‘His strength is haunting and unmatched’: Painting once said to depict Marie Laveau sells for nearly $1 million

ASHEVILLE, North Carolina — A portrait of a Creole woman commonly considered Louisiana’s famous voodoo queen Marie Laveau was auctioned off last week at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) for $984,000, which could be a record price for a Louisiana portrait. The portrait has been identified as “Rare Portrait of a Creole Woman”. It was estimated to sell for between $200,000 and $300,000.

The painting is not actually by Marie Laveau, although it has been widely used as her likeness. It has been used as an image identifier on sites like Britannica and Wikipedia and the image is also on tourist sites, t-shirts and book covers. The portrait is so ubiquitous that it is Laveau that most people have her as their image when viewing the voodoo queen.

“Portrait of a Creole woman with a madras tignon”, attributed to George Catlin, oil on canvas [Courtesy Brunk Auctions]

Although the portrait is not actually of Laveau, everyone involved, including the auction house, the bidders, and the auction winner knew of the association. “This powerful, compelling and rare New Orleans portrait of a free woman of African descent,” said Brunk Auctions, which handled the sale, “has long been considered the iconic image of the Voodoo priestess Marie wash.

“He was shrouded in mystery and legend and lost to the public eye for decades, which added to the aura that surrounds him,” the description continues. “Her strength is haunting and unmatched, especially when you realize she was a free woman of color in pre-Civil War New Orleans.”

This portrait has been attributed to George Catlin (1796–1892), who was in New Orleans between 1833 and 1835. The portrait measures approximately 29 inches by 23 inches in a gilt frame. It bears a signature at the top right indicating “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

Gaspar Cusachs via Louisiana Historical Society

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, eventually becoming the property of a Florida family by inheritance.

The association of the portrait with Laveau seems to be the work of one of the intermediate owners. Simon J. Shwartz was a collector and the general manager and co-owner of the Maison Blanche department store. He married the daughter of one of the wealthiest philanthropists of the early 20th century in New Orleans. His father, Abram Shwartz, owned a fine arts store. Such was his stature that in 1926 Shwartz sold an 1803 flyer that caught the attention of The New York Times.

“The misattribution of artist and sitter speaks to the circumstances surrounding the history of portraiture at the turn of the 20th century,” said Susan J. Rawles, Elizabeth Locke Associate Curator of American Decorative Arts at the VFMA. The Wild Hunt. “The social place of Creoles was hotly debated in Louisiana following the Louisiana Purchase, inspiring artistic depictions of Creole peoples. Among the most legendary mixed-race women was Marie Laveau (1801-1881), a woman of French, Native American, and African descent who assumed celebrity status and consequently became the alleged subject of nearly every portrait depicting a free woman of color. . ”

Meanwhile, there were political pressures to conform New Orleans to the “New South”. “In the 1880s,” said Rawles, “New York cotton industrialist John H. Inman led a coterie of northern literary and artistic luminaries to New Orleans and elsewhere to promote, through Harper’s Weekly, the benefits arising from investments from the North to the South. This pressure boosted the esteem of northern artists. William E. Seebold, for example, invited northern artists to exhibit and lecture at his gallery.

This is where Shwartz comes into the story. He acquired the painting in 1922 as part of a collection of books and other artifacts from the Louisiana State Museum. “Shwartz presented the portrait as ‘Marie Laveau’ by George Catlin (1796–1872), who was the most famous painter of natives and Creoles to practice in New Orleans.

“Curiously enough,” Rawles said, “the inscription on the painting includes the date ‘May 1837,’ which happens to be the date Catlin opened his ‘Indian Gallery,’ the collection of paintings of Aboriginal people he created and which toured various towns on the East Coast.The artist and subject were celebrated in reports by journalists invited to view the portrait in Shwartz’s home, reinforcing the attributions of days gone by despite the inconsistencies between the proposed portrait and the known work of Catlin.

There is, however, a twist. The portrait had been on display at the Cabildo in 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 member of the board of trustees of the Louisiana State Museum, loaned the collection to the Cabildo,” Rawles said. “But it wasn’t until 1933 that Shwartz sold Portrait of a Creole woman wearing a Madras Tignon’ at Parsons for $126.

Later in the same year, the title of the portrait read Marie Laveau or Choctaw Woman. Its name was changed in the museum manual by then-curator Robert Glenk.

In yet another twist, the portrait was copied by Louisiana Museum conservator Frank Schneider for his permanent collection, likely to document the painting after Cusach’s original loan expired. The copy, however, was later damaged and kept 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 model of the painting that matches other known works.

As for the person sitting in the image, this person remains unidentified.

The intrigue around the image, and Marie Laveau’s celebrity power, contributed to the extraordinary price at auction. Yet the portrait is of crucial importance. “The rare success of the portrait,” says Rawles, “rests in the combined powers of a highly skilled technician and an engaging – albeit elusive – subject whose pose and costume – especially the haircut – project the unique culture of Civil War region of the United States shaped by French and Spanish colonial history.

“This culture,” she continued, “hitherto absent from VMFA’s American collections, was both distinct 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.

We will all soon have the opportunity to see the picture for ourselves. The VMFA said the portrait will be viewable once it has been assessed by its curatorial department, received any necessary treatments, and then goes through a process to be approved for rotation.


The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is located in Richmond, Virginia at 200 N. Arthur Ashe Boulevard.

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