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Historical notes on 19thC Creole Art


Least remembered of all the major contributions to the United States national culture, least collected and least studied, are the products of the French and Creole artists and craftsmen of colonial Louisiana. When Louisiana was transferred to the United States, the French had occupied the Mississippi Valley for more than a century. New Orleans, the capital of the Colony, had been established in 1718 and had a population of about 8,000. St. Louis, dating from 1764, the fur trade entry port of the West, was the administrative center of Upper Louisiana, with a population of perhaps 1,000. In wealth, culture, and power, both towns had an importance far greater than their size would suggest. In these centers, as well as in other villages scattered along the Mississippi, were cabinet-makers, potters, coopers, and other craftsmen.

Following the transfer, French Louisiana was flooded by American settlers, but the Creoles have shown a remarkable resilience. Today the Creole patois, and Creole folklore and traditions, still remain more than a memory. Some eighteenth-century Creole houses, whose sweeping roofs, jaunty gables, and glistening whitewashed walls gave the village the old-world charm which Dickens and other visitors found so beguiling, can still be seen in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, and throughout Louisiana. But the original contents of these homes have almost completely disappeared. Prosperity in the nineteenth century, perhaps even more than wars and poverty, changing fashions, and other circumstances as subtle and contradictory as the Creole character itself, combined to destroy the earlier pieces. This is particularly true in the New Orleans area where no collection of Creole furniture, silver, or pottery has been located, and where no study seems to have been made of the subject. Of the fifteen pieces of furniture which have been located, six are in St. Louis, four in Ste. Genevieve, an ‘armoire’ is in a Long Island collection, and an important table and ‘poudreuse’, acquired in Missouri some twenty years ago, are believed to be in the East. This furniture, of more than average merit, provides a welcome addition to our national artistic heritage. Further search, particularly in the lower Mississippi River area, should reveal other pieces of furniture, paintings, and perhaps silver and pottery.

Fortunately, much information exists about the Creole artists and craftsmen, and their products. Although the first newspaper in the Colony, ‘Le Moniteur de la Louisiane’, was not established in New Orleans until 1794, the official French and Spanish archives preserved in New Orleans and St. Louis contain an unexplored wealth of information. In addition, the personal and business correspondence, and business records, of many eighteenth-century New Orleans, St. Louis, and Ste. Genevieve families have been preserved. The archives deal with such matters as litigation, wills and inventories, contracts, and other local civil matters. Reflecting as they do the fascination of the French mind with minute legal points, they provide a detailed and often lively picture of French colonial life, little changed by the rule of Spain. For example, when a property owner died, his personal possessions were immediately sealed – literally - and, sometime later, carefully inventoried by an official committee. Time was of no importance, and the committee worked in an aura of ceremony, conversation, and wine. Each bit of clothing, each book, even a cracked jar or a broken tool, received careful attention. The inventories list quantities of imported faience, porcelain, glassware, pewter, copper, silver, tools, clothing, and yards upon yards of fabrics, and other items including pottery and woodenware. The furniture listed includes drop-leaf tables, tables with "drawer and turned feet," kitchen and dining tables, tables in pairs (demirondes), small pedestal tables; and ‘petrins’ for making bread. There are plain chairs, and painted chairs, as well as ‘fauteuils’. Beds of both large and small size were complete with their mattresses, counterpanes, and hangings. Mirrors (which were all imported) were a particular weakness of the Creole, and were found in every size and type. There are ‘buffets’, ‘bureaux’ with gilded pulls, book-cases, armoires large and small, cupboards, ‘commodes’, and ‘un buffet et son dressoir’. Few of the bulky or heavy household objects were imported because of high shipping costs. Much of the furniture listed was, of course, plain and substantial, but in the manorial houses of the St. Louis Chouteaus and their kin, many of the pieces had a provincial elegance in keeping with the imported accessories, and with the libraries so strongly flavored by Voltaire, Rousseau, and Locke.

A Louisiana Carved Mahogany Campeche Chair, 20th c., Ruppert Kohlmaier, Sr. and Jr., New Orleans
A Louisiana Carved Mahogany Campeche Chair, 20th c., Ruppert Kohlmaier, Sr. and Jr., New Orleans

In New Orleans walnut and mahogany were used in making the quality furniture, and, in that damp climate, cypress for the plain pieces. In the Upper Louisiana villages, walnut and cherry were the favorites. Ash and hickory were used for the more common chairs; and poplar, pine, and walnut were used as the secondary woods in armoires and tables. Without exception, the surviving armoires are fitted with imported French brass hinges, and most of them also have imported escutcheons and locks, and American (or English) brass pulls. One small pine chest is fitted with wrought-iron strap hinges. Blacksmiths throughout the colony supplied ornamental hinges and latches for houses, wrought-iron crosses for cemeteries, and the handsome gates and balconies so well known in New Orleans.

During the closing years of the eighteenth century the cabinetmakers of Louisiana, as well as those of Canada, still worked for the most part in the style of Louis XIII and Louis XV, although the former had then become too old-fashioned for the urban centers of Quebec and St. Louis (still closely bound together by the fur trade, and by family and religious ties) and New Orleans. The simple Arcadian-type chair was common in both Canada and Upper Louisiana. Despite this air of conservative tradition, there were many forces of change at work. Many of the cabinetmakers in Louisiana had been born and reared in France; there was regular travel, with exchanges of ideas, between England and France and Louisiana on the part of government officials, merchants, and planters. During the closing years of the eighteenth century a very considerable number of French royalist emigres came to St. Louis and New Orleans to live, as well as a scattering of dynamic Irish, Spanish, Italian, and American families. All this had its effect upon local architecture and local furniture. There is evidence to suggest that at least some pieces in the Directoire style were made in St. Louis and in New Orleans. Some of the Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton pieces so long owned by Creole families in the area were acquired at this time. The interiors of Creole houses dating from these years are unmistakably American in design.

