Famous Families

Lethiere
by Mario Valdes

Guillaume Guillon LethiereIn 1980, an unsigned painting acquired by the Rhode Island School of Design a few years earlier, was identified as the work of the once-popular French artist, Guillaume Guillon Lethiere who was born in 1760. Although such attributions are rarely newsworthy, what should have made this one more interesting to us as Americans than even the French themselves is information concerning Lethiere's ancestry that has only recently come to light.

Like Alexandre Dumas, the author of Man In The Iron Mask, Lethiere was a man of color. (I am hoping that the presence of this painting in Rhode Island will prove providential. For, RISD was founded by Providence's art community to celebrate the prize which one of their members - the African American Edward Bannister - won for landscape painting at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876.)

Biographical material on Lethiere always mention he was the illegitimate son of a colonial official from the French West Indian island of Guadalupe. However, it was not until 1977, in a five-volume work on Ingres (who had been a student of his) that Lethiere's mother was described as a mulatto. Judging from the portraits Ingres did of him, however, she was probably more Caucasian - no doubt, a quadroon like so many of the mixed blood women of the French colonies whether here in New Orleans or des Antilles, whose sway over their white masters had almost become legendary by the end of the 18th century.

On the other hand, it is quite possible that, even if she were as black as claimed, he simply did not inherit any of his mother's African features - except the curliness of his hair and perhaps a shorter distance between eye and brow than is usually perceptible in white males. One reason why he was not brought to the attention of the African American community two decades ago is more than likely due to the fact that the biography of Ingres by Hans Naef in which this information appears was published in German.

What makes Lethiere so relevant to us in this still racially-troubled society of ours today is the fact that - as easy as it would have been for him to pass for white - he never did. Even the style of painting which he so tenaciously adhered to was proof of his lifelong commitment to social and racial justice. Now referred to as Neo-classical, it was a school of painting which, through its illustration of the Roman histories, attempted to create politically-loaded allegories on the subject of civil and national duties. From about the time of Lethiere's arrival in France in 1774, artists had begun to uses this idiom to propagandize ideas growing around the concept of democracy which would eventually break out as the French Revolution.

Coincidentally, the painting in RISD's possession was Lethiere's submission to the Salon of 1785 - one of the most important showings in the history of Western art since it was on this occasion that David exhibited his Oath of the Horatii. Critics at the time were stunned by its political power and to this day scholars, whether in the humanities or the social sciences, point to this event as the beginning of the Revolution. What makes the relationship between the two pictures of Lethiere and David even tighter is their subject matter. Indeed, the fact that they are both illustrations of the same story became an important clue in the dating of Lethiere's work since it was the interpretation of this tragedy, taken from the Roman author, Livy, which had been prescribed by the Academie for that year. The scene Lethiere painted shows the death of Camille at the hands of her own brother, one of the Horatii. She had fallen in love with an enemy of the state who was soon slain in battle. On her brother's triumphant return from the war, her hysterical reaction proved too much for him and he dispatched her with his sword. Perhaps indicative of both their personal and professional relationship even then, David's masterpiece represents the opening of the drama which Lethiere so gruesomely ends.

According to his contemporaries, Lethier not only became the first to take up this risky and overtly polemical style of David's, even more significant is that he began openly competing with David over techniques in composition, color, etc. with which to stretch to their very limits the Revolutionary rhetoric they were interpreting. The violence of the scenes he depicted and the highly emotional expressiveness with which he rendered the characters involved became a hallmark of his oeuvre. Even though the critics later tried to dissuade him of such mannerisms, he held steadfastly to a credo that the voice of the artist, in contrast to those of falsehood, corruption and oppression is marked by its immoderation. As the social historian, Thomas Crow, explains, "By the standards of society, [the intellectual's] discourse may be awkward, over-direct, embarrassingly impassioned, but these qualities are themselves the sign of the truth of his words."

Despite or, perhaps, precisely because of the "embarrassingly impassioned" dedication with which he attacked his canvases, Lethiere, like his rival, David, became an official propagandist for the Revolution. Hardly a dozen years ago, another work which had also just been reattributed to him was hailed as the chef-d'oeuvre of the Museum of the French Revolution. Entitled The Homeland in Danger, it was painted to help institute a conscription system adopted by the Council of Five Hundred to protect the country from the armies of the Second Coalition that had begun threatening its borders in the spring of 1799. A reviewer of the Salon for that year wrote:

It is large, this canvass: full of verve and effect...In the center, the elite of the French youth breathe the fire of combat and their mood anticipates victory. Victory is writ large on their generous faces and their forceful aspects. The magistrate has not said more than one word: Remember, you have the honour of being French. Enflamed and beautiful with the virtue and the passion for liberty, the women love these heroes. The young men receive their kisses and embraces; they vanquish...The action of those who bear arms is energetic and truthful! It is faith that gives them title to love and glory, the two passions that are truly French.

