Tennessee Williams described New Orleans as "the last frontier of Bohemia" back in 1939, an appellation that lives on today. At what point did a city that began as a French military outpost end up as a laissez-faire hothouse of the beaux arts? Probably the die was cast early on, in 1699, when Iberville dubbed his encampment on the banks of the Mississippi downriver from here Point du Mardi Gras, but its fate was sealed a century later when the arts elite from the wealthy French Caribbean colony of Saint Domingue pulled up stakes and moved en masse to Havana and New Orleans as refugees from a violent revolution. As the 19th century progressed, the city became a magnet for international artists ranging from the Saint Domingue-born wildlife painter, John James Audubon, to the French-African photographer, Jules Lion.
This survey of work from the New Orleans Arts & Crafts Club during its 30-year reign -- a collaborative effort of the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Historic New Orleans Collection -- offers an unusual look into the city's creative life between 1922 and 1951. Located in a succession of French Quarter buildings, it provided a forum for artists and a place where cross-disciplinary ferment could occur. It was actually a successor to the art leagues that appeared in 19th century New Orleans under the auspices of artists such as Richard Clague. Educated at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, where he had been commissioned by Emperor Napoleon III to document the origins of the Nile, Clague was an influential Louisiana landscape painter, and the Arts & Crafts Club built on the active salon tradition that he and his peers had established decades earlier.
The work on the walls is a mixed bag that ranges from somewhat spectacular to modestly intriguing. Perhaps more important than the merits of any one piece is the sense of a cohesive subculture that they cumulatively convey. For instance, Conrad Albrizio's circa 1935 portrait of Cecilia Seixas, a local painter of genre scenes, is remarkable for its suggestion that, whatever her gifts as an artist, her real talent might have been her electric style and presence. Remembered today for his public murals, Albrizio reveals in this work a bravura flair for mood and figuration. Very different but equally fascinating is Woodson "Pops" Whitesell's 1930s portrait of author Sherwood Anderson. A French Quarter resident at the time, Anderson was a major influence on William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, and here Whitesell evokes something of his thoughtful gravitas.
The roster of the Arts & Crafts Club read like a family album of New Orleans art from the first half of the 20th century. Their familiarity may have receded over time, but to understand these artists is to understand everything that has happened since. Take the curious case of Jane Smith, a one-time Newcomb student and wife of influential New Orleans painter Paul Ninas. Best remembered today as the spouse of her second husband, legendary American photographer Walker Evans, Jane Smith was very much in the mold of the Newcomb school, and her stylized graphics with their repeating art deco forms can be read as precursors to the work of later local imagists such as painter Robert Gordy. A Newcomb school student more famous in her own right, is Carolyn Durieux. A former protŽgŽ of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Durieux is considered a forerunner of the Visionary Imagists who rose to prominence in Louisiana in the latter 20th century. A variety of intriguing works by legendary local artists such as Enrique Alferez, Charles Reinike, Weeks Hall, Paul Ninas, John McCrady, Knute Heldner, Leonard Fletterich, Xavier Gonzales, Alberta Kinsey, Josephine Crawford and Will Henry Stevens among others, conveys a sense of a vibrant and broadly based urban art scene. And if the notion of artists as urban pioneers sounds like a relatively recent phenomenon, think again, because that very concept was the main reason why the Arts & Craft's Club was located where it was. Newcomb's Ellsworth Woodward had advocated for years that artists be the vanguard for the revitalization of the French Quarter, viewed as a slum a century ago. In retrospect, they appear to have succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.