In the early summer of 1817, a group of French settlers arrived in the wilderness of what would become southwest Alabama. They were Bonapartist exiles- among them Napoloeon’s foremost generals and aristocrats, forced to leave France after his final defeat. Where the Black Warrior and Tombigbee rivers meet, they founded the town of Demopolis, but their efforts to cultivate a ‘vine and olive colony’ there were doomed from the start.
I read this story (for it feels like a folktale) nearly thirty years ago, soon after leaving art school in London. I decided to visit what might be left of this history. I worked odd jobs until I had saved up enough money. I flew to New York, visited the New York Public Library, then headed south to the Library of Congress. I had no idea what I was doing. I carried a vintage leather suitcase that weighed about twenty pounds empty, and a few paints and writing supplies. I suppose I was playing the role of a novelist. My father was a writer of historical fiction, and my adventure was a happy attempt to follow in his footsteps. I finally reached Demopolis. Almost nothing remained of the Werner Herzog-like story I had imagined: a few place names- Arcola, Marengo, a hair comb.
After a few years, the French settlers were able to return to France, or at least vacated to the comparative civilization of Mobile or New Orleans. My own trip from Europe to the South has lasted much longer than those three months I planned at the very beginning of my career.
“The vision of satin-clad ladies and blue-uniformed soldiers all happily tending their grape vines and olive trees is indeed an exotic conjuration. But unfortunately it is only that..” (‘Days of Exile’ Winston Smith 1967).
I didn’t get too far into my novel before I foundered, as my dad never had, on the expanse of research that felt necessary, and the less and less romantic details of historical reality. Only late this summer, decades later, did it occur to me that I should paint the story instead. Or rather the symbolic figure of one settler- Madame Raoul, the Marchioness de Sinabaldi. And it was important for me to paint the myth more than anything- how I imagined, how I dreamed of her story as an immigrant in the New World.
Colonel Nicholas Raoul had led the vanguard upon Napoleon’s return from Elba. His wife, the marchioness, was Italian, and had formerly served as maid of honor to Queen Caroline of Naples.
‘Their grant lay just north of French Creek, on the road from Demopolis to Arcola. There they lived in great poverty, and Madame Raoul, to eke out their scanty fare, would make ginger cakes (…) It would seem that the lady was very much of a songstress, for passers-by would often remark upon the beautiful arias coming from her cabin or the surrounding forest‘ (Letter of Jesse G. Whitfield to Cadet Francois Lefebvre Desnouettes, March 28, 1944)
‘Colonel Raoul…kept a ferry. Whenever her husband was absent she would take charge of the boat and pole it across, to bring travelers over. She was very beautiful and extremely jealous of her husband. It was told of her that when she heard the owls hooting at night she imagined she head someone calling “Raoul, Raoul.” ‘ (Memoir of Mrs. Sylvanie Bayol, Montgomery Advertiser, 1905)
The final catalyst for the series was bamboo. In a great stand of river cane that Finn and I explored in Cherokee, NC, I saw what would tie all the paintings together- the green walls of cane as a relentless, self-repairing cage around our songstress. The French settlers had to contend with Arundinaria gigantea, a native bamboo that choked great parts of Alabama at that time, and has now almost vanished.
I do less and less studies. Aside from finding they drain the energy of surprise from the final work, I feel the earliest ideas should be fully explored, as though they might be conclusive. By committing to a larger canvas, one is bound to see decisions through. Early choices still have a validity, a truth of their own that can be lost. It’s easy to lose interest in, or paint over, a sketch, less so a good-sized canvas. These first paintings explore two differing avenues.
The chances are, as in fiction writing, that I will find the final voice-the painterly approach-for this narrative series some ‘chapters’ in, but I’m happy to give full emphasis to the journey. I’m intrigued as to how this series will evolve, both in images and stylistically. I see the Marchioness in triumph and despair, pining to return home, finally sad to leave her exile.
‘II me semble que je rêve; car la vie est un songe un peu moins inconstant’
‘For life is a dream, but somewhat less changeable.’