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Michel-Jean Cabazon’s bi-centenary celebration

Michel-Jean Cazabon (1813-2013)


A celebration of the bi-centenary of the birth of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago’s most famous 19th century painter


Lawrence Scott reading at Belmont’

Lawrence Scott reading at Belmont’

Michel-Jean Cabazon’s bi-centenary celebration took place in an idyllic setting: the audience, around 100 aficionados of the artist’s oeuvre, sat under an elegant marquee set in the walled garden of Belmont House, one of the Georgian architectural jewels of Kent, the Garden of England, on 6 July 2013, an exquisite English summer day.

The story began with Michel-Jean Cazabon’s grandfather, Dominique Cazabon, who left Bordeaux for Martinique in the 1720s and was appointed Administrator of the Communal Purse in 1787. He was openly liberal – a characteristic ill-viewed in the then morbidly racialist society he lived in – and, naturally, he bore the brunt of it in his career path.’ Through a union with a black woman he fathered three children, Francois – father of Michel-Jean…’[1] The ‘free coloureds’, Francois and his wife emigrated to Trinidad through the ‘Cedula de Poblacion’ scheme[2] and prospered, owning 33 slaves on their sugar plantation, Corynth in the South of the island. English-educated, Michel-Jean attended the Ecole des Beaux-arts in Paris where he studied under Paul Delaroche and became versed in the painting techniques of the day. There too he became acquainted with the media in vogue including oils, watercolour, egg tempera, crayon, charcoal and graphite as well as photography, both an artistic medium per se and an aid to the painter’s brush. A successful artist, Michel-Jean exhibited at the ‘Salon du Louvre’ in 1839 and again from 1843 till 1847, a remarkable achievement, for a free-coloured man, in a 19th-century global colonial order. Throughout that period, he mingled with the artist community, becoming familiar with, among others, the work of then avant-garde landscape artists such as Theodore Rousseau, Jean-Francois Millet, Jules Dupre, Camille Corot and L’Ecole de Barbizon to which he is often linked.  He knew of course the works of the great English landscape masters, like Constable and Turner, from his earlier education at St Edmund’s college in Hertfordshire.

The idea of a celebration of the bi-centenary of his birth, first launched by Lawrence Scott, the novelist[3] , was readily endorsed by Geoffrey MacLean[4], the Trinidad and Tobago High Commission in London, and the Belmont House Trust. On the day, four spokesmen, Lord Colgrain, Belmont house Trustee, His Excellency Garvin Nicholas, High Commissioner for the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, MacLean and Scott, took turn to lift the veil on the ebb and flow in the life and fortunes of the 19th century ‘Afro-Caribbean’[5] artist who lived and painted in an age when that compound adjective, referring to ports of call in the triangular slave trade, had yet to be coined.

Lord Colgrain, Belmont House Trustee, welcomed the assembly, highlighting why it was fitting for the 19th century ‘free coloured’ Trinidadian artist to be honoured in that quintessentially English keep, distinguished by the successive Lord Harris who served the British Empire as soldiers and colonial governors, and renowned for its collection of 350 clocks, unequalled in any other English country house.

In the late 1840s Cazabon returned to his homeland and set up a studio as a Landscape Artist and Arts teacher in Port-of-Spain, taking commission from, and teaching members of the white and free-coloured gentry. There in the time of Emancipation, Cazabon the artist – like Renaissance artists and thereafter whose livelihood and success depended on the patronage of the powerful – benefited from the patronage of the then governor, George Francis Roberts, 3rd Lord Harris. That connection obviously helped him attract other rich patrons for whom he produced many of his celebrated albums. When Lord Harris left Trinidad to take up his appointment to the new governance of Madras – a change devastating for Cazabon’s societal status and earning power – he took away his significant collection of oils and water colours back to Belmont House, his family seat in Kent. Thereafter, most of the Cazabon collection laid in storage until the passing of the 6th Lord Harris who died without an heir in 1995. Belmont House then became a private charity trust, ‘The Harris Belmont Charity’.  Shortly afterwards, Geoffrey Maclean’s investigative research, with the assistance of Margaret Woodall, Belmont house archivist, led to the discovery of the hidden treasure of Cazabon’s paintings.

His Excellency, The High commissioner of Trinidad and Tobago praised the Cazabon legacy and stressed the significance of Trinidad’s first famous painter in our liberal 21st century contemporary world. According to him, Cazabon had indeed used his talent and place on the social ladder – with all the convolutions this entailed – to freeze in time his country’s complex societal development: post emancipation, still under colonial rule and much before independence. His singularity resided first in his social status, a ‘free-coloured’ – with the advantages and the discomfort which that in-between status entailed. But in addition he was an artist, a painter, a pursuit then considered worthless – pandering to the whim of the privileged classes only – in a profoundly divided society where the majority was still fighting for human dignity and freedom. However, it should be considered that Cazabon, having married a French woman and achieved some success in European artistic circles, could have settled comfortably in Europe, away from painful controversy. But, it seems that drawn irresistibly to his homeland, he chose to return to Trinidad and paint his landscapes there, bamboos rather than weeping willows, with furtive black forms hiding in the shadows, weaving a better tomorrow.