The intensity of Lethiere's political conviction in all probability stemmed from his racially mixed heritage. To someone like himself, all the rhetoric regarding Liberte, Egalite and Fraternite would have been that much more urgent. In 1777, only three years after his arrival in France, a royal edict charged

"...we are now informed that the number of blacks in France has multiplied too much for the facilitation of commerce between America and France, that arriving daily from the colonies are proportionately too many men needed there to work the land, that at the same time, their sojourn here in the towns of our kingdom, especially in the capital, embues them with a spirit of independence and insubordination making them more nuisances than useful on their return to the colonies"

It was consequently ordered that French ports would thenceforth be closed to the entry of Negroes, mulattos, and other people of colour. Persons attempting to bring anyone of this racially proscribed group into the country would be fined. A year later an act followed forbidding marriage between whites and blacks. Any notary writing either a licensee or a contract for such a marriage would be subject to a fine and the parties entering into such a marriage would be expelled to the colonies. Just how seriously these regulations were enforced is not too clear. Racial feelings of this kind appear to have been limited to French West Indian planters and their friends among the aristocracy and the upper bourgeoisie. Furthermore, the abolition of slavery and the slave trade was, from the middle of the century, as important as any of the popular movements leading up to the revolution. No research has yet been done to make an assessment of Lethiere's reaction to such laws. The only indication we have for the time being is his life-long dedication, both as an artist and as a teacher, to the political tenets of Neo-classicism.

During the French Revolution, Negroes and mulattos figured prominently as group. Among them were representatives of the black population des Antilles to the parliamentary bodies in Paris. At the outset of the Revolution, the whites from the colonies sent only their own representatives. This led to a letter of protest to the National Assembly in 1789, in which certain mulattos who designated themselves, "Commissioners and Deputies of the coloured citizens of the French Isles and Colonies," demanded that the Negroes and mulattos of Santo Domingo, Martinique and Guadeloupe be represented as well as whites. In a subsequent speech he delivered to the Assembly on behalf of the gens de couleur libre in Santo Domingo to which he belonged, Julien Raimond, a noted lawyer practicing in Paris even offered six million livres as security for the national debt if the government complied. C. L. R. James has noted that considering how wealthy this class had become by then, this was no idle proposition. However, due to the machinations of the Colonial Committee which, as its name indicates, was controlled by the white planters, it took five years before the black delegates were seated. On February 4th, 1794, the abolition of slavery throughout French possessions was declared and in his reception of the new members to the Convention, the president kissed each of them on both cheeks. Whether just a coincidence or not, it is interesting that five of the seven representatives welcomed that day were sent to the Council of Five Hundred, the same legislative body for whom he painted The Homeland in Danger in 1799.

The almost messianic role David played in French art did not completely eclipse Lethier's output or his career. From the press his critics gave him it is quite clear that he was respected as a worthy runner-up, if not a potential competitor, of the older man. In 1784, the year before the David's monumental achievement, for instance, Lethiere had placed second in the Prix de Rome and in 1786, the year after, the Academie declared that even though he had not succeeded in winning one, he deserved a pension and granted him a scholarship to study in Rome. Besides taking care of his expenses, even more importantly, this award (which David had also been given a dozen years earlier) guaranteed the recipient lucrative commissions on his return to France.

Who or what his sources were Lethiere did not say, but the following by T. Oriol from his Hommes Celebres de Guadalupe gives us some idea not only of his career as a teacher but as a competitor of David's.

"Between Lethiere's students and those of David's, what started off as courteous rivalry, little by little, became pronounced to the point of becoming violent opposition. The first were among the revolutionary in the matter of art. The second exaggerated the classicism of their master. With them, the purity of style was reduced to artistic poverty; the search for absolute equilibrium reduced to a mirror like symmetry. And as youth tend to exteriorise their sentiment and ideas, they expressed through their clothes, their mannerisms and their language, a glacial dignity and haughtiness which was strange to see in their young ways and candid faces. It goes without saying that Lethiere's students adopted exactly opposite ways. In their studios there was more of a tendency to attack a canvases than to hold a seance over it. Warriors, a bit intimidating, they roamed the streets, unshaven, making fun of David and heedless of what anyone thought of them...the artistic and literary public was itself divided into two camps: one, partisans of the School of Lethiere, the other, faithful admirerers of David."

It would seem that in the Bonaparte family, sides had been taken as well. For when Napoleon came to power he kept David on as the state's adjudicator of the arts while his brother, Lucien, took Lethiere into his patronage. As artistic advisor to Lucien Bonaparte, Lethiere collected a great many of the Spanish paintings in the Louvre today. No doubt the high point of his career, however, were the years he spent as Director of the Academie de France in Rome. Even how this came about should serve as a measure of the tendresse the country as a whole evidently felt for him. Because of some remark or other made about his mustache by one of a group of officers in the Imperial army trying to strike up a conversation with him in a cafe, the hot-tempered Lethiere who had no sympathy for Napolon's ambitions started a fight in which one of the men was killed and another wounded. Instead of being tried for a capital offense, the government ordered his studio closed. With no other options available to him, Lethiere and his family were forced to traipse through Europe like gypsies until, thanks to the intervention of his patron, Lucien Bonaparte, he was appointed to this rather prestigious position.

