It’s December in Paris, and the temperature is 0º C., and there are leaden skies. Our windows on the rue Saint-Paul overlook other residences, and it’s very tempting to stay inside in this warm and well-lit place. But there’s much to see and do if one ventures into the overcast metropolis. Just a few blocks from here is the Place des Vosges, where at No. 6 you can find the house where Victor Hugo lived from 1832 to 1846. Don’t worry, Victor Hugo is not a Vidaud (as far as we know), but he was a collaborator of sorts, perhaps even a friend, of Julien-Michel Gué, who was in turn one of the siblings of Anne-Julienne Tardy, our founding Cuban Gaul. As the faithful reader may recall, the young woman found herself in Philadelphia after the violent death of her father the architect, and there she married her first husband, Anthony Tardet de Larochell, also known as (we think) Julien Tardy. By 1800 they were — or at least she was — in Santiago de Cuba, where their daughter, Anne-Joséphine Tardy, was born. We don’t know when or where, but Anne-Julienne, presumably now a widow, eventually married François Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, No. 7, and one of their children, Adolphe, is the man from whom we descend… As for Anne-Joséphine, she will marry another Vidaud — Pierre, son of Pierre, No. 10, and one of their children will be Étienne Vidaud of Brooklyn — but that’s another story.
The sky is gray, but it may well the Blogger prefers it that way. Melancholy days are perfect for invoking the past. It’s 1795 once again and Anne-Julienne is in Philadelphia, but her siblings, who have presumably escaped Saint-Domingue with her after the upheavals, are not staying in the Americas for long. I imagine them saying good-bye to their sister, as they’re about to cross the Atlantic for the first time; born in the colony, they’re “returning” to France. Records show most of them settled in Bordeaux. The oldest of the eight children is Pierre Gué and by the turn of the nineteenth century, in the relative safety of a French provincial city, he will draft an account of his father’s death in far-away Saint-Domingue. He will eventually become Directeur des Diligences nationales in Bordeaux. For lovers of locomotion like me, the image of the nineteenth-century stagecoach is altogether romantic; think of Emma Bovary and her various transports…
The youngest of the Gué children is Julien-Michel. Born in 1789, ten years after Anne-Julienne and Pierre, he boasts a richer digital afterlife than any of his siblings. He became a painter of some renown, if not superb talent, and one can find online images of his works — oil paintings, watercolors, prints — housed in various French museums and, from time to time, up for auction in various European cities. A student of David, he went to Italy as a young man and won the Second Prix de Rome in 1815 for his very classical, though not charmless, depiction of The Death of Patroclus, seen here and now housed at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux. I don’t know how he met Victor Hugo, but, as it turns out, the young author asked the artist to travel with him to the Swiss Alps in the summer of 1825. The project was intended as a collaboration between Hugo and three other writers, with images by Julien-Michel and other artists, to be titled “Voyage poétique et pittoresque au Mont Blanc et à la vallée de Chamouny.” Alphonse de Lamartine, for one, withdrew from the project, and it took various other forms. But Julien-Michel remained in touch with Hugo at least through 1840. In a letter dated 6 October 1840, Léopoldine Hugo, the daughter who would tragically drown three years later, writes a letter to her “cher petit papa” in which she mentions in passing that “Mr Gué est parti hier avec sa famille.” Were the Gués on friendly terms with the Hugos? What a small capital, Paris in the nineteenth century! The artist is a distant relative — my fourth great-grand-uncle? — but I like the idea that Julien-Michel Gué, by then a Romantic, would drop by 6 Place des Vosges — or was Léopoldine’s letter written somewhere else? — apparently to visit the great Hugo.
I will return to Julien-Michel — to his career as a set designer in Paris, and to his artistic relatives, other spectral ancestors of sorts. But let’s travel “back” to the Caribbean island where the Gué siblings were born, and let’s do so by venturing into the French capital. As it happens, the Grand Palais, just a few Métro stops away, is currently presenting a fabulous show on two-hundred years of Haitian art — incredibly, the first of its kind in Paris, ever. Also at the Grand Palais is a Hokusai show, and the lines to get into that wing of the building are long; the Japanese master is indeed a great artist, and his exoticism is arguably gentle and kind. By contrast, you can buy tickets to the Haiti show without any waiting in line (and even buy two tickets for the price of one since last Saturday), but there you’ll be exposed to a visual culture far less pretty than any of the thirty-six views of Mt. Fuji. Bernard Séjourné’s delicate La Missive depicts a young girl reading a letter — an image as lovely as anything by a Dutch old master — but Dubreus Lherisson’s Sans titre, crâne humain is indeed made of a sequin-covered human skull — the real thing. In his outstanding study of France and the triangular slave trade, Christopher L. Miller discusses the French oblivion of their old prosperous colony of Saint-Domingue after it became Haiti, the first black republic. Unlike Liverpool, the French ports of Bordeaux and Nantes have been slow to acknowledge that much of their prosperity stemmed from the inhuman practice of slavery. Is that attitude still at work in the relative lack of interest in the show? It must be said (“il faut le dire,” “hay que decirlo”) that there were plenty of French people from various ethnicities wandering through the galleries, and the gift shop contained a fabulous selection of Haitian literature — yet nothing approaching the Hokusai fever next door.
But what about Julien-Michel Gué himself, a French subject and painter, a recipient of the Légion d’honneur? Did he remember Saint-Domingue at all, or had he completely put everything related to the country now named Haiti out of mind? Did he preserve any visual images of the land in his mind? A far better artist than Gué, Camille Pissaro, also born in the Caribbean — in Charlotte-Amalie, St. Thomas, when the U.S. Virgin Islands were still the Danish West Indies — left an œuvre in which Europe, especially Paris, prevails; only his very earliest works depict his own tropical part of the world. And Gué, unlike Pissarro, was just a child when his family left for Bordeaux. It’s really no surprise, then, that his eyes should have been full of classical images or romantic scenes, like the little watercolor shown here, auctioned not long ago, I think, in Hannover, Germany. They sold it under the title “Romantische Landschaft,” but I, using my Cuban and/or American eyes, would simply have called it a European landscape, a sweet misty scene such as I will perhaps dream of when I’m back “home” in Los Angeles tomorrow. Did Gué miss his native island as he toiled in the grandeur that was Rome and climbed the sublime Alps with Victor Hugo? Maybe; and maybe we’ll found out more if we keep searching.