Michel - Jean Cazabon 'French Negress in gala dress'

Michel – Jean Cazabon
‘French Negress in gala dress’

Geoffrey Maclean concurred with the previous speakers on Cazabon’s exceptional stature. Writer, curator, conservationist and leading authority on Michel-Jean Cazabon, Maclean published inter-alia: The Illustrated Biography of Michel-Jean Cazabon; Cazabon: Views of Trinidad from Drawings by MJ Cazabon, 1851, an album of lithographs and, Cazabon: the Harris Collection. Interestingly these books were gifted to the next speaker by his mother, the catalyst which enticed the novelist to try to discover the man behind the paintings. Maclean was also the orchestrator of the 1991 exhibition in Martinique of Cazabon’s works from the Aquarela Galery of Trinidad, with emphasis on his French period; in the 1860s when he lived and worked rue Longchamps in St Pierre. Maclean went on reviewing the key periods of the artist life which honed his talent as the first international ‘Afro-Caribbean’ landscape painter. In an impassioned tone, he thanked Margaret Woodhall, the archivist for her support in the first phase of the re-discovery of the great artist, and hinted at a desirable second phase which he envisaged as an exhibition of the Belmont House Cazabon collection in Trinidad, where the paintings and watercolours had been created.

Lawrence Scott spoke last. One of the main themes of his book: Light Falling on Bamboo, concerns the relationship between artist and patron, a close one as they could converse as near equal by education and worldliness. But naturally a set of rules applied, codifying the relationship between aristocrat patrons, admirers and purveyors of art, with talented artists; this was further complicated by the colour factor. Scott read the passage (page 370), towards the end of his novel which announced the parting of the ways for Lord Harris and Cazabon. It alluded to the power of patrons over artists, even if a kinship has developed. It also laid bare the insidiousness of colonial racism which pervaded the societal fabric. Cazabon was a ‘free coloured’ which set him in that middle ground between blacks and whites and, according to much historical recording, in much of  the Caribbean and Latin America,  hated by both, lower and upper societal groupings, during these tumultuous years. Lafcadio Hearn who, as obvious to any reader of his iconic ‘travelogue’, ‘Two Years in the French West Indies’,  fell under the spell of Martinique, in particular Saint Pierre, and its multi-hued people, had no equivocation on that subject:

‘Between the black and mixed peoples, prevail hatreds more enduring and more intense than any race prejudices between whites and freedmen in the past; […] ‘[6]

Indeed, while Cazabon in Trinidad might have felt an oneness with nature, bestowing careful and loving attention to details in his beautiful landscapes, he could not unlearn his place in the social order and had painted for Lord Harris various ethnographic recordings of racial types such as Negroes, Negresses, Mulattoes, Quarterons, and Coolies…Etc.  [7]Thus, the artist objectified his country folk at his patron’s behest.

And yet according to Scott, he knew well, having learned them, his patron’s ‘sensibilities’:

 ‘ the man who would under no circumstances allow the coloureds representation on his councils, would not even trust blacks to be competent gardeners, no matter how he saw reform, and yet he had drawn him, Michel-Jean, into intimate confidences by way of his work with the paintings he had done for him.’ (Scott P370)

Cabazon therefore endured a cruel form of retribution when, after the departure of Lord Harris the ‘free-coloured’ society artist became, for all, whatever their rank on the social ladder, an object of disdain on account of his societal, ethnic and professional status. This was when he moved to Saint-Pierre, Martinique, in 1862. But there too, in the ‘Paris des Antilles’, he found a society also riddled by class and colour discrimination, in which he was a stranger: free-coloured, Trinidadian and artist, considered then a vain pursuit. Cazabon returned home in 1870, a disillusioned man.

Nevertheless, he continued to paint beautiful landscapes, winning a gold medal at the London Colonial and Indian Exhibition in 1886, with two major pieces; Bamboos at Dry River and Bamboos at St Ann’s. Professor Cudjoe’s wistfully remarked, in his review of Scott’s book, implying that the painter steadfastly followed his path, regardless.

