- Brief Overview of Two Centuries of Haitian Painting (1804–2004) by Michel-Philippe Lerebours
For decades, Michel-Philippe Lerebours has maintained a position as one of the preeminent scholars of Haitian art history. His foundational two-volume text, Haïti et ses peintres : De 1804 à 1980 : Souffrances & espoirs d'un peuple (Haiti and its painters: From 1804 to 1980: Pain and hopes of a people), while focused only on painting, remains one of the most thorough surveys of visual art production in Haiti. Unfortunately, only two thousand copies were produced for its first and only print run in 1989. The book's notoriously limited availability, and the fact that it appeared only in French, kept the vital knowledge contained in its pages at a frustrating remove for English-reading scholars.1 Thankfully, Lerebours's newest book, Bref regard sur deux siècles de peinture haïtienne (1804–2004) / Brief Overview of Two Centuries of Haitian Painting (1804–2004) contains both the original French and an English translation and stands as a valuable primer on the expansive history of Haitian painting.
In the introduction to Bref regard, Lerebours asserts the importance of the book for two reasons. Primarily it will be a resource for younger Haitians who have a limited sense of the breadth and depth of the country's visual arts patrimony, most of which resides in collections abroad. The works by Haitian artists that do remain in Haiti often exist in private collections away from the general populations. Some reside in the public collections of Musée du Panthéon National Haïtien (MUPANAH) and the Musée d'Art; however, the latter has remained closed due to damage from the 2010 earthquake (Lerebours is also the director). Second, he hopes to inform "foreign art lovers" that "the rich and varied Haitian painting cannot be reduced to the primitive style" (19). Since the mid-twentieth century, when a marketable category known as "Haitian art" first came into use, expatriate collectors have formed the bulk of the buying market, resulting in those international collections. Many of those collectors are and have been drawn to works by artists who have long been labeled "primitive," a tendency that perpetuates a general impression of Haiti as [End Page 224] a land of "naïve" painters but does not account for the diverse output of production of Haiti's artists. Lerebours writes this book as a timely means to address these situations.
As with his previous works, Lerebours's historical scope extends to the republic's earliest days, when both Christophe and Pétion were patrons of the arts. This dispels the myth of an absence of arts infrastructure prior to the opening of the Centre d'Art in 1944.2 From the archives he summons the names of painters about whose work scholars know little, but whose existence begins to fill in the historical gaps. Some are known by only one name, an indication that they were among the formerly enslaved. These include artists like Revinchal, the "King's Painter" to Christophe, and, later, Denis, who "may have been the most important painter during Boyer's time." Or Séjour Legros, nephew of Toussaint, who trained as a painter in France and returned to Haiti in the early 1820s (27). Despite the dearth of historical visual evidence at his disposal, Lerebours gives tantalizing hints of the environment in which they created work: "Often self-taught, they were portraitists, landscape artists, painters of national or religious history. Almost all of them were able to make a living from their art" (27). Such information sketches the contours of a bygone era, with echoes in the burst of creative activity that occurred in the mid-twentieth century.
Bref regard succinctly covers much of the ground of Lerebours's earlier work while adding new perspectives on artists whose...