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The French Connection
by Stephen Faure
On March 3-4, The Historic New Orleans Collection and The New Orleans Museum of Art will unveil two major exhibitions celebrating the 400-year-old Louisiana-France connection made possible by the French government’s generosity in helping the area recover post-Katrina.
The exhibitions evolved from a visit to New Orleans by French Minister of Culture Donnedieu de Vabres in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, when he pledged France’s support. The result of that pledge is an ambitious program of cultural cooperation by France with New Orleans and in conjunction with the State of Louisiana to help the city revive.
“400 Years of French Presence in Louisiana: Treasures from the National Library of France,” an extraordinary exhibition of artifacts, will be displayed at The Historic New Orleans Collection March 3-June 2. The New Orleans Museum of Art will host “Femme, femme, femme: Paintings of Women in French Society from Daumier to Picasso from the Museums of France” March 4-June 3. The NOMA exhibition features 83 priceless paintings from the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay and 40 other museums throughout France.
A Cultural Coup
The Collection exhibit begins with a map from 1601 depicting the Atlantic Ocean and North American continent by French cartographer Guillaume Levasseur de Beuplan. Rare, fascinating and beautiful items from the beginnings of French exploration and colonization of Louisiana, including other maps, early plans for the city of New Orleans, drawings, paintings, manuscripts, rare coins and books follow. Items reflecting New Orleans’ history as an American city and its cultural influence in France through modern times—jazz music and the works of Tennessee Williams, for example—complete the exhibit.
Also on display will be priceless items relating to France’s relationship with America outside of Louisiana. Two items stand out: the 1763 Treaty of Paris, and the Treaty of Amity and Commerce from 1778 between the fledgling United States and France. The Treaty of Paris put an end to the Seven Years’ War in Europe between France, Britain and Spain; ended the French and Indian War, which was the North American manifestation of the European conflict; and transferred Canada from France to British control. France subsequently transferred its Louisiana holdings to Spain.
The 1778 treaty, negotiated and signed by Benjamin Franklin, embodied France’s recognition of the thirteen former British colonies as a sovereign nation and pledged French support for the United States revolution. It was the first treaty between the United States and a foreign power.
“All of the items [coming to the exhibition] are historically important in and of their own right,” says Alfred E. Lemmon, director of The Collection’s Williams Research Center and one of the exhibition’s curators. “At the same time, they are artistically important.”
“400 Years of French Presence in Louisiana: Treasures from the National Library of France” melds perfectly with The Collection. The documents and artifacts making the trip from France could well be found in The Collection’s permanent holdings.
The Collection owns documents that were signed in the Cabildo in 1803 to transfer Louisiana from Spain to France, and documents signed by local officials in the transfer from France to the United States. These are the personal copies that were kept by Napoleon’s colonial prefect, Pierre Clement de Laussat.
The Laussat papers are one of the most significant collections held by The Historic New Orleans Collection, containing hundreds of letters, orders, dispatches and drafts of proclamations of the colonial prefect during the eventful years 1803 and 1804.
Priscilla Lawrence, The Collection’s executive director, relates the story behind this collection. “All of his copies of everything he did in Louisiana, his personal papers rather than the government’s copies, were able to come to the collection. They were stored in his family’s chateau in France and he packed them with cayenne pepper as a preservative against insects and so forth. Some of the documents still have faint remnants—pepper stains—on them.” (Editor’s Note: Priscilla Lawrence has been awarded the title of Chevalier in the Order of the Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture in recognition of the work she and The Collection did to educate the public about French heritage in Louisiana.)
The Collection has a long tradition as custodian of priceless historical artifacts. It is the permanent home of approximately 35,000 books and manuscripts and more than 300,000 photographs, prints, drawings, and paintings, as well as to beautiful and unusual three-dimensional objects—including sculpture, coins, medals, furniture and decorative items—all of which is accessible to the general public.
It began as the private collection of General Kemper Williams and his wife Leila Williams. In 1938, the Williamses bought two properties in the French Quarter—the Merieult House on Royal Street and a late 19th-century residence contiguous to the Merieult House, facing Toulouse Street. The latter property was their home for 17 years, during which time they amassed a substantial collection of important Louisiana materials they felt merited public access. With this goal in mind—of making the materials available for the public to visit, study, and enjoy—Kemper and Leila Williams in 1966 established The Historic New Orleans Collection.
