A Painter’s Visions of Créolité in 19th-century Louisiana
A self-taught artist, former antiques dealer, and history buff, Andrew LaMar Hopkins centers the often difficult-to-categorize nature of creole identity.
by Cassie Packard
The work of Andrew LaMar Hopkins, which is currently on view at Venus Over Manhattan in his first New York solo show, Créolité, is difficult to categorize. A self-taught artist, former antiques dealer, and period history buff born in Mobile, Alabama and currently based in Savannah, Georgia, Hopkins makes paintings about Antebellum Creole culture with an emphasis on New Orleans in the 1830s. His diminutive portraits and tableaux are characterized by a flattened folk-art aesthetic, tight bijou brushstrokes, and gem-colored hues, occasionally accompanied by a touch of carnivalesque glitter. Each presents a utopic vision of Creoles — white Creoles as well as free Creoles of color (gens de couleur libres) — enjoying their self-created identity in the American South. Hopkins has classified his idiosyncratic style as a hybridized genre of its own: “historical folk outsider art.
When ownership of Louisiana was transferred from France to America via the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the word “creole” was used to draw distinctions between native-born Louisianans with French ancestry and an influx of new, predominantly English-speaking immigrants. Louisiana Creoles typically spoke French, practiced Catholicism, and followed French social customs. Creoleness was one of several key factors in fostering a third caste for free people of color in the area, beyond the black-and-white race binary that had become de facto in much of the United States. The period from 1812 to 1830 has been called a “golden age” for free people of color in New Orleans, who often had advanced educations, held prominent positions, and numbered among the wealthiest free people of color in the country.
As a child, Hopkins, who is a gay, mixed-race Black man and a Francophile, became fascinated by this period of prosperity for Creoles of color, an oft-overlooked history in narratives of the Deep South. Hopkins paints fictional as well as historically significant Creoles — perhaps most notably New Orleans “Voodoo Queen” Marie Laveau, whom he renders four times in the exhibition — in stiff, doll-like poses, standing in front of lacquered building facades or posing within marbleized interiors. The artist’s historically accurate depictions of the period’s creolized fashion, décor, and architecture celebrate the protean material culture of the time: for example, Creole townhouses that adapted French colonial architecture to a Southern climate using windows and transoms, or decorative schemes that interspersed Louis XV tables and Louis Philippe chairs with chests from Philadelphia and tables from New York
The walls of Hopkins’s miniaturized domiciles are peppered with portraits of the Creole inhabitants’ forebears, images that could have been painted by the European portraitists who flocked to Louisiana’s cities and plantations to paint wealthy patrons in popular European styles. These hybrid portraits asserted and reinscribed an image of wealth and ancestral and cultural connections to Europe that, for a time, conferred an elite status upon Creoles. In an Americanizing Louisiana with snowballing discriminatory laws, these distinctive material signifiers were a bulwark between Creoles and an imminent loss of status, particularly for Creoles of color, whose social position was additionally threatened by racism.
Five years ago, Hopkins discovered that he is Creole himself, descended from Nicolas Baudin, a French navy man and cartographer who received a Louisiana land grant in 1710. The artist went on to paint himself into the picture: the exhibition includes “Self Portrait of the Artist as Désirée” (2019), a portrait of Hopkins’s drag persona, a New Orleans grande dame named Désirée Joséphine Duplantier. Facing the viewer head-on, Désirée dons a fascinator, strings of pearls, and a brooch decorated with a single Caucasian eye: a reclamation and celebration of her ancestry on her own uncategorizable terms.
Créolité: Andrew LaMar Hopkins continues through November 6 at Venus Over Manhattan (120 East 65th Street, Manhattan, New York).