The months of the summer season provide great opportunities for Louisiana landscape artists. If we can stand the heat at this time of year, nature is wearing her most robust and colorful costume. The ideal method of painting the landscape is en plein air, outside on the land itself with paint and canvas. And while the heat and humidity can be oppressive, the swamps, bayous, and marshlands yield a glorious picture. As we move through the state from the northern to the southern area and coastlands, we can see the great variety of nature’s beauty. There is a mysticism about the Louisiana landscape. At times, it is almost frightening, and always a daunting task to capture the reality of nature. The same scene will change as the daylight hours move along. What has been almost blinding in its brilliance at early morning will become dark and sinister at the end of the day.
I have been a landscape painter for the entirety of my career as an artist. A major portion of my academic and artistic training centered on the study of the history of landscape painting in this region, especially in Louisiana. It is interesting to me that this region came late to landscape painting. During the 19th century, landscape painters abounded throughout our country as the great expansion took place. We can find an abundance of work that captures the seasonal changes of the Northeast and the multi-cultural landscapes of the West. But in the South, the art was different.
The epicenter of art in the South during that time—the city of New Orleans—was not originally a haven for landscape painting or painters. City folk preferred portraiture, the images of both the prominent and the downtrodden. At no time was this better seen than in the years following the Civil War. Only with the coming to New Orleans of French painter, Richard Clague, did landscape painting find a home in South Louisiana.
Richard Clague (1821-1873) was the son of a French Creole mother who had married and moved from New Orleans to Paris. Ties to both cities were strong. While Clague studied art in Europe, he was a frequent visitor to New Orleans where he was baptized in St. Louis Cathedral. Clague studied painting in Switzerland and was trained in the pastoral, romantic style closely akin to that of l’Ècole des Beaux Arts. But his own artistic style found a home with the Barbizon painters, Corot, Millet, and the like. The French Barbizon painters subscribed to the idea that the landscape should be valued in itself, without association of any other concept or historical event. As promoters of en plein air painting, their work is devoid of any romantic connotation, but rather a realistic portrayal of the beauty of nature.
By 1857, Clague had settled in New Orleans and established a studio in the early 1860’s. He is credited with establishing the “Bayou School” of landscape painting, the first in this region. Summers often found Clague working in the Louisiana wetlands near the Mandeville and Abita Springs areas. His ideal was to paint a realistic vision of the wetlands and scenes along the bayous without any 19th-century romantic illusion. For Clague, the mysticism was already present; there was no need to enhance it. He became equally well known as a teacher, promoting his Bayou School through two of his most prominent students.
Marshall J. Smith (1854-1923) was one such student. Although he pursued a career in the family insurance business, Smith was instrumental in founding the Southern Art Union in 1880.
William Henry Buck (1840-1888) came from Norway to the U.S. in 1865 and settled in New Orleans in 1870. As a student of Clague, Buck produced works that are dark and moody, centering more on the atmosphere and its effect on the landscape.
The unique feature of these early Bayou School painters is the realism of their work. One is often tempted to hang a label of “impressionism” on their paintings because of the strong contribution of light to the overall atmosphere. But this would be unfair as realistic portrayal dominates these landscapes unlike the fleeting glances of the Impressionists. The influence of the Barbizon painters fits in their use of color and light to produce an accurate if somewhat other-worldly scene. If we truly see and study our landscapes, they are indeed other-worldly and mystical. They do not need any additional emphasis on light and/or color.
I would suppose that Elemore Morgan, Jr. (1931-2008) came closest to the ideals of the Bayou School. He certainly gained renown as an en plain air painter of South Louisiana landscapes, particularly of the rice fields. And like Clague, Morgan was a teacher, working for many years at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Morgan painted in acrylics on odd-shaped Masonite panels. He believed that the shape of the painting was integral to its design and composition. After Morgan died in 2008, the State of Louisiana established an annual “Elemore Morgan, Jr. Day,” occurring on September 18th. He was honored with the title “Dean of Louisiana landscape artists.”
What I find fascinating about the development of landscape painting in Louisiana is the manner in which it has changed over the years. If we look at contemporary landscape painting, we find very little of the realism and naturalism of these earlier painters. The majority of current landscape painters focus on vibrant, often garish color—what my wife calls “colors not found in nature!” While such works have a popular and commercial appeal, I question whether they accurately represent the true landscape. Rhea Gary is a well-known Louisianan who paints the wetlands in “dramatic color and form.” Those who paint in a quite realistic style such as Dianne Parks and Diane Millsap, feature accurate portrayal but in vibrant and bold color.
To my eye, the work of Albino Hinojosa comes closer to that earlier style. Hinojosa’s paintings depict realistic landscape with a sense of the familiar and our nostalgic past. There is a certain comfort in looking at one of his landscapes, knowing that some things in life do not change. And there is reassurance that the landscape will not betray us with “colors not found in nature.”
In recent years, there has been a sense of social obligation to hurry up and capture the landscape, whether in painting or photography, before it is gone. We hear all the stories of erosion and commercial exploitation, and of course, Katrina, who took more than her fair share. But I am reminded that there is also something timeless about nature and the landscape. In some form, with all of her glory, nature will proceed until the end. But she will never turn herself into the garish colors of a New Orleans night. She will never yield to “colors not found in nature!”