Art: The Creole Style

Louisiana has long been praised for its Creole and Cajun cuisine and mocked for its flamboyant bayou and piney hills politics. New Orleans jazz, Cajun and zydeco musicians have become deities the world over. Even in the visual arts, Louisiana artists are taking their place alongside the best in the nation. Yet long before the music and long before the cuisine and politics evolved to what they are today, Louisiana craftsmen created distinctive furniture that eventually would become known as the Louisiana Creole style.

Thanks to the Historic New Orleans Collections’ recent exhibition and book, Furnishing Louisiana: Creole and Cajun Furniture, 1735 to 1835, we now have a better understanding of the evolution of furniture made in Louisiana from the early French colonial years well into the 19th century. Furnishing Louisiana is really the story of the Americanization of French Louisiana.

From the beginning of the 18th century, settlers in colonial Louisiana made furniture from various local woods for their own use. Among the earliest known pieces dating from the Louisiana French colonial era are three refectory tables made in approximately 1735 for the Ursuline Convent in New Orleans. Though they look like furniture one might find in France or Canada at the time, historians know these tables were made in Louisiana because they were made of black walnut, a tree common to the Lower Mississippi Valley.

The first furniture-makers in colonial Louisiana were French Canadians and French émigré carpenters and joiners who arrived in the colony in the early 1700s. “The earliest Louisiana colonial furniture was essentially French,” says Dr. Jack Holden, a collector of early Louisiana furniture and co-author of the book Furnishing Louisiana with H. Parrott Bacot, Cybèle T. Gontar, Brian Costello and Francis J. Puig. “It reflected the colonial cabinetmaker’s origin in France. Woods used were essentially American black walnut and bald cypress. These woods were also used on the Southern East Coast, especially South Carolina, but early furniture made in the French manner of black walnut or bald cypress is most likely from Louisiana.” Colonial French furniture also was made in the Upper Mississippi River Valley in Missouri and in the Illinois territory, but it is extremely rare today and remained closer in style to Canadian furniture.

While skilled cabinetmakers (known as a menuisiers or ébénistes) in New Orleans and Natchitoches were developing their unique styles based on French designs, the Acadians who settled in the River Parishes between Baton Rouge and New Orleans and along Bayous Teche and Lafourche in the 1760s after the French and Indian War continued their traditional ways. They brought with them their distinctive style of building tables, armoires and ladder-back chairs. The homespun styles were French but filtered through French Canada. “George Washington Cable’s comment on the Acadian character, the reliance on precedent not experiment, does much to explain the Acadian Style with its conservative retention of ancient forms and little experiment or evolution of the style,” says Holden. “The small Acadian house and large families dictated small-scale and space-saving furniture. Economic necessity dictated homemade furniture as well as a preference for easily worked and readily available cypress.” Acadian furniture makers continued to create the same “unpretentious and easily recognizable” styles of functional, minimally ornamented and often painted furniture well into the 20th century. The Acadians tended to finish their furniture not with varnish but with an iron oxide-based paint called brun d’Espagnol (Spanish brown) or gros rouge (big red).

The singularly unique Louisiana style of furniture developed over a century as each new immigrant arrived before and after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. It is “Creole” in the true sense of the word – “native born.” And the influences were many – French immigrants and French Canadians, trade with Mexico and other Spanish colonies, French émigrés from St. Domingue, Anglo-Americans arriving before and after the Purchase, and prevailing French and English styles. All came together to form a clearly recognizable Louisiana style, the Louisiana Creole style.

According to historians, the most important design elements in the development of the more elegant Louisiana Creole style came from the West Indies. By the late 18th century, the wealthy French West Indian colony St. Domingue had great influence on the cultural life of Louisiana. With the fall of St. Domingue and the creation of Haiti in 1804, thousands of French-speaking émigrés settled in New Orleans, doubling the population of the city between 1809 and 1810. Among these new arrivals were numerous skilled cabinetmakers such as Jean Rousseau, a free man of color, and Dutreuil Barjon Sr. They and many others greatly influenced furniture designs and construction in their new home. Rousseau, for example, trained over two-dozen apprentices between 1818 and 1833.

