by Elizabeth Pochoda
NEW ORLEANS — Dressed as his alter ego, the modish matron Désirée Joséphine Duplantier, the artist Andrew LaMar Hopkins is a familiar presence on this city’s arts scene. His paintings, faux naïf renderings of 19th-century life in the city — particularly the vanished culture of New Orleans’s free Creoles of color — also keep good company. You can see these works in Nadine Blake’s gallery on Royal Street in the French Quarter, on the art-filled walls of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant in Treme, and in the rooms of collectors like the designer Thomas Jayne and the food stylist Rick Ellis.
When a dozen of Mr. Hopkins’s paintings appear at the Winter Show at the Park Avenue Armory on Jan. 24 they will be making their first foray north. Placed alongside 18th- and 19th -century portrait miniatures in the booth of Elle Shushan near the entrance of the show, these small works portraying daily life in New Orleans, circa 1830, will enact their own sly magic, inserting themselves into the stream of art history as if the visual record of people and places in antebellum Creole culture had not been lost. “This is what these lives looked like, and no one else was doing it,” Mr. Hopkins, 42, says of both white Creoles and Creoles of color in his work. “I wanted to do them justice.”
Creole is a long-embattled term, perhaps best defined now as a person whose background and identity is traceable to colonial French Louisiana and/or its Franco-African culture. William Rudolph, the chief curator at the San Antonio Museum of Art and an early enthusiast about the work of Mr. Hopkins, says this artist “has used his work to interrogate Creole history.” He added, “He has deconstructed the past.”
And yet these paintings are also very much of the present. Recreating or revising a lost or mangled history is something contemporary artists are often compelled to do. Last fall the Brooklyn-based artist Dread Scott (Scott Tyler) assembled a cast of some 500 to re-enact the 1811 Louisiana slave rebellion. More recently, Kent Monkman, a Canadian artist of Cree descent, created two monumental works for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Great Hall that appropriate the conventions of history painting to revise North American colonial history and the place of indigenous peoples in it.
For his part Mr. Hopkins has employed the conscious archaism of a folk art style to furnish the quotidian world of a culture mostly erased by the Civil War. The carefully researched furniture, fashionable clothes and street scenes in his compositions present themselves as settled history. And when the 6-foot-2 artist dons the high heels and 20th-century fashions that Désirée Joséphine Duplantier favors, he brings that history forward almost as if there had been no rift with the past. It is not a historical recreation. It is a continuum.
Mr. Hopkins’s journey into Creole history began in Mobile, Ala., where he was born in 1978. Mobile was the first capital of colonial French Louisiana, something the artist was aware of at an early age.
In the 1970s it was taken for granted there that a boy’s leisure time would be spent in boisterous street games. “I didn’t do any of that,” Mr. Hopkins recalls. “I was always in the library reading about neoclassical furniture and antebellum architecture.” He joined a local preservation society, made clay models of the furniture and architecture he admired and dreamed about France and the French connection to Creole culture. When he began researching his family’s history, he made an exciting discovery. “I found that I was a part of all that,” said Mr. Hopkins. He was able to trace his paternal lineage back to a Frenchman, Nicholas Bodin of Tours, who received a Louisiana land grant in 1710.
In 1830, the moment in time Mr. Hopkins is fond of using for many of his creations, free Creoles of color in New Orleans owned some $15 million of property in the city. Mostly French speaking, these artisans, shopkeepers and artists were in no small part responsible for the look of the French Quarter — its ironwork, decorative plaster, its architecture and fashionable shops. Like white Creoles, some owned slaves, and some later fought for the Confederacy. Despite many laws restricting their rights they played a significant role in civic life
It’s a big story rarely told. Neither the New Orleans Museum of Art nor the well-heeled Historic New Orleans Collection has mounted an exhibition resurrecting this culture. “It’s a wonderful topic, but a great deal of work needs to be done,” said Mel Buchanan, the RosaMary curator of decorative arts and design at the New Orleans Museum.
There is, however, a house museum in the city, Le Musée de f.p.c./Free People of Color Museum, which has made a modest beginning at doing so. A more vivid account can be seen in a Hopkins painting, “Edmond Dédé Piano Recital,” of the fashionably dressed freeborn Creole musician and composer (1827-1901) who was raised in New Orleans and studied in Paris. He is shown as a young man in his salon here surrounded by neoclassical furnishings that strike an elegant yet matter-of-fact note.
Moving to New Orleans as a teenager was something of a cultural homecoming for Mr. Hopkins. At 20, he and a friend opened an antiques shop on Magazine Street, filling it with furniture and decorative arts acquired on trips to France. By the time Hurricane Katrina hit, the antiques business had mostly faded away. In the wake of the storm, life in the city became unendurable. Mr. Hopkins left to stay with his sister in Baltimore and that is where the call to painting began. The road back to New Orleans was a long one, but when he returned in 2012 he brought 30 paintings with him.
Katrina had simply been one more obstacle obscuring an important past. Stepping away from its devastation, Mr. Hopkins was able to bring Creole culture into view, depicting in his work both white Creoles and free Creoles of color, sometimes together as they often were, and sometimes separately. The city of New Orleans historically demanded detailed inventories of the possessions of deceased citizens, and he studied these lists to ground his rooms, from their locally made armoires and Campeche chairs to neo-Classical French porcelain and wall clocks. The furniture is as important as the people, whether it appears in the cottage of the powerful voodoo queen Marie Laveau or in the salon of John James Audubon, the white Creole naturalist renowned for his “Birds of America.” It secures their place in history, and is, as Mr. Hopkins says, his way of doing them justice.
Mr. Hopkins’s work is also his way of doing justice to the tolerance of New Orleans, then as now. “I would never have survived or thrived in Mobile,” he acknowledged. His self-portrait as Désirée Joséphine Duplantier is a testament to that, respectful rather than satirical.
Recently, Mr. Hopkins’s work has undergone a sea change of sorts. Having established the look and life of 19th-century Creole New Orleans, he has gone back in time to create a mythological past. Drawing upon Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus,” he asked himself, “How can I make it Creole?” His “The Birth of Creole Venus” is the result — a big, bold and witty composition. His goddess emerges from an oyster shell surrounded by Creole angels of color, a brown pelican, a pair of doves with sassafras leaves, and, says Mr. Hopkins, ever the master of the convincing detail, “the water is muddy.”