Even if you haven’t really visited it but just read about it from afar—I first encountered it in the work of Anne Rice—chances are that the city of New Orleans will exert a mysterious kind of pull on you. There is something very alluring and intoxicating about its multi-cultural and multi-ethnic heritage. The historical density and opulence of the region—in particular its “Creole” aspect—is reflected beautifully in the work of artist Andrew LaMar Hopkins.
“Creole” has several meanings. The most prominent literary mention of the word that stands out in my memory is the character of Bertha Mason, Edward Rochester’s deranged first wife in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847); her racial identity is ambigious, she is described as the daughter of a white European settler in the West Indies.
If you search the term Creole, you will find that it may mean (1) a person of mixed European and black descent, especially in the Caribbean, (2) a descendant of Spanish or other European settlers in the Caribbean or Central or South America, (3) a white descendant of French settlers in Louisiana and other parts of the southern US. In the specific context of Louisiana, Creoles are defined as persons who have descended from the inhabitants of colonial Louisiana during the period of both French and Spanish rule. They may actually be mixed, black or white.
Hopkins is Creole himself—and an avowed Francophile. He celebrates the now vanished 19th-century Creole culture in New Orleans in a style that he calls “historical folk outsider art“. The paintings are populated by racially diverse Creoles around or within French-inspired buildings—in salons, bedchambers, kitchens, cemeteries. The tableaus contain gentle narratives—a kiss, looks of desire and envy, a piano recital, a moment of grief and rememberance—and transport the viewer to a whole different era and geography.
The artist writes: “As an artist who has lived most of my life on the Gulf Coast and in New Orleans, my art is inspired by the rich French and Spanish colonial history of the city. Because of the French and Spanish settlements, this area has a different and unique architecture and mixing of the races than other parts of America. This fascinating Creole history, which is not well known outside of Louisiana, is my inspiration to paint, as a way of paying homage to our forgotten ancestors that have come before us.
“I work in acrylic on canvas board, painting what life was like in 18th- and 19th-century Louisiana, with a special focus on free people of colour. In the context of the history of slavery in the Americas, free people of colour (French: gens de couleur libres; Spanish: gente de color libre) were non-enslaved people of mixed African, European, and sometimes Native American descent.”
Hopkins moved to New Orleans as a teenager. He was born in 1978 in Mobile, Alabama, which was the first capital of colonial French Louisiana. A few years ago he discovered that he was kin to a major Creole family whose French ancestors came from Tours, France, in 1710. On his paternal side, he is a direct descendent of Nicolas Baudin, who obtained a land grant in 1710 for an island south of Mobile, which he named Mon Louis after his hometown of Mont Louis, France. As a descendent of Baudin, Hopkins is also related to several French governors of Louisiana.
Several famous Creoles appear in Hopkins’ work, for instance, the voodoo practitioner, herbalist and midwife Marie Laveau, the ornithologist and painter John James Audubon known for his “Birds of America”, the aristocrat and real estate developer Micaela Almonester, Baroness de Pontalba and the musician Edmond Dédé.
The interiors—complete with marble mantels and cornice moldings—are executed in detail with great precision. Hopkins spent a childhood immersed in antiques. He recalls: “I was always in the library reading about neoclassical furniture and antebellum architecture.”
When he was 20, he and a friend opened an antiques shop on Magazine Street in New Orleans, stocking it with furniture and decorative arts collected during trips to France. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, life in the city became difficult, and to be near his sister he shifted to Baltimore, where he began painting. He returned in 2012 along with 30 paintings, and continued his practice with dedication over the years, gaining impressive coverage in the New York Times a few months ago.
A recent work of Hopkins’ takes the Creole experience to a more epic, mythical dimension. Following Sandro Botticelli, he has painted the birth of a brown Creole Venus—emerging out of muddy depths, surrounded by dark angels. It is a powerful way of claiming space and a sense of importance for a population whose rich contributions have been severely overlooked.