There is an art to looking at art. Sometimes it’s knowing where the great works are and the stories behind them; other times nature takes the palate and the skill is in knowing where best to absorb the view; and some artists are pieces of work in themselves. Each June we take it upon ourselves to explore the quirky, the under-appreciated or just the stuff worth visiting. Another measure of our city’s charm is that there’s always so much to see.
The New Orleans Art Trail:10 Masterpieces Worth a Journey
Professor of art history and best-selling author Noah Charney recommends 10 must-see artworks in
New Orleans museums.
Claude Lorrain (1600-’82) was the highest-paid painter of Baroque Italy, thanks to a clever marketing strategy. He would never set a price for his works, but instead would hand the finished piece over to the patron and say, “You should pay me whatever you think it is worth.” This put the patron in the position of having to pay a flattering fee, augmented by the fact that there was cache among art collectors to have paid a high price. So while Caravaggio was receiving around 100 ducats for his paintings, Lorrain would get 400.
Non-art historians sometimes find Lorrain’s idealized landscapes, like this one of Tivoli, the Roman Emperor Hadrian’s villa, a bit on the dull side, but that’s because they don’t know the mathematical genius that went into them. Most artists of the Baroque period employed single vanishing point perspective. At its simplest, imagine that you’re to draw train tracks emanating from beneath your feet and disappearing at the horizon in the distance.
Though we know logically that train tracks must always remain parallel (otherwise the train wouldn’t get very far), to our eye the train tracks get closer together until they meet at the distant horizon. The point at which they meet is the vanishing point. If you were to draw in orthogonal lines emanating from the vanishing point and continuing to the edge of the paper, you would produce a three-dimensional field (imagine the movie Tron). The ability to reproduce the illusion of three-dimensional depth and perspective in the two-dimensional medium of painting and drawing is a key trick in an artist’s arsenal.
Lorrain would take it a big step further. Rather than having one vanishing point inside his canvas, he had a technique in which he would established two vanishing points outside of his canvas, for instance on the wall on either side of the hanging canvas. He would use these as points of reference when creating his painting – orthogonal lines emanating from both vanishing points and crossing each other inside his canvas.
For paintings with a single vanishing point inside the canvas, often at its center, the figures in the painting will appear in correct perspective only when the viewer stands directly in front of the vanishing point. If you walk to either side of the painting and look at it, the perspective will look off. But with Lorrain’s technique, no matter where you stand, the painting’s perspective always looks correct.
Sometimes the most interesting aspect of a painting isn’t what is in it, but what happened just outside of it.
“Portrait of Marie Antoinette,
Queen of France” (1788)
Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun,
New Orleans Museum of Art
It is rare and wonderful to find a female artist before the 20th century, as women were only in the rarest cases permitted to have a career or enter a painter’s guild in pre-Modern Europe. The few exceptions to the rule were inevitably family relations of great artists who were able to apprentice informally: Artemisia Gentileschi’s father was the great painter Orazio Gentileschi, and several female members of Jan van Eyck’s family also painted. But one of the most important pre-Modern female painters has a masterpiece displayed here.
Elisabeth-Louise Vigée LeBrun (1755-1842) was the most famous female artist of the 18th century, a renowned painter primarily known for portraits who straddled the Rococo and Neo-Classical styles. Like the female artists before her, she was the daughter of a known painter, Louis Vigée, who specialized in painting on fans. Her father died when she was 12, oddly enough from an infection following surgery to remove a fishbone caught in his throat.
Her mother remarried, this time to a wealthy jeweler, and the family moved into the “it” crowd of Paris. A portraitist in her teens, LeBrun submitted work to the Académie de Saint-Luc for exhibition, and they accepted her paintings – not realizing that she was a woman. She was made a member of the Academie in 1783, and soon after married another renowned painter, Charles LeBrun.
She was one of the favorite portrait painters of the period among the nobles of France and was invited to Versailles to paint Marie Antoinette – this is one of the portraits produced from that session. While Marie Antoinette and the rest of the French nobles lost their heads in the revolution, LeBrun escaped with her family and travelled Europe, painting portraits from Rome to Russia, including a portrait of Catherine the Great.
One of art history’s few powerful pre-Modern women artists, LeBrun’s work is worth a journey.
