The Zigler Art Museum’s collection chronicles the development of visual art in Louisiana. Focusing on work of the nineteenth through twenty-first centuries, the museum’s fine and decorative arts embody Louisiana’s history and culture, while placing this local art within the global scene. This context provides an appropriate backdrop for the museum’s focus on emerging Louisiana artists.
Below are some highlights from the collection. Click on each image to view it larger, and to learn more.
In John James Audubon’s work, art and science meet. As an ornithologist (scientist who studies birds), Audubon trekked through the American wilderness, sketching life-sized drawings of birds for accuracy. He collected specimens along the way to ensure the accuracy of each bird’s depicted natural habitat.
Audubon created his ornithological studies with unprecedented artistry. He presented each bird within a fully rendered landscape, with as much attention to its texture, color and light as to the accurate depiction of the birds themselves. Often including a bit of natural drama in the background, each composition is as much a work of art as a scientific study.
A dedicated explorer, Audubon created life-sized watercolors of 435 bird species, 25 of which he identified for the first time. Together, these watercolors were used to create his multi-volume folio, Birds of America, a facsimile of which is in the Zigler Art Museum’s Permanent Collection.
Charles Sprague Pearce’s The Little Mother is a favorite among museum visitors. It is steeped in open-ended narrative, allowing for multiple interpretations. The cropped interior scene creates an immediacy that draws viewers in. The girl’s direct, imploring gaze seems to beckon. Originally titled Baby and Sister, the painting might depict a young girl who is helping her mother by minding her younger sibling. Her relaxed, seated position may be one of repose, as she pauses to rest from her duties.
Her position could also convey exhaustion, and the cropped view could communicate feelings of entrapment. This analysis emerges if we consider the high death rates among women during and after childbirth throughout the nineteenth century. In this interpretation, we see a motherless girl who, at a young age, had to assume the responsibilities of a mother. Although she looks like a child, her role is quite different. The only visual escape from her maternal duties is to the kitchen, where more work awaits. The white bedding and illuminated cradle emphasize the sleeping infant’s innocence. They stand in sharp contrast to the older sister’s hands and feet, which are dirtied by work.
Helen Turner painted Morning, one of the museum’s most iconic paintings, at the height of her artistic career. She was well-networked and exhibited extensively in her own time. She spent her summers at Cragsmoor, an artist colony in New York that still exists today. There she painted Morning on the porch of her beloved home, Takusan.
While most artists at Cragsmoor turned their eye toward the area’s natural beauty, Turner drew inspiration from her home and its surrounding gardens. Morning is emblematic of Turner’s oeuvre; she most often painted figures within landscapes or interiors.
Turner’s paintings embody Impressionism, in both subject and style. American Impressionists frequently painted women in gardens or on porches. Turner’s use of color and light to capture a scene at a particular moment in time also characterizes the movement.
Ellsworth Woodward was a Southern Impressionist painter. Like other Impressionists in Europe and America, he focused on capturing a fleeting moment and the play of light over forms, more than the forms themselves. However, in Untitled Landscape, the distinctly southern scene defines a distinctly southern style.
Woodward believed strongly in the value of art in the South, and he wrote:
If the observer keeps steadily in view the fact that art is not a commodity, but a vehicle of expression intended to convey what goes on in the mind of the artist reacting to life, he cannot fail to be impressed with recent Southern work. There is in this work a lessening volume of traditional, sentimental, and tritely objective painting, and a growing volume of adventurous struggle toward the expression of ideas and the interpretation of nature and life.
As head of the art department at Newcomb College, Woodward established Newcomb Pottery in 1894. The program was conceived to provide female students with a professional opportunity in addition to teaching, and the pottery became a widely recognized and valued body of work. Newcomb Pottery was exhibited internationally and written about frequently, and it remained in production for nearly 50 years. The Zigler Art Museum owns one example of Newcomb Pottery.
A native of Lafayette, LA, William Tolliver was a self-taught artist. He was an avid reader and claimed to have read nearly 4,000 books, mainly about art. This broad influence is evident in his body of work, which combines elements of multiple artistic styles. His landscapes capture the play of light and painterly brushstrokes of the Impressionists. His figures are fragmented in a Cubist fashion. His emotive use of line and color evokes Expressionism.
Tolliver’s art honors black history through recollecting personal experience.
