Artist Andrew LaMar Hopkins poses at his French Quarter studio in New Orleans, Friday, June 25, 2021. (Photo by Sophia Germer, NOLA.com, The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)
Artist Andrew LaMar Hopkins is blowing up. There aren’t a lot of paintings cluttering his French Quarter studio, because they sell too fast. And they sell for thousands of dollars, sometimes tens of thousands.
Which is astonishing, since it wasn’t too long ago that Hopkins couldn’t afford his cellphone bills and did without electricity for six months. A profile in The New York Times and a review in The Wall Street Journal have helped fuel his rocket ride to stardom. Recently, the National Gallery acquired one of his portraits.
Hopkins’ current challenge is to produce 18 new acrylic paintings for a show at the high-end Venus Over Manhattan gallery in New York by the winter. The tabletop where Hopkins works is picturesquely piled with plastic jars of acrylic paint and his arsenal of brushes. He usually maps out his canvases first, with interlocking rectangles of background colors, then he meticulously adds details, and details, and details. Rendering the characters and interior decoration in his paintings requires Hopkins to employ his superpower: time travel.
Hopkins, 43, is an 1800s folk artist accidentally trapped in the era of Google, Facebook and Amazon.com, or so it would seem. He appears to recall early Louisiana domestic life as if it were yesterday. Hopkins often uses the word Creole to describe his historical genre scenes. "It's a complicated word," he said. Originally, Creole was used to signify the first generation born in the French colony. But it's also applied to the blending of races and backgrounds — Native American, French, Spanish, Caribbean and African — that occurred in the antebellum Crescent City. Hopkins' Creole paintings are populated by enslaved Black people, European oligarchs, and, often the “free people of color,” who were sometimes slave owners.
“The average person doesn’t know what a free person of color is,” Hopkins said of the somewhat obscure historical anomaly. Mostly, he said, he hopes his paintings answer the question, “What was life like in New Orleans 200 years ago?” Though the scenes he creates have a decidedly idyllic take on the period.
When he sits down to compose a 19th-century scene, there's no doubt Hopkins knows his stuff. You can bet that the costumes worn by the characters in his paintings, from their riding boots to their cameo necklaces to their tignons, are historically correct. The native sassafras trees (the source of filé powder), satsumas and banana palms in the background are no accident either.
Occasionally Hopkins reinterprets paintings from the classical canon. He considers his version of Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” to be his masterpiece. The goddess of love is, of course, borne on an oyster shell, surrounded by tempestuous, brown, Gulf waters. In his reimagining of Frank Schneider’s well-known portrait of Marie Laveau, Hopkins has added a startlingly intense gaze and an electric blue background seemingly abuzz with metaphysical energy.
Hopkins has always had a passion for the past. He was born in Mobile, Alabama, but his compass always seemed to point to New Orleans, with its venerable architecture, crumbling cemeteries and museums.
“The French Quarter,” Hopkins said, “was the coolest place in the world.”
His family moved to Crescent City in the 1990s, where he soon became a “mini sensation” by crafting tiny models of antique furniture from oven-baked clay that he sold in museum gift shops. He was just a teenager at the time.
“I was a self-taught nerdy kid who went to museums and talked to people,” he said.
Later, Hopkins worked in the gift shop at Laura Plantation, where, he said, “we talked to people about Creoles and slavery.” He also worked at the 1850s House, a historic residence in the Pontalba apartments, which is part of the Louisiana State Museum. Thanks to the eruption of his painting career, Hopkins is now pals with the French descendants of the Baroness Pontalba who built the apartments in the 1840s, plus he’s been scheduled for a solo exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum in 2022.
When Hopkins was 20, he and his French boyfriend opened a Magazine Street antique store, which gave the couple opportunities to travel to Paris on buying trips, honing Hopkins' understanding of New Orleans' Gallic roots. When they split up, Hopkins said, he hit the skids for a while. He calls the next few years his “starving artist period.” He returned Mobile for a time and also moved to Baltimore, but eventually, New Orleans reeled him back in.
In about 2012, Hopkins said, things began picking up. At Nadine Blake Gallery on Royal Street, his paintings only sold for a few hundred dollars back then, but they sold regularly. Then in 2019 lightning struck, when a nationally known antiques dealer invited Hopkins to show a selection of his paintings at a big-time New York antique show. That’s when his career “catapulted,” as Hopkins put it. It wasn’t long before he sold out a 38-painting exhibit in a Manhattan gallery, at Manhattan prices.
And as his art career took off, so has another part of his self-expression as well. As a kid, Hopkins said, when he wasn’t at the library schooling himself on history, he was being swept up by the dreaminess of old black and white movies that he found on TV. He was especially captivated by the glamour of the women of the era. Hopkins said he’d always considered cross-dressing but had been reluctant. In preparation for a Christmas party at the French Quarter nightclub Oz a few years back, he took the plunge.
“I always wanted to do drag,” he said. “In my late 30s, I said, ‘You need to do it or not do it.’”
Désirée Josephine Duplantier is Hopkins’ alter ego. He describes her as a “1950s Creole grande dame.” When Hopkins was anointed “featured artist” at the New Orleans Museum of Art’s “Art in Bloom” benefit exhibit this year, Désirée appeared at the toney opening reception in his place.
Désirée's Eisenhower-era, shiny sheath dresses, white gloves, clutch bags and abundant pearls may be a far cry from the Victorian fashion worn by some of the characters in his paintings, but Hopkins certainly considers Désirée an artwork of sorts.
Like his painting style, his cross-dressing was self-taught.
“To wear stilettoes and pantyhose and corsets is not comfortable,” Hopkins said laughing. “She’s definitely a work of art.”