Sunday, March 18, 2018

Josef Salazar y Mendoza: Portraits of Spanish Colonial New Orleans at the Ogden Museum

This city has always been complicated. Even the parts of its history that once seemed straightforward often spiral off in odd directions on close examination. Josef de Salazar y Mendoza's portraits of local socialites and grandees of all stripes reflect Spain's cultural values during the latter 18th century when New Orleans was a Spanish colony, but the Ogden's biographical text panels reveal all sorts of odd quirks and surprises.

Although his painting style was classically Spanish, Salazar was from  Merida, in Mexico's Mayan Yucatan province, and his sitters were a similarly diverse lot. A Spanish colonial attorney general, Antonio Mendez, left, was a native of Havana, Cuba, the Spanish Caribbean capital that governed New Orleans like a distant suburb. In his portrait, he appears to be interacting with his quietly animated children as his intently focused features suggest someone used to facing unpredictable events with a stoic, if wary, resolve.

Several of the figures on view provide us with faces to go with familiar local street names. Salazar's  portrait of philanthropist Don Andres Almonester reveals an imposing figure whose misspelled name now graces a local avenue, and Joseph Montegut's intriguing family portrait, above, reveals the prominent surgeon who was the namesake of a trendy Faubourg Marigny street. William Kenner looks every inch the proper Anglo-American planter that he was, but his wife, Mary Minor Kenner, conveys a European aura appropriate to the daughter of Louisiana's last Spanish governor. Ultimately, it was New Orleans' international and often exotic citizenry that made it such a rich milieu for portrait painters and nowhere is that more evident than in Salazar's portrait of Marianne Celeste Dragon, top, a Creole of French and Greek ancestry whose aristocratic demeanor epitomized the social mutability of this city's relatively large and affluent mixed race community. Swathed in fashionable blue silk and pearls, she lives on as a kind of Louisiana Mona Lisa – mysterious not for her coyness, but because she appears so completely at ease with who she was -- in a place and time unlike any other. ~Bookhardt / Portraits of Influence in Spanish New Orleans, 1785-1802: Paintings by Josef de Salazar y Mendoza, Through Sept. 2, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9600.