Until we learn a bit more of this man's personal history, the only instance that has been suggested of any racial prejudice he might have experienced was the incident in which his election to the Institute was vetoed by Louis XVIII. But even this slight could simply have been due to his politics. His probably rather rude reactions to the loss of his post in Rome at the restoration of the monarchy in 1814, a not surprising result of his staunch republicanism, had in all likelihood made the rounds at Versailles. Whatever the cause of the king's initial antipathy to Letheire, he finally gave in to the wishes of the Institute a couple of years later and not only confirmed the artist's election to that august body but assented to his induction as a Knight of the Legion of Honour, as well.

Although it would by no means prove whether or not the contretemps between the King and Lethiere had in any way been a racial one, it should nevertheless be pointed out that another Chevalier Noire originally from Guadeloupe had been appointed head of the Paris Opera by Louis XV. Much darker than the painter, the Chevalier de St. Georges, a very gifted composer and all around athlete popular at court during the Ancien Regime, declined the King's invitation on overhearing that one of the sopranos was "disinclined to be directed by a mulatto."

How the king's initial decision might later have been interpreted as racist can probably be traced back to another crisis Lethiere had to deal with during this particular period of his life. From a report in the Gazette de France dated February 28th, 1819, which Hans Naef reprinted in his biographical chapter on Lethiere, we learn that a distant relative had, over a number of years, been attempting to challenge the rights to the estate the artist had inherited from his father, Pierre Guillon. It is neither his illegitimacy or the race of his mother, Marie-Francoise Pepaye, that was at issue. Although both these points are made in the dossier, the issue being debated before the court was the date of his birth. If, as his cousin, M. Delpeyron, insisted, Lethier had been born in 1765, three years after Guillon's marriage, then he was the child of an adulterous liaison and as such could not be officially recognized by his father. What this apparently meant, could Depeyron prove it, was that according to French law, Lethiere would not have been entitled to his patrimony. As the Gazette triumphantly reported, however, the court ruled in favour of Lethiere and later that year he was further rewarded for his contribution to his country with a tenured professorship at the Ecole des Beaux Arts.

Of the little that is known concerning this French master, the most overtly racial episode in his long career is the one revolving around a painting he executed about ten years before his death and which has only recently come to light. Long believed lost in a fire that had ravaged the Cathedral of Haiti where it hung, the badly damaged piece was discovered in 1991. Thanks to the initiative of the Association des Amis de Lethiere, a cultural organization set up in Guadeloupe in 1988 by Genevieve Capy and G. Florent Labelle, it has been restored under the Direction des Musees de France. Entitled the Oath of the Ancestors, the canvas measuring 333 x 225 cm. represents the two principal artisans of the Haitian independence, the Generals Petion and Dessalines, swearing their united opposition to slavery and their defense of the Haitian constitution. Considering that the very light skinned Petion was from the same privileged class of mulatto elites as his mother had been and one which until the French Revolution had itself proved so viciously antagonistic to the demands of the blacker segments of the population, this painting can probably be read as an apologia by Lethiere on behalf of those who, like himself, were of racially mixed background. As has been pointed out by the curators at the Louvre where this work was on display in February and March 1998, this is the only painting on which the artist affixed the words ne a la Guadeloupe to his signature.

Lethiere's Son Besides Lethiere's submission to the Salon of 1785, three other pieces have turned up in New England which are an important part of this man's story since they are portraits of himself and his family. In 1966, Harvard University's Fogg museum acquired a profile in pencil of Lethiere by Ingres. The Fogg also owns a seated portrait of Lethiere's wife in the same medium and by the same artist. Back in 1959, the MFA had already picked up a drawing, also by Ingres, of the artist's son Alexandre, his wife, Rosina and their daughter, Letizia. These had all been done by Ingres while he was a pensioner of Lethier's at the Academy's Villa Medici in Rome. Even though he was not yet born to have figured as the child in the MFA's group portrait as had originally been presumed, it should be mentioned that like his grandfather, Alexandre's son, Charles, was also knighted. In a citation that would have made his West Indian ancestor's heart burst with pride, the journal, Le Siecle, not known for exaggeration or religious sentiments, wrote:

Lethiere's Grandson

"A distinguished homeopathic doctor, Doctor Lethier, prodigious in his indefatigable activity and the most laudable selflessness, has for more than fifteen years, administered to the needs of the most indigent among the sick. Informed of his devotion and his perseverance, the Holy See of Rome has bestowed on Doctor Lethier, the Cross of the Knights of Saint Gregory the Great. This award is certainly well deserved."

Indeed, in a tribute to Doctor Lethiere published by another of the journals that reported this award, his grandfather was not only commemorated for his talent as an artist but, even more importantly, given the context in which he was referred to, Guillaume Guillon, dit Le Thiers, was honoured as a man who had "distinguished himself for his private virtues."

Mario de Valdes y Cocom Copyright 1998

discussions | blurred racial lines | audio stories | june's family tree | bi-racial portraits | how to search family trees | readings | reactions

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

RECENT STORIES

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS