With the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and statehood in 1812, Louisiana formally became a part of the emerging American republic. Many Louisiana natives however, still considered themselves part of the earlier French and Spanish cultures, beginning the evolution of the American-European hybridization of Louisiana culture.
Portraiture dominated Louisiana painting in the first half of the 19th century. Unlike the aristocratic 18th century portraits, portraits in the 19th century reflect the more bourgeois appearance of the burgeoning middle class – proper but not ostentatious. The demand for portraits grew with the increasing antebellum prosperity, and artists flocked to the area to seek their fortunes. Many of these import artists travelled from Europe, especially France, due to the long-standing ties between that country and Louisiana. Two of the most successful and talented were Jacques Amans and Jean Joseph Vaudechamp, and their restrained neo-classic style of French art became popular with Louisiana patrons and artists alike.
Another influence on the character of Louisiana culture was that of the indigenous population. Indian ideas were an indispensable source for early settlers trying to adapt to the region, and this assimilation was mutual, as illustrated by Alfred Boisseau’s Indians Walking Along the Bayou. A hybridization of culture can be seen in this work, for the child carries Indian implements, the man carries an American rifle, and the clothing is Indian in style but cut from European or American fabrics.
Public interest in art waned mid-century as epidemics and the economic depression caused by the Civil War and Reconstruction strangled New Orleans. In the last quarter of the 19th century, however, New Orleans became the visual arts center of the “New South” as both formal and informal arts organizations flourished and provided a cohesive climate for artistic creation. Portraiture’s predominance was gradually supplanted by landscape and genre painting. The technological advances and increasing popularity of photography were also a factor in the declining demand for more expensive painted portraits.
The popularity of landscape painting was encouraged by the young nation’s westward expansion and interest in previously unknown vistas and natural wonders. Louisiana artists, beginning with Richard Clague, developed an indigenous school of landscape painting that combined “luminosity” with a simple and direct pictorial naturalism.
The work of Achille Perelli and George Viavant illustrates the unusual contribution Southern artists made to the tradition of still-life painting. Images of dead game and fish, characterized by extremely precise tromp l’oeil (fool-the-eye) detail and vivid coloration, became a staple of late 19th century academic painting in New Orleans. This tradition had become popular prior to the Civil War and remained so, valued as trophies by sportsmen and as souvenirs by tourists.
The most compelling genre subjects were those events that took place along the banks of the Mississippi River. Because their character is primarily narrative, these scenes are not marked by a strong stylistic identity. However, the general development in painting at this time was towards looser, more fluid brushwork and a brighter palette. In depicting the waterways, the land and its inhabitants, 19th century Louisiana artists further refined the concept of the South as a clearly identifiable entity in American life. This concept would come to concern artists more and more in the early twentieth century.
In the early 20th century, Louisiana artists continued to define the character of the South and develop a Southern aesthetic. Earlier generations of artists, believing the South was isolated and unique, retreated to romanticism and nostalgia. Later generations, however, welcomed the inevitable changes of modern forces. Establishing contact with other regions, these artists explored the issue of a Southern aesthetic in a larger, less provincial context.
Many Louisiana artists continued to favor landscape painting but no one genre dominated. Indeed, creative options were expanded by the establishment in 1890 of the Newcomb College School of Art. Its pottery and crafts enterprise intended to provide employment for women at a time when they had few opportunities in the commercial world.
The most influential figures in Southern art at this time were the Woodward brothers, William and Ellsworth. Although born in Massachusetts, the Woodward brothers made New Orleans their home and devoted themselves to promoting Southern culture and art – as artists, teachers and administrators. Ellsworth Woodward was the first Dean of the Newcomb School of Art and a founding trustee of the Isaac Delgado Museum of Art [now NOMA].
During this period, Southern artists practiced a variety of styles ranging from the most conservative to the most experimental. The landscapes that remained popular illustrate the American version of Impressionism. William Woodward’s paintings embody this so-called “genteel” Impressionism which retains the exuberant brushwork and vibrant colors of French Impressionism, but is tamer and more low-keyed with decorative overtones.
International and frequently controversial avant-garde art movements were introduced to New Orleans by the Arts and Crafts Club, founded in 1921. Through the organization, Southern artists were kept abreast of the struggle between representation and abstraction occupying the larger art world. This conflict is manifest in the work of Will Henry Stevens, a professor at Newcomb College, whose paintings may be divided into two distinct categories: representative landscapes bearing the structural influence of Paul Cézanne and color/form abstractions recalling the work of Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee.
Modern and contemporary Louisiana artists continued the area’s rich and diverse arts tradition. John McCrady, who came to be aligned with the Regionalist art movement during his early career, returned to his Louisiana roots and found the subject of African-American life in the South to be of particular interest. McCrady later established an art school in New Orleans’ French Quarter and trained many of the next generation of artists. During the 1950s, New Orleans-born Fritz Bultman exhibited regularly with the New York School of noted Abstract Expressionists. A number of contemporary artists living and working in Louisiana during the 1970s achieved national prominence, including Robert Gordy, Ida Kohlmeyer and Jim Richard. Important figures who are still active include Lin Emery, known for metal kinetic sculptures, and John Scott, whose works often refer to his African-American heritage and to the strong musical culture of New Orleans. A popular favorite in the Contemporary Louisiana galleries is a painting from George Rodrigue’s Blue Dog series.