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The French Connection 

It was 1831 and Jean-Joseph Vaudechamp, a promising Parisian portrait painter, was having a rough year. He had just turned 40 and, despite his sterling credentials, business was lousy. He had once been a star student of French master painter Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson, himself a pupil of Jacque-Louis David, one of the true titans of French art, and for what? There were just too many portrait painters in Paris, and Vaudechamp was finding it hard to break out of the pack. Surely there must be a place where the money was fast and the competition slow, a place where he could be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. He wondered about New Orleans, that crazy former colony in the swamps. It sounded like a steaming, godforsaken hole where life was cheap, but others had made their fortunes there and lived to talk about it. Why not give it a try?

So Vaudechamp embarked for Nouvelle Orleans, where over several years he established himself as a portraitist with a thriving practice before returning to Paris in more comfortable circumstances. What we see in this pristine new wing of the Historic New Orleans Collection's Williams Research Center is a cross-section of the city's French-Creole upper crust rendered by a talented painter who brought Parisian style to a place where the French enclave felt increasingly isolated. If his Parisian pedigree was what initially opened the doors, it's also true that, like Degas decades later, Vaudechamp became a more interesting painter during his New Orleans years.

Although painters often relied on portraiture to pay the bills, their options were limited by the stiffly formal poses and facial expressions of the time. French artists tried to compensate with attention to detail, as we see in Vaudechamp's spectacular portrait of Jean Bernard Xavier de Marigny de Mandeville, 1833, the namesake of two historic New Orleans communities (and our most illustrious local craps shooter until Edwin Edwards). Here Marigny displays the typical poker face of the period, but the red and gold detailing of his French military uniform is spectacular. Like his contemporary, Ingres, Vaudechamp excelled in rendering the texture of fabric and flesh in sparklingly clear light. In subsequent portraits, we see the same silken, pearly white highlights later put to such good use by an American expatriate in Paris, John Singer Sargent, whose own daring portrait of another New Orleans French Creole, the mysterious "Madame X," precipitated the scandal that led to his sudden self-exile from the City of Lights.

In his excellent monograph, published by the Historic New Orleans Collection and released to coincide with this show, art historian William Keyse Rudolph argues that his significance was mostly as a recorder of local luminaries, and while that is unarguably true as stated, to leave it at that may sell Vaudechamp unnecessarily short. His evolution came about gradually during the 1830s, but something interesting starts to happen as more and more children turn up in his portraits: the faces of the kids become notably more animated and expressive than the adults before them had been. Part of it might have been simply that Vaudechamp, a true bourgeois family man, loved children. But in New Orleans that more animated quality of expression eventually filtered into his adult subjects as well, so that by the end of the decade his portraits start to evoke movie stills, as if his subjects had been caught in a brief moment of repose in the midst of some witty repartee. His portrait, Edmond Jean Forstall and His Daughter Desiree, 1836, appears at what might have been the pivotal point of this transition. If less expressive than some of his later canvases, their faces are still somehow hauntingly alive as our French Creole forebears gaze back at us with obvious good humor and joie de vivre. As Rudolph almost grudgingly notes, "His portraits possess a vivid directness that allows for an intense encounter between the sitter and the viewer." But that directness was precisely what Alexis de Toqueville found so invigorating about America in the 1830s. What it really signified, in art as in commerce, was the beginning of the modern era -- a profound cultural revolution in which Vaudechamp and Toqueville were both participants as well as witnesses.

click to enlarge This detailed view of Edmond Jean Forstall and His Daughter - Desiree, 1836, reveals the hauntingly alive quality that - characterizes Vaudechamp's best work.
  • This detailed view of Edmond Jean Forstall and His Daughter Desiree, 1836, reveals the hauntingly alive quality that characterizes Vaudechamp's best work.
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