The institution evolved into a museum, research center, and publisher dedicated to the study and preservation of the history and culture of New Orleans and the Gulf South region.
There are several buildings that comprise the Royal Street complex, all of which are architecturally significant. John Lawrence, museum director, explains: “The 1792 Merieult house and several smaller buildings create nearly a century’s worth of architectural history. The most recent structure is the Williams residence, which was built in 1889. Other buildings fronting on Toulouse Street that tie into the Royal Street complex are from the early-19th to the mid-19th century. They house various non-public functions—registration, photography and publications departments.”
The Merieult House is home to a museum including the Williams Gallery for changing exhibitions and the Louisiana History Galleries that features ten galleries with permanent displays tracing Louisiana’s multifaceted past. The Williams Research Center at 410 Chartres Street opened in 1996. It was built at the turn of the century as the First District Municipal Court and police headquarters.
“The buildings themselves are an extremely important part of what we maintain,” says Lawrence. “When you count the research center with its construction date of 1915 or so, you have nearly a hundred-and-twenty-five years of architecture represented by the buildings that we occupy. We view that as a pretty big deal. So the buildings themselves, the containers, if you will, are a big emphasis of ours, too.”
“And part of our mission is our devotion to the French Quarter and its architectural preservation,” adds Priscilla Lawrence. She is also proud of The Collection’s planned new property holdings. An addition to the Williams Research Center is scheduled to open this spring. A four-story, 40,000-square-foot facility is being constructed, its façade on Conti Street a replica of a hotel which occupied the site in the 1820s. “The ground floor of the building will be a multi-purpose facility for exhibitions, lectures, and our educational programs, which are a very strong part of our outreach,” she says.
In the next five years, exhibition space will be increased even more, says Priscilla Lawrence, announcing an exciting addition, “We now own the old WDSU building across the street, at 520 Royal Street. Our vision is for it to be a public gallery and visitor space, a place for displaying Louisiana art. We’re renovating it so that beautiful courtyard and interior can be enjoyed by the public.
“It’s got an incredible history and is probably the quintessential French Quarter courtyard. We have many images of it from other eras—postcard images, photographs, prints and drawings.”
Generations of New Orleanians probably remember that courtyard as the setting for much of Channel 6’s live programming, such as “Midday,” hosted by Terry Flettrich.
“That courtyard seemed to define the French Quarter courtyard to people from outside of the city...there were others, too, but that courtyard, whether artist’s renderings of it or on postcard images, you would just see it everywhere,” adds John Lawrence.
The Scholarly Side
“At this time I think our mission is very critical,” says Williams Research Center director Alfred E. Lemmon. “People think of an archive as just something old and dusty, but that’s pretty far from reality. We’re a foundation for the future.”
The Williams Research Center is the scholarly side of The Collection. Housed at 410 Chartres Street, in a separate building from the museum (next to K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen and across from the Supreme Court building), it is The Collection’s archive where the rare and important holdings are available for public access. “We’re basically a service industry, hopefully service with a smile,” Lemmon says.
First-time researchers visiting the Williams Research Center are encouraged to have specific objectives in mind. There’s no real browsing the archival materials—the center’s reading room staff is there to help the researcher determine which books and papers might be relevant to the topics of interest and then to retrieve the materials for study.
It helps to organize all your information beforehand; this will make your time at The Collection more efficient. Confirm names and dates. List sources you have already consulted and those that look promising. It’s also good to make a telephone call or send letter to the center in advance of your visit. It often enables staff members at the research center to locate material before you arrive.
For more information about The Historic New Orleans Collection, please visit www.hnoc.org, or call (504) 523-4662.
French paintings of women come to NOMA
Beginning March 4, “Femme, femme, femme: Paintings of Women in French Society from Daumier to Picasso from the Museums of France” will be on view at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
“This exhibition is a landmark gift from the French to both the New Orleans Museum of Art and the city,” says E. John Bullard, director of NOMA, “I’m overwhelmed by their generosity. It’s an expression of great confidence in the city by the 45 museums which are sending these works here.”
