1854; d. New Orleans, 1923). These three form a strong group which influenced most other painters of the Louisiana landscape well into the twentieth century.

            William Aiken Walker (b. Charleston, 1838; d. Charleston, 1921) came to New Orleans about 1873 and his paintings of local subjects extend into the early 1880’s. Walker is considered the first artist to pain the Negro from the natural, unforced viewpoint of a Southerner who was thoroughly familiar with the subject, without sentimentality or caricature (Fig. 7).

            Paul Poincy (b. New Orleans, 1833; d. New Orleans, 1909), like Clague, was a member of a well-established NewOrleans family. After receiving a Jesuit education in Louisiana and in St. Louis, he studied in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux Arts under Leon Cognet and in the popular studios of Gleyre and Julien. Poincy spent most of his life in New Orleans quietly pursuing his painting career (color plate).

            Auguste Norieri (b. New Orleans, 1860; d. New Orleans, 1898) is one of the last of the few local artists to depict the Mississippi steamboats, which by this time were threatened by the railroads. His pictures are a visual record, in minute detail, of the great river boats (Fig. 8).

            In the nineteenth century, New Orleans drew landscape painters from northern and southern Europe, from New England, New York, and Philadelphia. Only three were native-born, and two of these were trained in Paris. The traditions from which their work stems include a diversity of European schools, from the decorative French and Italian of the eighteenth century, through the greater rigors of the classical landscape and the freedom and expressiveness of the romantic school, to the more direct approach of the Barbizon group, Courbet, and the realists. This diversity of background and influences kept several styles alive simultaneously. What meticulous depiction of nature we find in Louisiana landscapes is attributable more to the influence of Düsseldorf and Munich than to that of the Hudson River school. Louisiana was out of the mainstream of Anglo-American thought and tradition in painting; there was less intellectualism than in the East, and slight influence from its traditions.

            The principal similarity among the paintings of this diverse succession of artists is in their subject matter. The familiar cypress and oaks, the swamps and bayous offered subjects which each artist expressed in his own terms. In general there is evident a strong feeling for light and atmosphere, which may actually be more palpable in the humid, warm climate of Louisiana. The Louisiana landscape itself is what unifies the work of New Orleans painters and gives it individuality.