‘Cazabon was relentless. He painted his island as he saw it. The bamboo clumps in his island possessed as much aesthetic beauty as the Gothic arches at Chartres, considered the finest example of Gothic architecture. Cazabon boasted in his drunken stupor: « Like they think them is the only ones with Gothic arches. They ent know the beauty of bamboo. This is our Chartres. » As the narrator acknowledged, « He [Cazabon] knew that there was a connection between what he was doing, what he had been doing all these years and how people lived. It was something that grew out of his mother’s ideal of a republic of free people. » He only wanted to paint his way to freedom.’ [8]

After the talk, we all went inside Belmont House to view the beautiful landscapes and some ethnographic portrayals of island beauties. That made me, reflect once more on the conundrum faced by this 19th century artist born in a slave-owning free-coloured family, educated at the very centre of world art, returning to his homeland, benefitting from the patronage of a colonial Lord and Governor for a while, then losing it, finding no solace in Martinique, his fatherland, thus retreating to Trinidad for the last chapter of his life, and painting till the end, despite all the bitterness, bewilderment and disillusionment which had accumulated.  Cazabon must have brooded about his legacy and wondered whether it would be somewhat problematic.

The 19th century artist could not escape the rules of his colour-coded society. And it would take more than 50 years after Cazabon’s death, in the dying throes of colonialism, for Aime Cesaire (the centenary of whose birth is currently honoured in Martinique and France) and Leopold Sedar Senghor to launch the Negritude movement. Negritude, despite its subsequent detractors, heralded a new chapter in its time, providing a formidable intellectual weapon against racism and alienation seeded by slavery, and fostered by colonialism. Undeniably, the message had to be blunt and uncompromising, when first launched, since it had to address not only the entrenched Caucasian delusion in intrinsic superiority, but also its Mulatto-bourgeois alter ego in the Caribbean.

Cazabon’s time and world was much akin to contemporary Matthew Arnold’s:

‘darkling plain,

 Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night[9].

The artist, whose life spanned the 19th century, was a lonely figure, an accomplished artist – who learned his trade in a different world from the one he belonged to – isolated amidst Trinidad’s divided society, then hostile to artists and their ‘useless’ images. Cazabon could not relate to any peer artist or school, among the non-whites. In his isolation, he could fight neither his caste nor his time, single-handedly; hence he battled the only way he knew, with his paint and brushes, staying put in his beloved homeland, Trinidad.

In a previous article I quote Jerry Philogene’s reference to ‘dispersed’ Caribbean artists in the Diaspora, as living in endezo  – a Haitian Creole word, meaning “to live between two waters” – that “in-between” space, the hyphen, the space of negotiation’.[10]    I argue that Cazabon was engulfed in his personal endezo, a for-ever shifting space of negotiation between the Caribbean and Europe, between black and white, right and wrong, which he addressed by living, painting and dying in Trinidad.

Eliane Mackintosh

PhD Candidate Birkbeck College (UCL)

Art Historian (AICA/SC)

19 July 2013

[1] Conseil Regional de La Martinique Ambassade de France a Trinidad et Tobago : Cazabon, Martinique-Trinidad, un héritage commun – Exposition, du 7 au 15 Mars 1991– Editions L’Harmattan – Diffusion-

[2] The ‘Cedula de Poblacion’ scheme was initiated by the Spanish Governor of Trinidad in early 19th century to attract white and free-coloured settlers from the French Antilles to Trinidad – with the gift of land – to develop Trinidad through farming.

[3] Award winning novelist and short-story writer; publications include: Aelred’s Sin (1998) awarded Commonwealth writer’s prize, Best Book in Canada and the Caribbean, 1999; Night Calypso (2004), short-listed for a Commonwealth Writer’s prize, Best Book Award, long listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary award (2006), and translated into French as Calypso de Nuit (2005). His latest novel, fictionalising the life of Michel-Jean Cazabon (who left no personal written record on his life), albeit based on a meticulous historical research, Light Falling on Bamboo, was first published in 2012.

[4] Writer, Curator, Gallery owner, Conservationist and leading authority on Michel Cazabon; author of many books on the artist (as mentioned in the text), including: Cazabon: the Harris Collection. Maclean also authored many historical surveys of art in Trinidad and Tobago, in various books and catalogues.

[5] Used by one or more speakers, when referring to Cazabon

[6] Hearn Lafcadio – Two years in the French West Indies – p73; Signal Books, Oxford , 2000 (first published in 1890)

[7] The most extensive catalogue of these melanges, represented with suitable skin hues and in their presumed societal station, is contained in around ten Plates of castes of the New-Spain by Jose de Paez (end of the 18th century) and exhibited in 2000 at the Petit Palais in Paris as part of the Soleils Mexicains Exhibition.

[8] Cudjoe S R : Michel-Jean Cazabon: The Making of A West Indian Artist: Story created: Jan 11, 2013 at 11:38 PM ECT

[9] Arnold M: Poems, Dover Beach (1867) p 226, Dent: London Everyman’s Library, 1974.

[10] Jerry Philogene, ‘Belonging to in-between’ ,The Caribbean Review of books, 25.1 (2011)  (accessed 17 August 2011)


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