“Pest-House at Jaffa” (1799)
Antoine-Jean Gros, New Orleans Museum of Art
It is a rare treat to find an oil sketch, a preparatory cartoon made in advance of a full-scale oil painting, that allowed both the commissioner of the painting to see what he was getting into, and the artist to develop his idea to an advanced degree before the larger commitment of embarking on the painting proper.
Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835) was among Napoleon Bonaparte’s favorite artists, and the careers of the two men are inextricably linked. Gros was Bonaparte’s primary painter and propagandist, creating numerous works that glorified and romanticized Napoleon and his exploits.
The scene depicted in this oil sketch (the enormous final painting, “Bonaparte Visiting the Plaque House in Jaffa” is in The Louvre) is a visit to a makeshift hospital in Jaffa (Syria) undertaken by Bonaparte at great personal risk of contracting the unpleasant illnesses suffered by his men. The idea is to show Bonaparte at one with his men, but to go a step further. Bonaparte is Christ-like, reaching out to touch this plague-pocked Lazarus of a soldier to his left, perhaps with a healing hand, but certainly without fear of contagion. There is an implicit reference which the French would pick up on – tradition had it that French kings, chosen as they were by God, had a single divine super-power: the ability to cure scrofula, a form of tuberculosis also called “king’s evil,” by touching an infected individual.
The painting resulting from this oil sketch is considered the first masterpiece of Napoleonic painting and often cited as the first monumental painting of the Romantic era.
“The Lawyer’s Office” (1545)
Marinus van Reymerswaele, New Orleans Museum of Art
Marinus van Reymerswaele (1490-1567) painted only five themes that we know of throughout his career, and he painted each of them multiple times with little variation, each time involving oddly bird-like, grotesque bureaucrats seated at a table facing the viewer. Each of these themes borrows the basic format of the picture from the work of another artist, often Albrecht Dürer of Quentin Massys. But though Reymerswaele was neither the most original nor the most diverse of painters, he brought a wonderful sense of Mannerist caricature and vivid realism to his works, populated by thin-skinned vultures with kindly eyes, flesh so sunken that it could not be real.
Although his breadth was limited, Reymerswaele led a productive career, his works constantly in demand. There are 30 versions of his “Tax Collectors,” which has always struck historians as odd – why would so many people want to own a picture of rather grotesque, caricatured, greedy tax collectors counting their money? Were many of the commissioners tax beneficiaries themselves, and therefore found the painting to be darkly humorous and ironic?
We don’t know.
But few Mannerist artists like Reymerswaele receive the popular recognition they deserve. Today few have even heard of Marinus van Reymerswaele. His style evolved from the Mannerist movement, born in Florence of artists who admired Michelangelo above all. Michelangelo and Raphael had been stylistic and professional rivals during their lifetimes. Raphael’s idealized High Renaissance perfection, stressing harmony, geometry and balance over dynamic and realistic drama ended abruptly with his early death in 1520. Michelangelo, on the other hand, lived into his 80s. And the Florentine artists who deified Michelangelo became the Mannerists. Michelangelo was one of the first artists to dissect cadavers and learn the true details of human anatomy. He knew what real bodies looked like and contained. But he didn’t stop there. Whereas Raphael’s paintings had sought to illustrate a perfection that could only exist in Heaven, a clean and harmonious rendition of life and afterlife devoid of strain, stress, dirt and assymetry, Michelangelo asked the question – where does one go from perfection? Michelangelo’s answer, inherited by Mannerists such as Reymerswaele, was to hyperextend perfection. Take Raphael’s figures and twist and pull at them, elongate and coil them, add torque and drama. Pose the human body as it could never be in life, but with a balletic grace or precarious levity that’s achingly beautiful and mesmerizing, like a shark in the water.
Strip away mass. The laws of nature are in the artist’s hands. The painter is more than a photographer. The painter need not be bound by the lashes of harmony. One can crack open beauty in the horrible, the ugly, the contorted, the falling, the disembodied.
“Search for Several Circles” (1926)
Wassily Kandinsky, New Orleans Museum of Art
The mellifluously named Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky (1866-1944) is credited as the first modern abstract artist. Art historians love to state superlatives, like “first” and “greatest,” but there’s reason to consider an artistic chronology. Because art is cumulative, later artists necessarily studied earlier masters and paid homage to them, either continuing their advances or breaking from them in new ways, an understanding of what came first is necessary to grasp what came later. The Russian painter and theorist Wassily Kandinsky is at the foundation of 20th-century art, a time when abstraction overtook centuries of drive toward realistic painting.
