The Marchioness returns to the Canebrakes (Part Two)

During my scouting visit to Demopolis, I purchased a large new history of the Vine and Olive Colony by French historian, Eric Saugera. My knowledge of Madame Raoul, the Marchioness de Sinibaldi, had been gleaned from a few lines in Winston Smith’s history, “Days of Exile’. Now I learned more. To begin with, she had arrived in the canebrakes not as General Raoul’s wife, but as his mistress.

Teresa Alvora Giannini was born in 1783, in Genoa, Italy. The two children she brought with her to America were from her former marriage to Geronimo Nicolas Sinibaldi. She would not marry Raoul until the winter of 1824, after they had sold their 120 acre allotment and finally abandoned Demopolis. The wedding took place in the port city of Mobile, as the family waited on a passage to South America. She would follow Raoul first to Colombia, then Guatemala.

Guatemala City in 1824

I discovered that the story Winston Smith recounted of Teresa’s jealousy- she believed the owls along the Tombigbee were trespassing women, calling her husband’s name, “Raoul, Raoul” to tempt him away from her – may well have been justified. Her marriage to the General did not last. He divorced her and would marry twice more. In 1833, on his return to Paris, he wrote to his old commander, Marshal Soult, now the war minister, “After seventeen years of an exile that was always vigorous and sometimes cruel, I saw the birth of the fine day on which I could rest on the hope of once again serving France..” There was no such return for Teresa Giannini. She would end her days in Guatemala City.

I had no idea! Poor Teresa. But of course I was surprised- as I described previously, I had rushed into this series of paintings with almost no research. Smith’s brief portrayal of a Napoleonic aristocrat exiled to a life in the wilderness had been more than enough to inspire image after image. Now this news of the rest of her life arrived like some shocking letter, full of revelations and gossip, exposing a far more complicated history.

Looking further into the Marchioness’ ancestry, I discovered that she had her portrait painted in Guatemala by the celebrated miniaturist, Francisco Cabrera. The tiny likeness had traveled to Yale in 1966 as part of an exhibit on South American painting. I tracked down a copy of the catalogue, but there was no image of the work. I decided to create what I couldn’t find. I searched for some tiny frames and painted several miniatures of Teresa to accompany the large canvases to be shown at Lyon Hall.

Self portrait by Francisco Cabrera

As an exhibit, it’s an unusual series: part-symbolist, part historical painting. I think Sidney Nolan’s work must be an influence. He adopted a modernist approach to re-telling Australia’s past, and the result is certainly not traditional history painting. I loved his take on Ned Kelly, and particularly the story of Mrs. Fraser and the escaped convict, Bracefell.

As with the ballad series, I began the paintings suppressing stylistic innovation, but intent on letting not just the subject matter but also the style evolve. If there’s a formula to creating something unique, it might be to start with something very personal, and then embark on a years long discourse with, and adjustment of, that vision. The resulting paintings are likely to be as surprising to the artist as the twists and turns discovered by the author who lets a novel take its own path.

‘Il me semble que je rêve’ (The Marchioness dreams of escape) 2017

The Demopolis series follows literature in another aspect. Unlike most history painting, the focus here is on a minor, almost incidental character rather than a celebrated figure. Nonetheless, I’m trying to give Madame Raoul the gravitas of an important symbol. She represents the end of an Empire. Lost in the wilderness of the New World, she brings with her Rousseau’s utopian idealization of nature. Faced with the real thing, she wavers between despair and resolve.

The fact that the Marchioness is hardly a secondary, let alone a primary, player in Napoleonic history has also made her very real to me- hence my delight at learning more about her life. Working with Amy as a model and dress designer; painting the miniatures; imagining a dreaming Madame Raoul in 1817, or as a ghost floating over Demopolis in 2017, all of this has brought this character to life.

The completed dress and a lute made from a gourd.

When the show was all hung at Lyon Hall, I walked from room to room, and wondered how Teresa Alvora Giannini felt to be back in Demopolis. Her time as a colonist had not been easy. Don’t worry, I reassured her, it’s just for three days, then we’re headed back to the mountains. How the hell, I imagined her replying, did they get rid of the bamboo?