I love my work and I have worked very hard to portray African-Americans with pride and dignity. My goal is to bring to the forefront the seriousness of art as a part of a person’s heritage. I want my art to serve as a history lesson.
Rick Olivier’s portraits of Zydeco Musicians illustrate the book Zydeco!. This history of Cajun and Creole music and culture shares the stories of its key musicians. Olivier and author Ben Samdel visited musician’s homes, popular Zydeco night clubs, and dance halls. There they interviewed, photographed, and seemingly befriended the musicians. Zydeco! is a combination of scholarly history, personal commentary, and photo documentary of the genre.
Both the interviews and the photographs are strikingly candid, as the musicians speak openly and pose, perform, or simply relax in their familiar settings. The portraits, most of which include the musician’s instrument, present musician and music as inextricably united. Together, the photographs and stories capture the joy of Zydeco, which, as Ben Samdel writes, “… rivals oil as Louisiana’s most potent source of energy.”
As head of the art department at Newcomb College, Ellsworth Woodward established Newcomb Pottery in 1894. The program was conceived to provide female students with a professional opportunity in addition to teaching, and it became a widely recognized and valued body of work. Newcomb Pottery was exhibited internationally and written about frequently, and it remained in production for nearly 50 years.
Since preparing and turning the clay was considered inappropriate work for women, a professional potter was employed for these tasks. The students’ artistry was in the selection of pottery shapes and decoration. To create consistency, parameters existed for the pottery’s décor; decorations were based on familiar, local flora and fauna, and pottery shapes were traditional. Within these guidelines, individual styles emerged, and the artist’s name is incised in each piece.
Irvine was perhaps the best-known designer of Newcomb Pottery. She maintained a close relationship with Newcomb College throughout her life, first as a student, and then as a teacher. Woodward was her mentor and guide.
Born in Russia, Helen Gerardia immigrated to New York City sometime during the first half of the twentieth century. She was a first grade teacher, began creating art as a second career, and was very successful during her lifetime.
A modernist in both style and subject, Gerardia’s art focused on the changing face of the modern world:
I have always been interested in the play of light and its effects on form and color. Another quality of light, the prismatic breaking up of color, has always fascinated me. I felt that by placing my color in broken areas I could… approximate the movement of atmosphere and the divisibility of color.
… Now my aim in painting is to use this technique which I have developed for the expression of contemporary subjects such as buildings, bridges, and the new horizons of outer space.
Often referred to as the “Doyenne of Louisiana Sculpture,” Angela Gregory was a WPA (Works Progress Administration)-era artist who was nationally recognized in her own time. Her success as a woman in what was traditionally a man’s field, as well as her use of representational images during a time when most artists were moving toward abstraction, set her apart. ZAM owns several plaster maquettes for her limestone sculptures.
Gregory won several commissions for public sculptures early in her career. Her first major commission was for the Criminal Courts building in New Orleans, and it included this stylized representation of Liberty.
Gregory was known to research her subjects extensively before beginning to sculpt them. Perhaps this breadth of knowledge partly explains the approachable familiarity of her works; rather than distant and cold, the historical and allegorical figures might be described as immediate and amicable.
In 1985, she wrote, “In my portrait busts and monuments, I have attempted to maintain a strong tectonic quality while being primarily interested in portraying the sensitive, subtle quality of the individual.”
Louisiana landscapes were one of Drysdale’s preferred subjects. In an attempt to economize, the artist diluted his paint with kerosene, before applying it with a cotton ball. This process led to the hazy, dreamlike quality that is characteristic of Drysdale’s work.
Hunter was a self-taught artist, having found inspiration while working as a servant at Melrose Plantation. She created her first painting using a set of paints and a brush left behind by a visiting artist. Many visitors to Melrose, which eventually became an artist colony, encouraged and supported her in her artmaking. Hunter’s most frequently painted subjects were people at work and play, often strong African American women. She painted on virtually anything, from paper, to bottles, to an ironing board. Although she never learned to read or write, she developed a strong visual language that earned her recognition during her lifetime.
Heldner lived in New Orleans from the 1920s-40s. His Impressionist paintings set the stage for modern interpretations of the Louisiana landscape. In addition to his picturesque views of nature, he was the first artist to paint social realist scenes from the French Quarter.