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  • CLAUDE LOUIS DESRAIS (1748 – 1815)







    [Study for the Engraving of 1802]

    Titled in pencil l.m., inscribed verso par Desrais

    Pen & ink with grey wash & traces of yellow-brown wash on laid paper

    22.2 x 29.2 cm



    Engraved: Toussaint Louverture Chef des Noirs Insurgés de Saint Domingue, Paris (1802) [anonymously]



    Private Collection, U.S.A.



    This work, sold by the Nonesuch Gallery to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York in 2022, is arguably the most important artistic work relating to the history of Haiti to have come to light in recent years. It is also an especially valuable document in the broader scope of Black history, particularly for a figure whose true historical importance has only recently become the subject of academic reassessment. This is one of the very first depictions by a Western artist of Toussaint Louverture, one of the Western hemisphere’s first and best-known Black political figures. Moreover, the discovery of this drawing and its authorship sheds new light on what has hitherto been a mystery for art historians.


    We are indebted to Professor David Geggus for his invaluable assistance in cataloguing this work, and for allowing us to reproduce in part some of his previously published material. Professor Geggus has written extensively on Toussaint Louverture, including for the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, where he published The Changing Faces of Toussaint Louverture, which provides a definitive account of Louverture’s literary and pictorial depictions.



    Louverture’s elusive character is mirrored in the variety and diversity of the painted, drawn, and engraved depictions of him. His actual, precise physiognomy is not known: the various accounts from those who saw and met him differ somewhat, though we know that he had lost his upper front teeth during combat. The majority of the pictures of Toussaint published in his lifetime or in the immediate aftermath of his demise were by people who had not seen him, with at least two rushed out to coincide with publications that mentioned him and bearing little similarity to other depictions. David Geggus noted on that occasion, “none resembles the undated and anonymous equestrian print – which we now know derives from the present drawing - that was published under the title Toussaint Louverture, Chef des Noirs Insurgés de Saint Domingue” [1].




    Contemporary portraits of Louverture include John Kay’s 1802 rear-view profile, which cleverly avoids guessing his appearance, and another printed portrait that is fairly blatant French pro-government propaganda, to judge from both its title (Se vend au Cap, meaning ‘for sale at the Cape’, a reference to Louverture’s changing allegiances) and its depiction of Toussaint wearing creole earrings - a highly unlikely sartorial choice for a leading general in the Revolutionary forces. Marcus Rainford’s 1805 portrait, which (somewhat confusingly) shows Toussaint wearing an apparently British uniform, has a claim to authenticity, as Rainsford states that he not only met Toussaint, but that the illustrations in his Historical Account of the Black Empire of Hayti (London, 1805) were based on sketches that he had made himself at that time.


    The most frequently reproduced depiction of Toussaint is the lithography by Nicolas Maurin, published in Paris in 1832. Although considered by some modern commentators to be a racist caricature, Geggus points out that it “was supposedly based on a picture (since lost) that Toussaint himself had presented to the colonial official Roume Saint-Laurent in 1801” [2]. Denis Volozan’s impressive equestrian portrait, reminiscent of David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps (the prints of which were widespread across the French empire), shows Toussaint with similar facial features to Maurin’s portrait. It is possible that Volozan had visited Haiti during its revolution, but it is equally possible that he saw the portrait that was supposedly given by Toussaint to Saint-Laurent in 1801, when the latter passed through Philadelphia later that year.


    The “most important recent development in this area” [3] was the 1989 discovery of a full-length portrait of Toussaint, despondent, bare-headed and wearing a uniform shorn of its epaulettes. This portrait is by Pierre-Charles Bacquoy, a prominent Parisian engraver, which Jacques De Cauna believes was drawn from life in July 1802 and shows Louverture’s arrival in France – however, the background is more tropical than French, and there is no explanation as to how an artist gained access to a high-profile and secured political prisoner who was held in isolation.


    • Notes

      [1] David Geggus, 'Iconography', from The Changing Faces of Toussaint Louverture), [Last accessed 29/08/22]

      [2] Ibid.

      [3] Ibid.

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