Then came another ingredient in the Creole gumbo. In the decades prior to and after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Anglo-American cabinetmakers, including Scots-Irish craftsmen, made their way to Louisiana overland by way of Kentucky and Tennessee and from the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states by sea. “The migration was to have a profound affect on the style of locally made furniture,” according to the gallery text accompanying the HNOC exhibit. “Whereas 18th century cabinetmakers used local woods to copy French and West Indian designs, 19th-century cabinetmakers not only crafted pieces themselves but increasingly sold consignments shipped from elsewhere. The demographic shift brought changes in consumer tastes too. In the wake of the Purchase, English and American consumer goods became readily available for household consumption, and imported goods in the Federal style became increasingly common in local households.” By the end of the 18th century, Anglo-Americans and England produced most of the metal hardware used in making Louisiana furniture. All of these factors contributed to emerging furniture designs in Louisiana in the 1790s. By the end of the first decade of the 19th century, however, a full-blown Creole style existed.

The ever-popular armoire is perhaps the best example of the Louisiana Creole style. “The Creole style is best appreciated in our armoires, particularly the Butterfly Man’s [George Dewhurst] armoires,” says Holden. “The fusion of attenuated French rococo case, Anglo inlay, English hardware, Haitian flush panels and use of wood grains as design elements produced a style unique to Louisiana,” Or, as he and Gontar write in Furnishing Louisiana: “The appearance of inlay in Louisiana armoires heralded the golden age of Creole furniture.”

Two early armoires best illustrate the evolving styles. One is made of cherry wood embellished with intricate inlays. Historians attributed the distinctively Anglo inlay process to be the work of George Dewhurst, or Duhurst, an English-born cabinetmaker who worked in New Orleans in the early 1820s. Collectors call him the “Butterfly Man” for his trademark double dovetail joint. The second one is a simple but elegant armoire made by the prominent ébéniste Célestin Glapion père, a free man of color born into slavery in St. Charles Parish around 1784, who flourished in New Orleans during the early 19th century.

Though city records show numerous cabinetmakers working in New Orleans and in Natchitoches during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, not much is known about their lives and work. “In truth, we know very little about individual furniture makers from the early period,” writes Sarah Doerries, a co-curator of the HNOC furniture exhibit along with Jessica Dorman and John Lawrence. “There was little tradition of artisans signing their work, and the few clues that remain (names or initials inscribed on the back or interior of a case piece, a cipher inlaid into an armoire) typically point to the identity of owners, not builders. Although we can seldom link discrete items to individual craftsmen, we can, using stylistic clues, trace patterns of provenance.” Not only is little known about cabinetmakers of the era, the furniture itself is extremely rare, thanks to devastating fires in 1788 and 1794 that destroyed much of colonial New Orleans. “Floods, fires and centuries of unrelenting heat and humidity have taken their toll on our region’s early material culture,” explains Dorman. “The fact that this furniture has survived is inspirational and speaks volumes to the craftsmen’s knowledge and understanding of their resources.”

One furniture-maker well-known to Louisianians today is Francois Seignouret, who was in business in New Orleans from 1810 to the 1850s. A man of legend and myths, he arrived in New Orleans in 1808 and eventually became wealthy selling, importing and manufacturing furniture. In 1821 he sold furnishings to Andrew Jackson and his wife Rachel during a brief stop over in the city on their way to Florida.

The Americanization of Louisiana during the early decades of the 19th century ushered in changing attitudes. By the 1830s, Louisianians’ taste in furniture, especially among affluent planters and urban dwellers, turned more to what was then in vogue on the East Coast and in Europe. Improved steamboat transportation, and changing populations, led to greater commerce between Louisiana and other regions of the country. Local styles in furniture gave way to the more popular designs manufactured in Boston, New York and Philadelphia and shipped to New Orleans, then the cultural and commercial center of the South. “By 1835, we lost our distinctive regional style,” says Doerries.

Reflecting upon Doerries’ comment, co-curator Jessica Dorman completes the thought: “People can look at certain pieces of furniture and say, ‘That’s Louisiana furniture.’ By 1850 they cannot say that. We still had fine furniture made here, but not distinctively Louisiana. It’s a different story after that.”

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