Prince Murat, as longtime Baton Rougeans will tell you, was once a hotel on Nicholson Drive. But, and this might be news to many, he was a real person, and the West Baton Rouge Museum has proof.
The prince’s portrait hangs in the museum’s exhibit, “The Portrait, the Artist, and the Patron: 19th Century Portraiture in Louisiana.” The show runs through Jan. 17 and offers as many stories about the artists as it does about those on the canvases.
“The concept behind this show is to look at the 19th century through portraiture,” museum director Julie Rose says. “It speaks well to our museum’s new vision — the West Baton Rouge Museum, where history has a name.”
And the story behind the prince is much a part of Louisiana history.
Shortly after pronouncing himself emperor of France, Napoleon created the noble family House of Murat for his brother-in-law, Joachim Murat. Joachim served as king of Naples under Napoleon, and his oldest son, Prince Achille Murat, eventually moved to the United States, where he served as mayor of Tallahassee, Florida.
He and his wife, Catherine, also lived in New Orleans but moved back to Tallahassee, where the prince died at age 46.
It’s said that at one point the prince and his family leased Magnolia Mound Plantation on Nicholson Drive, which is not far from where the luxurious inn once stood. Author Harnett T. Kane writes about it in his 1946 book, “Plantation Parade.”
“Prince Murat’s portrait is on loan from a private collection,” says registrar Lauren Hawthorne, who helped curate the show with museum curator Angelique Bergeron and guest curator Claudia Kheel.
Bergeron gathered the pieces, which also were loaned by The Historic New Orleans Collection, the Louisiana State Museum and the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum in Lafayette.
The portraits hang in a chronological timeline to illustrate the evolution of how artists depicted Louisiana personalities in the 19th century. The signatures at the bottoms of the paintings include the names of American and European artists, such as Thomas Sully, Matthew Harris Jouett, Adolph Rinck and Jules Lion, a free person of color.
“Louisiana’s statehood was established in the 19th century, and there was great wealth in the sugar and cotton industries,” Hawthorne says. “In keeping with the European industry, the wealthy class wanted portraits of themselves and their families.”
Young French and American artists traveled to New Orleans in the early 1800s to take advantage of the region’s growing wealth, many receiving commissions from the wealthy planter class.
This is where the patron factored into the equation — he or she chose the artist and influenced how the subject was portrayed. For example, jewelry, high fashion and fine wardrobe signified a patron’s wealth, while books or reading glasses were signs of education.
But the artists, fascinated by Creole culture, also used their talents other subjects.
One such example can be found in the portrait, “Woman in a Tignon.” She clearly is not a member of the wealthy class, yet the artist couldn’t resist her exoticism.
This portrait, according to legend, is of New Orleans voodoo queen Marie Laveau. “There’s even a story of how this painting was so haunting that its eyes were removed,” Hawthorne says.
The voodoo queen and the prince are joined by other noted Louisiana personalities, such as Julien Poydras, the French American merchant, planter, financier, poet and educator who served as the state Senate’s first president; New Orleans banker and state Treasurer Francois Gardere; and Pere Antoine de Sedella, a priest at New Orleans’ St. Louis Cathedral who is said to have baptized Marie Laveau and many of her children.
With the 1839 introduction of Louis Daguerre’s breakthrough photographic method, portraits became available to the middle classes and to rural residents.
Photography from the 19th century is also included in this exhibit. These portraits emulated the style and composition of the earlier painted portraits, and became increasingly important to families with the outbreak of the American Civil War.