The 83 featured paintings will be shown in five sections. The beginning, “The Ages of Life—Joys and Sorrows,” explores the family lives of women from birth to death. “Women at Work” includes rural scenes of women in the fields during harvest time and women at work in the city, including Manet’s classic, “Beer Waitress.” Degas’ “Dancer’s on Stage” is also presented here; the ballet is depicted as more of a working-class profession than a diversion for the upper classes.
“Women in Action” focuses on the evolving position of women in the public arena, whether as a courtesan, socialite or businesswoman—women who influenced events through their physical relationship with men. Gerveux’s image of the popular courtesan Lucie Delabigne, called Madame Valtesse de la Bigne, appears here.
“Women at Leisure” depicts activities enjoyed by women of various social classes. Taking advantage of social freedom in Paris, glamorous women met for tea in fashionable pastry shops or mingled at street fairs. Picasso’s “The Bathers,” from 1918, captures the spirited freedom of the seaside with women dancing on the beach in the latest fashionable and revealing bathing attire.
The final section, “Women in Modern Life,” illustrates the emerging independence of modern women. At this time, women began driving their own cars and lawn tennis gained rapid popularity. New fashions, necessitated by new activities, particularly sports, can be seen in the works of Renoir and Bonnard. “Femme, femme, femme…” reminds viewers that as the 20th century dawned these were revolutionary acts.
For more information about the New Orleans Museum of Art, visit www.noma.org, or call (504) 658-4100.
One aspect of French culture influences us daily in Louisiana—our appreciation of the importance of a good meal. “We don’t eat to live, we live to eat” is a slogan as true in France as in Louisiana. Although what we cook around here is not “French food,” words such as étoufée, roux and andouille are (or should be) in our everyday culinary vocabulary.
The Collection’s latest exhibit, “What’s Cooking in New Orleans?: Culinary Traditions of the Crescent City” traces the unique and colorful art of Creole cooking. On display at the Royal Street gallery until July 7, the exhibit showcases the art of cooking and eating in New Orleans. Cookbooks on display include a copy of one of the first published in New Orleans, “La Petite Cuisinière Habile,” from 1840.
The exhibit also examines an institution with roots in France that has faded from everyday New Orleans life, the public market. The French Market is the last market standing, although several dotted the city until the latter part of the 20th century. Markets once standing around town in Treme, St. Claude, Dryades and Uptown served to anchor commercial districts whose storefronts remain, although the original market structures are long gone.
A trip to the public market is still a daily tradition in Paris, a trip which an American couple who lived there for 30 years enjoyed making. Ray Baker grew up in South Carolina and went to work in France in the early 1960s. He and his wife, Karen, lived in the heart of Paris in the 7th Arrondissement, the district containing the Eiffel Tower, for the last 15 years of his career.
“It was like a little village inside a big city, with the community centered about the local market,” Ray remembers, much like the French Quarter, which the Bakers have called home since 1996.
Of the many things about living in the French Quarter that remind the Bakers of Paris, New Orleans’ cuisine was a big factor in deciding to retire in their own home on Royal Street. “The food here is just as good as you’ll find in Paris,” Karen says. They do find the French Quarter unique, though, as Ray is fond of observing, “There’s nothing like it in the known galaxy.”
French cultural aid to Louisiana post-Katrina and Rita
During the past year, and as a result of the November 2005 visit to New Orleans of the French Minister of Culture and Communication, France has been involved in the launching of an ambitious cultural cooperation with New Orleans.
The cultural initiatives complement those taken in the field of education by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Agency for the Teaching of French Abroad.
Some of the projects are:
1. The important French exhibitions in New Orleans at the New Orleans Museum of Art and The Historic New Orleans Collection.
2. FACE, the French-American Cultural Exchange based in New York, established a relief fund for educational projects, including grants to several area schools and special grants to:
• The New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.
• The United Houma Indian Nation for resources
related to the teaching of French to the Houma
• For development of a Resource Center at
Louisiana State University.
• The Alliance Française of Lafayette.
3. Grants and aid for revitalization of the area’s music industry. Projects include:
• Musicians’ residencies in Paris.
• Support for the musicians’ participation
in French festivals.
4. Aid from France in the preservation and restoration of historically significant structures.
5. Aid to New Orleans institutions of higher learning.
6. The donation of thousands of books to schools with French immersion programs.
7. Donations from individual French cities and community organizations for projects, including the New Orleans Musician’s Clinic.
The original document detailing the initiatives is available on the French ambassador’s website at: