ASHEVILLE, N.C. – A portrait of a Creole woman commonly believed to be the famous Louisiana Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau was sold at auction last week to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) for $984,000, in what may be a record price for a Louisiana portrait. The portrait was identified as “Rare Portrait of Creole Woman.” It was estimated to sell for between $200,000 and $300,000.
The painting is not actually of Marie Laveau, though it has been widely used as her image. It has been used as her image identifier on sites like Britannica and Wikipedia and the image is also on tour sites, t-shirts, and book covers. The portrait is so ubiquitously believed to be Laveau that most people have it as her image when they visualize the Voodoo Queen.
Although the portrait is not actually of Laveau, everyone involved, including the auction house, bidders, and the winner of the auction were aware of the association. “This powerful, compelling, and rare early New Orleans portrait of a free woman of African descent,” said Brunk Auctions, who handled the sale, “has long been considered the iconic image of the Voodoo Priestess Marie Laveau.
“It has been surrounded by mystery and legend and lost to the public eye for decades, all of which has added to the aura that surrounds it,” the description continues. “Her strength is haunting and unparalleled, made all the more so when one realizes that she is a free woman of color in New Orleans before the Civil War.”
This portrait has been attributed to George Catlin (1796–1892), who was in New Orleans in the period between 1833 and 1835. The portrait is about 29” by 23” in a gilded frame. It bears a signature on the upper right that reads “G. Catlin Nlle Orléans /mai 1837.”
The portrait’s provenance was established by Lisa N. Peters, an art historian hired by the auction house. The painting first appeared in the public eye around 1911, when a
former president of the Louisiana Historical Society, Gaspar Cusachs, lent the portrait to the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans. From there, the portrait entered private collections, coming eventually into ownership by a Florida family through inheritance.
The portrait’s association with Laveau appears to be the work of one of the intermediary owners. Simon J. Shwartz was a collector and the general manager and part-owner of the Maison Blanche Department Store. He married the daughter of one of the wealthiest philanthropists in early 20th Century New Orleans. His father, Abram Shwartz, owned a fine arts emporium. His stature was such that in 1926, Shwartz sold an 1803 circular that attracted the attention of The New York Times.
“The misattribution of artist and sitter speaks to the circumstances surrounding the portrait’s history at the turn of the 20th century,” Susan J. Rawles, VFMA’s Elizabeth Locke Associate Curator of American Decorative Arts, told The Wild Hunt. “The social place of Creole people was hotly debated in Louisiana following the Louisiana Purchase, inspiring artistic depictions of Creole peoples. Among the most legendary of women of mixed race was Marie Laveau (1801–1881), a woman of French, Native American, and African descent who assumed celebrity status and consequently became the presumed subject of almost every portrait depicting a free woman of color.”
During that time, there was political pressure to conform New Orleans to the “New South.” “In the 1880s,” Rawles said, “the New York cotton industrialist John H. Inman led a coterie of northern literary and artistic luminaries to New Orleans and elsewhere to promote, per Harper’s Weekly, the benefits arising from northern investment in the South. That pressure boosted esteem for northern artists. William E. Seebold, for example, invited northern artists to show and lecture at his gallery.”
This is where Shwartz enters the story. He acquired the painting in 1922 as part of a collection of books and other artifacts from the Louisiana State Museum. “Shwartz displayed the portrait as ‘Marie Laveau’ by George Catlin (1796–1872), who was the most famous painter of indigenous and Creole people to have practiced in New Orleans.
“Curiously,” said Rawles, “the inscription on the painting includes the date ‘mai 1837,’ which happened to be the date that Catlin opened his ‘Indian Gallery,’ the collection of paintings of Indigenous people he created that toured various cities on the East Coast. Both artist and subject were celebrated in reports by journalists invited to see the portrait in Shwartz’s home, solidifying the erstwhile attributions despite the inconsistencies between the proposed portrait and Catlin’s known work.”
There is a twist, however. The portrait had been on display at the Cabildo on Jackson Square when, in 1926, Schwartz was forced to sell much of his collection for financial reasons. “Much of the archival material was purchased by Edward Alexander Parsons (1878-1962) who, as a board member of the Louisiana State Museum, loaned the collection to the Cabildo,” said Rawles. “But it wasn’t until 1933 that Shwartz sold ‘Portrait of a Creole Woman Wearing a Madras Tignon’ to Parsons for $126.”
Later in the same year, the title of the portrait read “Marie Laveau or Choctaw Woman.” Its name was modified in the museum handbook by then-curator Robert Glenk.
In yet another twist, the portrait was copied by the Louisiana Museum’s restorer Frank Schneider for its permanent collection, likely to document the painting after Cusach’s original loan expired. The copy, however, was subsequently damaged and retained by the Louisiana Museum.
The painting may not be Catlin’s work. “Despite some disparities in technique,” says Rawles, “our tentative attribution is to the French-trained artist Jacques Amans, who was active in Louisiana from about 1836/7 until 1856. The attribution is based on the evidence of a template of the painting that matches other known works.”
As for the actual sitter in the image, that person remains unidentified.
The intrigue around the image, and the celebrity power of Marie Laveau, contributed to the extraordinary price at auction. Still, the portrait is critically important. “The portrait’s rare success,” says Rawles, “turns on the combined powers of a highly skilled technician and an engaging – if elusive – subject whose pose and costume – particularly the tignon – project the unique pre-Civil War culture of a region of the United States shaped by French and Spanish colonial history.”
“That culture,” she continued, “heretofore lacking representation in VMFA’s American collections, was both distinct from, and in tension with, its Anglo-American counterpart. VMFA has long sought examples of work representative of Spanish and French colonial influences to expand and complicate its American narrative.”
All of us will soon have an opportunity to view the image for ourselves. VMFA said that the portrait will go on view as soon as it has been assessed by its conservation department, received any necessary treatments, and then follow a process to be approved for rotation.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is located in Richmond, VA at 200 N. Arthur Ashe Boulevard.