Celebrating the New Orleans Tricentennial with art

By John R. Kemp


In the spring of 1718 when Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, and his small band of French Canadians struggled to clear a low-lying patch of land along the Mississippi River as the future site of New Orleans, art was the last thing on their minds, if at all.

As Frenchmen, however, they certainly knew that art eventually would be important in New Orleans life as she took her place among the world’s great cities — and it is. In this Tricentennial year, New Orleans now has more art galleries and working artists than at any other time in her three-century history.

As the city celebrates with parades, banquets, toasts and other pageantry, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, and the Historic New Orleans Collection have scheduled major shows that explore various aspects of the visual arts in New Orleans over the centuries. One exhibition takes viewers into the once private and spectacular art collection of the city’s 18th century royal namesake, another one back to the city’s Spanish colonial era, and a third show into the New Orleans contemporary art world of the mid-1980s to the present.

When it comes to Tricentennial art shows, NOMA’s promising blockbuster “The Orléans Collection” should prove a stunning contribution to the city’s birthday celebrations. Opening Oct. 26 and organized by the museum, the show will feature what NOMA Senior Research Curator of European Art Vanessa Schmid describes as “40 masterpieces” from the once private collection of Philippe II, Duke of Orléans (1674-1723) for whom New Orleans is named. The duke’s collection, originally numbering 772 artworks, was once ranked among the greatest private art collections in 18th century Europe. It remained in his family for only two generations before being dispersed throughout Europe in the 1790s at public auction in London.

“The Orléans Collection” show will draw “masterpieces” from 20 institutions across the U.S. and Europe and will be shown only in New Orleans.

“Praised as one of the finest in Paris,” says Schmid, “this exceptional collection comprised some of the preeminent works in the history of art, including paintings by Veronese, Tintoretto, Poussin, Rubens and Rembrandt, all of whom will be represented in the exhibition. This unprecedented, international loan exhibition will bring together a selection of masterpieces from the collection for the first time.”

Opening across town on March 8 in the city’s popular Arts District, the Ogden will present “Salazar: Portraits of Influence in Spanish New Orleans, 1785-1802,” featuring paintings by Spanish colonial New Orleans’s only portrait artist, Josef Francisco Xavier  de Salazar y Mendoza. Born in Mexico in 1750, Salazar came to New Orleans from the Yucatan with his family in 1783 or early 1784 and over the next 20 years painted portraits of the city’s most prominent citizens, military officers, government and church officials. After his death in 1802, his family returned to Mexico.

According to art historian Cybèle Gontar, who organized and curated the show, “Salazar” will include approximately 35 of his portraits borrowed from private and public collections across the country. These paintings, Gontar says, will present “a collective portrait of Spanish colonial New Orleans,” which lasted from 1762 to 1803.

“Salazar is the only Spanish colonial painter known to have produced a substantial body of work in North America, and he has generally been overlooked,” says Gontar.

And therein lies the show’s theme. Salazar’s “collective portrait” of New Orleans was unique because unlike major Anglo-American cities and states along the Atlantic seaboard, few artists worked in the city prior to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. His paintings also will be viewed in relation to other Hispanic, European and American portrait artists then working in North and South America.

At the opposite end of the historical spectrum, the Historic New Orleans Collection will stage “Art of the City: Postmodern to Post-Katrina” at a date to be determined in the fall to coincide with the completed restoration of the Collection’s historic Seignouret-Brulatour Building on Royal St.

Sponsored by The Helis Foundation, “Art of the City” will present the work of 75 contemporary New Orleans area artists as examples of the city’s fertile art scene over the last three-plus decades, beginning with the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition in New Orleans. This was an era of artistic revival in New Orleans that did not go unnoticed by the international art world. In 1996 the acclaimed British art critic Edward Lucie-Smith was impressed by the art he saw emerging from New Orleans during the ‘80s and ‘90s. While traditional art forms and various post-war art movements still thrived in the region, artists explored their cultural and spiritual roots in the urban and rural Louisiana landscapes.