The impression one gains from a study of the surviving pieces of Louisiana colonial furniture is of endless variety, freshness, and inventiveness of design. The cabinetmakers seem incapable of repetition, and even in the simplest pieces, there is an inherent sense of proportion and a suggested elegance often lacking in comparable pieces made on the American frontier. Even the larger pieces (some armoires are eight feet tall and almost four feet wide) have their weight and mass disguised by rakish feet and cornices, and cleverly contrived variations of surface planes by means of panels, moldings, and baroque curves and carvings. Not all the designs are completely successful, but none are commonplace. The workmanship varies considerably in quality.

A surprising quantity of information about the Louisiana craftsmen is to be found in the archives, which include estate accounts of many of these men, and inventories of their workshops. Among the joiners working in St. Louis were Jacques Denis, active 1765-1771; and Pierre Lupien dit Baron, who came to St. Louis from Kaskaskia in 1768 and died there in October 1775. His estate included various types of planes, saws, turner's irons, and other tools. Jean Baptiste Ortes and Jean B. Cambas were associated in business in 1767. Ortes, a native of the province of Beam, France, had an active career in St. Louis until his death there in 1814 at the age of 104 years. Cambas, also born in France about 1736, left a sizable collection of tools on his death in 1784, and a library which included Descartes' ‘La Philosophie, Dictionnaire de l’Academie Francaise’, and other works which suggest an interest in ancient history and natural science. Jacob Coons, an American joiner active in St. Louis from 1768 to 1811, was one of a number of American craftsmen who introduced Anglo-American designs into the Colony long before the Transfer. Unfortunately, none of the work of these first American craftsmen has been identified. No Anglo-American details have been found on surviving Creole pieces, with the possible exception of the curious claw-and-ball feet on the Pierre Chouteau armoire.


Potters were at work in most of the Creole villages at an early date, fashioning the huge water jars, so necessary for settling the turgid river waters; and the smaller jars, mugs, and other vessels and containers usually listed as ‘pots de terre’ in the inventories. Jean Gilbert, dit la Fontaine, a potter and a native of France, was living in St. Louis in 1780, and resident potters were working even earlier in Ste. Genevieve and New Orleans. An American, John Shields, settled near Cape Girardeau, Missouri, about 1798, made pottery there, "& nursed occasionally other mechanical business."

Woodenware of many different types appears frequently in the inventories. Such containers as ‘sceaux de bois cercles en fer’ seem to have been household necessities and are listed in such numbers as to suggest local manufacture. Stout baskets of different designs were common, some woven from hickory bark and other materials, some dyed in blue and red.

Most of the surviving eighteenth-century family silver of St. Louis and Ste. Genevieve is either Canadian or French in origin, although a few pieces of flatware by unidentified makers may have been made in New Orleans. No information has been found about New Orleans silversmiths. The first resident St. Louis silversmith was Antoine Dangen, born in Marseilles about 1777, who came to St. Louis about 1805 and died there April 12, 1827. Most of his early work consisted of trinkets for the Indian trade, although he also made flatware.

Military draftsmen, itinerant artists, writers who attempted to satisfy European curiosity about Louisiana, all made contributions to the art history of the colony. Among the earliest of these are A. de Batz, who made crude drawings of Indians as early as 1732; and Dumont de Montigny, in Louisiana between 1719 and 1737. F. Codefroid, Ferdinand Latizar, Francisco Salazar, and Ambroise Pardo were all painting portraits there during the last decade of the century. Ambrose Duval, who first appeared in New Orleans about 1803, was a miniature painter. Boqueto de Woiseri, visiting in New Orleans during the same period, has left a few landscape views of considerable merit. Michel Degout, a "Master sculptor of Paris," who lived at Natchitoches and may have been the first of his craft in the Colony, is remembered only because he murdered M'sieu Crette with a sculptor's chisel in 1760. Unlike those of Canada, the surviving local religious carvings all seem to date from the nineteenth century.

Folk art sculpture (Jesse Jeter, New Orleans, Louisiana), 'The Sorcerer' depicting man of African descent in a traditional headdress, unsigned
Folk art sculpture (Jesse Jeter, New Orleans, Louisiana), 'The Sorcerer' depicting man of African descent in a traditional headdress, unsigned

St. Louis had no resident artist until the arrival there of Francois Marie Guyol de Guiran, who came shortly before 1812, and painted portraits, miniatures, profiles, and landscapes. His work, of which a few examples survive, is French in character, unstereotyped in pose, and of high quality.

The first press in the Colony was established in New Orleans by Denis Braud in 1764. Its chief products were official tracts and broadsides. The design of the type used and the decorative ornaments all reflect a French taste and character in contrast with other American printing of the time. A copy of Governor Caroldelet's ‘Reglement’ of 1795, originally owned by August Chouteau of St. Louis, is bound in wallpaper whose small, stylized, basket-of-flowers pattern is crudely designed and printed in silver upon rich yellow paper. Although wallpaper may have been used in Lower Louisiana homes, it was apparently never used in those of Upper Louisiana. There freshly whitewashed walls provided the background for the imported hangings, mirrors, prints, and portraits, and contrasted with the walnut woodwork, endlessly rubbed and waxed under the relentless direction of Creole housewives.

The cordial relationship which generally existed between Indians and Creoles, so unlike that of the American frontier, with the accompanying interchange of ideas and crafts, caused, as we know, modification of the traditional Indian decorative arts. The reverse must also have been true in some measure. Although the few surviving Creole pieces do not suggest such a borrowing, we look with interest to a further examination of this possibility.

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