Kandinsky’s approach to art was intensely spiritual and theoretical. Art, to him, was the best articulation of the holy, the closest one could come to a dialogue with God. Kandinsky was interested in theory and spirituality first, with art as its conduit. He gave up a promising career as a law professor in order to pursue what surely seemed to his colleagues a foolish enterprise. A 30-year-old embarking as a teenager might, enrolling at an arts academy with no particular background nor exhibition of precocious talent.
At its simplest, Kandinsky painted what he found spiritually moving. (If someone were to ask you to paint something spiritually moving, what would you paint? You might paint a white man with long brown hair and a beard, wearing a white robe. In fact, most Europeans would probably come up with some traditional image of Christ or God. You might also choose a sunset, a lightning storm or the birth of a child. Kandinsky eschewed the traditional art historical trend of painting formal scenes related to history or mythical history. That had been done, plus it had the aroma of propaganda, most often for the Catholic Church, which many abstract artists found objectionable. Kandinsky wrote that the artist was a prophet, “music is the ultimate teacher,” and an authentic artist created art from “an internal necessity.” In his treatises, he likened the creation of artwork to Noah’s compulsion to build the Ark. It may have been God acting through a human conduit, or it may have been an internal psychological compulsion that past generations interpreted as the will of God, but true art was born out of a pressing internal need to create.
“Portrait of Pierre Denis de la Ronde” (circa 1760) Artist Unknown,
The Historic New Orleans Collection
This portrait of the wealthy Louisiana plantation owner and Major General, Pierre Denis de la Ronde (1726-’72) is a story of entrepreneurship, the American dream and the attempt on the part of early Americans to establish a parallel version of European aristocracy where “blue blood” was won through professional success.
De la Ronde was born in Quebec and, after training in an elite military unit, was stationed in Louisiana at the tender age of 21. He served a long and decorated military career, achieving the honorific Knight of the Royal and Military Order of St. Louis for distinguished duty in the French Royal Navy, before retiring to New Orleans around 1755, a place with which he fell in love back in his youth. He set up a sugar plantation, married in 1756 and was an active community leader.
The plantation would have a fateful history. It served as the principal field of engagement during the Battle of New Orleans, in which De la Ronde’s son, Pierre de la Ronde fils, participated. The plantation house was the headquarters for the British commander. Pierre Jr. was decorated after the battle by Andrew Jackson, and inherited the plantation, where he lived until his death in 1824.
The plantation would have an interesting life beyond that of the man portrayed here as well. De la Ronde Jr. was the leading investor in a project to found a pair of towns, named Versailles and Paris, La., which, the plan went, would ultimately grow into cities that would overtake New Orleans in luxury, size and importance. De la Ronde Jr. began with Versailles, a development in the Saint Bernard Parish, east of the Mississippi River, and three-and-a-half miles south of the center of New Orleans (currently on the border of today’s Chalmette and Meraux regions). The plan was to cut a barge canal through the swamp that separated the new Versailles with Lake Pontchartain, and eventually to build the second community, Paris, on the banks of that lake.
Though a bold example of entrepreneurship, Versailles never grew much larger than a small town, and Paris was never developed. But the plantation, and this beautiful portrait of its founder – probably painted in France after De la Ronde Sr.’s retirement from active military duty – are a lasting testament to the entrepreneurship of one of New Orleans’ most important early leaders.
“Native Shrimpman” (1934)
Fonville Winans, Ogden Museum of Southern Art
Theodore Fonville Winans (1911-’92) is considered the photographer of southern Louisiana. His stark black-and-white images explore the highs and lows of life in his adopted state. The strikingly handsome Errol Flynn look-alike moved from Texas to Louisiana to take a construction job, and fell in love with the territory. This was a time before the major infrastructure of highways, and even running water and electricity, had made much headway into the wetlands outside of the few large cities. Winans combined landscape photography with intimate portraits of still-isolated settlements, homesteaders, farmers, hobos – one might imagine his pictures illustrating a Louisiana version of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
This photograph of a local shrimp fisherman named Pierre Perique Lombas was taken the year that Winans enrolled in a journalism program at Louisiana State University, before he made a career as a photographer. His immense talent, his eye for the image, the pathos of the man portrayed and silky beauty of the print all show his precocious talent, and provide a wonderful record of a lost Louisiana.
