In the modernization process, talented but previously unknown atrists such as Hector Hyppolite, Philome Obin, Rigaud Benoit, and Castera Bezile stepped forward to work with Dewitt. Hyppolite a “hougan”, a priest in the the voodoo religion, who wanted to start a new career was painting flowers with a brush of chicken feathers on doors in his local community of Saint-Marc and Mont Rouis. Hyppolite is better remembered as the father of the Southern school of Haitian art. Obin, who painted Les Bourgeois du Cap-Haitien vers 1900-1919, shown here, was a self-taught master of architectural geometry and documented historicism. He was already known for painting religious illustrations and scenes of the United States Marine occupation, in which Obin depicted a violent struggle between the American forces and the Haitian peasants in Northern Haiti. Obin went on to found the Northern School of Painting, known for orderly composition and narrative works. Benoit was more interested in illustrating his “barbed vignettes of Haitian life”, and Bezile, was concentrating on bringing forth the miseries and the glories of the peasant existence.
The opening of the Centre D’art in 1944 forced Haitian art to address issues of contemporary history through (1) providing the artists with an opportunity to have their paintings exposed to the world; (2) the training and the discipline of the artists, which transcended beyond professionalism. This process reflected more than every day peasant life, or the life of the wealthy.
The early painters who worked with Dewitt were known as the “first generation” artists, included Obin, Benoit and Hippolyte. These three individuals, with great talents and an uncanny ability for geniosity with their brushes, were the pioneers of the modern development of Haitian paintings. Their arrival from obscurity to the limelight stimulated other
“They say that God created man and man created art, and the fact that Haiti has so much political problems; it’s like art is a door way to a new life.” Haiti was the first black republic established in the world. As one of the richest colonies on earth, the country fought and won it’s independence from France in 1804. However, Haiti has endured continual turmoil and hardship for almost two centuries. Currently, it is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, a far cry from its economic condition in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Some of the country’s inability to develop and flourish are homegrown. The continued discontentment and widespread contempt that existed between and among the Haitian people are significant factors in the continual demise and misery of the country. Accordingly, the mere reference of Haiti in the international arena means constant political turmoil, dictatorships, despotic military regime, misery, poverty, destructions, ecocide, and natural disasters.
While Haiti’s hardships will continue into the next millennium, Haitian art is a reflection of the beauty of the country. Within that reflection emerged the identity of the people, and the expression of pride in a deep and lasting tradition. This pride is exhibited in its African roots, its old religion, its oral history, mythology, relationship with France, and its freedom in the new world. The subject matter in the paintings is a reflection of all the cultural influences at work, and reflective of the long lasting heritage of the people. This influence on the paintings and the culture derived from: (1) an African belief systems of life and styles which is more common among the peasantry; (2) the European influence, that is the French language, the architecture and interior decorating, and as a way of life for some; (3) the influence of the Indians, which has survived in “utilitarian” objects and in goods such as cassava.
This case study will examine Haitian art through its paintings, and with the beauty, history, roots, and the mark the art has made on the development of the country. An overview of the country’s history, which paralelled the struggle and growth of her art will also be presented. Additionally, reference will be made to sculptures, handcrafts, the economy and the overall affect of tourism, as well as the environmental condition of the country.
Historically, Haitian art preceded the arrival of Columbus, before the colonization of the island and the arrival of slave ships. The Taino Indians created paintings on the walls of their huts, their caves and even on their bodies. Is it difficult to ascertain how much was handed down from Taino arts to the incoming slaves, with the exception of utilitarian objects. Why didn’t the Taino pass on more of their arts to the slaves? Once the Spaniards started to brutalize and christianize the locals, the Taino culture, religion, art, and people were affected greatly, which in turn, diminished the prospect of a greater Taino influence on Haitian paintings.
As early as 1807, Henri Christophe, who succeeded General Jean-Jacques Dessalines, one of Haiti’s founding fathers, encouraged the development of the arts in the newly independent republic. Christophe who crowned himself King Henry I in 1811, had a high regard for culture and a passion to make “Haitians the most civilized, educated and creative people on earth”. In 1816 President Alexandre Petion helped French artists establish an art school in Port-au-Prince.
Haitian art burgeoned under the governments of Christophe, Petion, Boyer, and Soulouque, with artists and painters such as Thimoleon Dejoie, Numa Desroches, Colbert Lochard and his son Archibald Lochard. During King Christophe’s rule in the early 1800’s, several English artists taught at the Royal Academy of Milot. In the 1820’s French artists were invited to promote and train Haitian artists. The beginning of the French oriented academies in the country began with Barincourt who started a school of art in Port-au-Prince.
The artists who were trained and received schooling from the French-oriented academies were often commissioned to paint and decorate public buildings and houses of the wealthy citizens. At this time, and throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the paintings were not representative of the people or any particular tradition.
The arrival of an American named Dewitt Peters in 1943 marked the beginning of a true revolution of Haitian arts. Dewitt, a watercolorist on a wartime assignment, wanted to open a centre to oversee the genuine development of the Haitian artists. He observed that the country did not have any visible painting activity nor any art gallery. This was contrary to the great physical beauty of the country and with a people so gifted with “pictorial language of color and form.” Dewitt embarked on a mission that would modernize Haitian arts and introduced it to the world. On May 14, 1944, the Centre d’Art was inaugurated in Port-au-Prince. The founders of the centre were Dewitt Peters, Maurice Borno, Albert Mangones, Raymond Coupeau, Geo Remponeau, Gerald Bloncourt, Raymond Mavelanette and Philippe Thoby-Marcelin.