“New Orleans artists,” Lucie-Smith wrote, “offer themselves a certain liberty to reject the fads, which often sweep the New York art world. They are under less intensive pressure from both critics and their peers to conform to whatever the latest orthodoxy may happen to be.”

“Art of the City” will include works of art drawn from the HNOC’s extensive collection and those borrowed from the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Ogden Museum and private collections. To make those selections, HNOC hired noted New Orleans artist, curator and educator Jan Gilbert.

“Generally speaking,” says Gilbert, “I wanted to include art by artists whose work frequently looks to New Orleans as muse. Of course, because New Orleans is the soulful, multicultural place that it is, the works needed to reflect a range of voices, influences, subjects and media. Occasionally, artists’ works are included because of their significant influence on other artists working here and their role in the art of the city of this era. In a few instances, a voice of an outsider looking in has been the role sought.”

Gilbert couldn’t have described New Orleans better. Perhaps Bienville would have enjoyed watching his city celebrate its Tricentennial with a “soulful” look at the creative spirit of the place he created 300 years ago on a low-lying bend in the Mississippi.

For additional information, visit NOMA at noma.org, the HNOC at hnoc.org, and the Ogden Museum at ogdenmuseum.org.



Exhibitions and Events

Historic City Hall Arts and Cultural Center. “Botanical Art & Illustration from the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation.” Features the artworks of 38 botanical artists from 14 countries. cityoflakecharles.com


New Orleans Museum of Art, “New Forms, New Voices: Japanese Ceramics from the Gitter-Yelen Collection.” For the first time in over two decades, the museum will feature an exhibition devoted to contemporary Japanese ceramics. For the first time in over twenty years, NOMA will present an exhibition devoted to modern and contemporary ceramics. noma.org


Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum. “Lynda Frese: Holy Memories & Earthly Delights.” Highlights early experimental photographs made in California by Lynda Frese, a professor emeritus at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette College of Art, before she moved to Louisiana in 1986. hilliardmuseum.org


Louisiana Art & Science Museum. “Tradition in Transition: Inuit Art and Culture.” Features the artwork of Canada’s Arctic native people, the Inuits. lasm.org


LSU Museum of Art. “Robert Williams: Slang Aesthetics.” Features 25 new oil paintings and other artworks by Robert Williams, who has been called the “godfather of the lowbrow and pop surrealist art movements.”  lsumoa.org


Alexandria Museum of Art. “Witness to Wartime: Takuichi Fujii.” Features the work of a Japanese-American artist, his life and experiences in America during World War II. themuseum.org


Masur Museum of Art. “Afghan War Rugs: The Modern Art of Central Asia.” Exhibit focuses on the contemporary practice of Afghani weavers, abandoning traditional, non-figurative styles to better reflect the current political, military and cultural climate in Afghanistan. masurmuseum.org


Ogden Museum of Southern Art. “A Precise Vision: The Architectural Archival Watercolors of Jim Blanchard.” Exhibit brings together an extensive number of Blanchard’s exquisite watercolor paintings of South Louisiana historic architecture. ogdenmuseum.org


Ogden Museum of Southern Art. “Salazar: Portraits of Influence in Spanish New Orleans, 1782-1802.” Features the work of Spanish colonial New Orleans’s best-known portrait artist, Josef Francisco Xavier de Salazar y Mendoza. ogdenmuseum.org


LSU Museum of Art. “Carrie Mae Weems: The Usual Suspects.” Two recent series by acclaimed photographer Carrie Mae Weems explore stereotypes associated African-Americans, crime and deaths at the hands of police. lsumoa.org


R. W. Norton Art Gallery. “Enlist! Art Goes to War, 1914-1918.” See what life was like in Shreveport and Caddo Parish during World War I and how artistic posters were used to urge men to enlist and women to become nurses and join the Red Cross. rwnaf.org




Categories: Louisiana Made, Spotlights, Theatre + Art