“Bluebonnet Scene with Girl” (1920), Julian Onderdonk,
Ogden Museum of Southern Art
The Texas Impressionist painter Julian Onderdonk (1882-1922) is known as the “father of Texas painting,” and while Texas painting doesn’t perhaps evoke the same thrill as, say, Arles or New York, Onderdonk’s ability is undeniable. Onderdonk was born in San Antonio to a painter father in a time and place when a Texas boy was more likely to be a soldier or a cowboy than an Impressionist. In fact, Onderdonk enrolled in military academy, but his precocious talent led him to an art school, and eventually to an apprenticeship with the great painter of the American West, William Merritt Chase, with whom his father had also studied. Onderdonk moved to New York after his studies, but travelled extensively, living the life of an en plain aire painter, like his pre-Impressionist heroes such as Daubigny. His subjects are uncomplicated by allegory or symbolism, simply beautiful studies of light falling on genre scenes from around the United States. He has illustrious fans: George W. Bush displayed three of his canvases in the Oval Office while he was president.
“Rose Window” (1896), Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company, Woldenberg Art Center at Newcomb College, Tulane
Though the name is now best associated with the jewelry store, the glassworks of Louis Comfort Tiffany (1948-1933) were the signifier of wealth, class and elegance in turn-of-the-century America. The Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company operated from 1878-1933. Tiffany was inspired by both the Arts and Crafts Movement in England, and by specific glass objects he saw displayed in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, particularly ancient items from Rome and Syria. Though he began as an interior designer, Tiffany’s interests shifted to stained glass, which was essentially a passé art form. Neo-Gothic architecture called for it, but this was more popular in England than the United States, before Tiffany imported the style and brought it to a fashionable art form.
The Newcomb Art Gallery is fortunate to have an entire cycle of Tiffany glass, representing what stained glass was first invented for – a way to visually tell the stories of the Bible. Examples here are found of the Resurrection, Supper at Emmaus, King David and Saint Cecilia (patron saint of musicians), the Good Samaritan and allegories of art and literature. Perhaps the crown of the group, and the most technically interesting, is the large Rose Window, installed at the same time as the Supper at Emmaus cycle. Inspired by the famous rose windows at Notre Dame, this window (called “rose” because it roughly resembles a circular open flower) is actually comprised of numerous, interlinked Celtic knots, forming a sort of woven labyrinth of colored glass – a work of astonishing intricacy. At the center of this “labyrinth,” where one might expect to find the Christogram, IHS, we find instead the letters HSN, which stand for Harriet Sophie Newcomb, foundress of the Newcomb Gallery.
“Black Butterfly” John Scott, Collins C. Diboll Art Gallery Sculpture Garden at Loyola
John Scott (1940-2007) was one of the great New Orleans artists, born and bred in the city’s 9th Ward. His sculpture, primarily in painted metal, embodies the salad bowl of cultures in the great city: a hint of Christian imagery mixed with the bold colors and inspiration of Creole, Caribbean, African and African-American cultures, along with the jazz and blues that washed over him as he lived his life in the city. If there is a single abstract embodiment of all that is New Orleans, it may be found in Scott’s sculptures. Late in his life, in 2003, Scott created a series of dramatic woodcut engravings that, many now note, seemed prescient as they forecast the destruction wrought by the 2005 hurricane. While some of the woodcuts showed the life of Louis Armstrong, others bore titles like “Dangerous,” “Yesterday’s Doorway” and “Storm’s Coming,” which contain images that might have been taken from post-hurricane photographs. “Black Butterfly” is a semi-realist sculpture in brushed steel, which juxtaposes the vaguely organic form of the winged creature atop the plinth with the raw, unapologetic mechanical texture of the medium. John Scott’s work can, fortunately, still be viewed and even purchased not only at museums such as this one, but also at the Arthur Roger Gallery.
Noah Charney is a professor of art history and international best-selling author. His most recent book is Stealing the Mystic Lamb: the True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece (PublicAffairs 2010).