If you close your eyes and try to visualize Marie Laveau, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll summon up frontier artist George Catlin’s 1837 portrait of New Orleans’ legendary voodoo queen. Or a copy of it, anyway. The vision of a well-dressed 19th-century woman with a self-assured stare, wearing an elaborate tignon head wrap, is an indelible icon.
On Saturday, the 185-year-old artwork sold at auction for $984,000 in Asheville, North Carolina. It could be a record price for a Louisiana portrait.
But here’s the thing: Scholars say there’s no proof the painting depicts Laveau at all, and there’s a very good chance Catlin didn’t paint it.
The backstory goes something like this. According to Lisa N. Peters, an art historian hired by the Brunk Acution house to study the artwork, the painting first popped up in 1911, when someone named Gaspar Cusachs lent it to the Louisiana State Museum.
The canvas was signed by George Catlin, a buckskin-wearing artist and adventurer famous for painting hundreds of portraits of Native Americans in traditional dress in the 1830s.
It’s not hard to imagine that Catlin detoured to New Orleans somewhere along the line, where he captured the image of the elegant, steely woman. But Peters points out that Catlin’s records don’t mention the painting. Not only that, Peters said, the style of the painting was inconsistent with Catlin’s portraiture and the signature isn’t characteristic of the artist either.
Asked how Catlin’s John Hancock might have ended up on the canvas, Peters said, “I wish I knew.”
Anyway, the “Marie Laveau” painting remained on display at the Cabildo on Jackson Square until a century ago. Louisiana State Museum collection specialist Claudia Kheel said that during that period, the museum employed a multitalented individual named Frank Schneider, who designed displays, built models, and — most famously — painted a copy of the “Catlin,” apparently to document the painting in anticipation of the time Cusachs’ loan expired.
It was a pretty faithful imitation although, as Peters points out, some details got “flattened and generalized.”
After 1922, the original left the State Museum, passed into the hands of a series of private collectors, and was mostly out of the public view. That allowed the copy to step into the limelight. To this day, Schneider’s painting is one of the most requested images in the State Museum archive. And, get this, according to Peters, Schneider’s copy is the image you see when you look up Marie Laveau on Wikipedia.
Peters said Schneider’s copy of the painting was damaged during the Cabildo fire in 1988 and has been restored, though it is not currently on display at the State Museum.
Four times the predicted price
Peters said there’s no historical evidence whatever to link the painting with Laveau. Truth is, there have been several portraits of Creole women who have been fancifully identified as Marie Laveau over the years, she said.
When the auction began on Saturday, the folks at Brunk expected the painting to fetch between $200,000 and $300,000. But the bidding blew the roof off.
Brunk’s American painting expert Nan Zander said part of the reason is Laveau’s mystique. “She’s well-loved, and shrouded in lore and mystery and adoration,” Zander said.
Plus, whoever the woman is, she represents a unique aspect of 19th-century American society. “She is a free women of color from New Orleans since before the Civil War,” Zander said.
In the New Orleans of that time, most people of African descent were enslaved. But there was a social strata of free people of color who, while still subject to institutional racism, were able to own property, hold paying jobs and enjoy other relative legal rights. Considering the Creole woman’s gold earring and apparently luxurious clothing, the subject of the painting was probably of that status.
Whether free or enslaved, Black women were required to wear the tignon hair wrap. But as Samantha Callender wrote in Essence magazine, “Black women turned travesty into triumph. Soon, the tignons became a major fashion statement.”
Laveau’s immortality remains with her role as the city’s premier 19th-century practitioner of voodoo, a spiritual system brought to the Caribbean and New Orleans by enslaved Africans. She may have been a hairdresser as well as a healer and counselor. In pop culture, she’s fondly mythologized as a sort of sinister superhero with occult powers.
After a century, the painting once thought to depict Laveau is heading back to a museum. The Creole woman may not be coming home to New Orleans, but she’ll soon be on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art in Richmond. Associate curator Susan Rawles said the institution paid handsomely for the portrait for a good reason: It’s a missing piece of American art history.
Most of the story of the 19th-century nation, she said, is told from an Anglo-American perspective. The newly acquired portraits illustrate the Spanish and French colonial influence on the country.
“It’s difficult to tell the story of America without it,” she said.
Back in the public eye
Rawles said that Catlin had visited New Orleans in 1835, but she doesn’t think it’s even remotely possible that he painted the portrait. Based on the style, she thinks it’s much more likely that it was produced by one of several Paris-trained neoclassical artists working in the riverside metropolis in the 1800s.
“It demonstrates the French academic tradition,” she said.
Specifically, Rawles believes the painting is the work of the great New Orleans antebellum artist Jacques Amans. Rawles said she formulated her opinion of her based on Amans’ specific technique for rendering faces. Also, she said, the antique wooden framework of the canvas is similar to the type Amans used.
Marie Laveau’s aura may still accompany the painting, but her name is absent from the new title, which is “Portrait of a Creole Woman in a Madras Tignon.”
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