A Meal with Toussaint L’Ouverture

Possibly by the Sables Pottery (Medford, Massachusetts), Pitcher, ca. 1840-50. Stoneware with “Rockingham” style glaze. Chipstone Foundation.

It’s been an exciting few weeks for us at the Chipstone Foundation. First, I’d like to introduce Kate Smith, the newest member of the Chipstone team (welcome Kate!), who’s come all the way from England to study our collection.

A couple of weeks ago, we attended and participated in the American Ceramic Circle conference hosted at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Some of the highlights were: Luke Beckerdite’s (curator of Art in Clay) interesting talk on North Carolina earthenware; Rob Hunter’s (editor of Ceramics in America) entertaining and funny lecture on his top ten discoveries published in Ceramics in America; Mel Buchanan’s (Milwaukee Art Museum, assistant curator of 20th c. design) insight into Grete Marks’ ceramics; Ethan Lasser’s (Chipstone curator) new and innovative forms of curating; and Jon Prown (Chipstone’s director) lecture about a Toussaint L’Ouverture pitcher.

You might remember this particular pitcher. It was recently part of an installation in which it sat between a classical bust and a Michelle Erickson piece. A screen beneath the installation asked the visitor to enter a word to describe all three works. This word was then projected on the Word Cloud above it. Before this installation, it was exhibited in a show here at the Milwaukee Art Museum titled About Face: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the African American Image.

Toussaint L’Ouverture was a former Haitian slave who led a slave revolt against the French and became Assistant Governor and Commander-in-Chief of the island. He has been described as a powerful, manly, and benevolent person who dressed in military-style attire. The pitcher in Chipstone’s collection was made in Medford around 1840 to 1850 and portrays a racialized portrait of the Haitian general Toussaint L’Ouverture, based on a racist print of the same man.

Nicolas Eustache Maurin, Toussaint L’Ouverture, from Iconographie des Contemporains, Paris, 1832. Lithograph. (Courtesy, Print & Picture Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia.)

He is shown with his military hat, as well as with an exaggerated nose, lips, and ears, giving the portrait a monkey-like appearance. Many images of Toussaint were published in the nineteenth century. Some portrayed him as a heroic figure dressed in military garb, while others, such as the print that served as inspiration for this pitcher, demonize the leader by emphasizing stereotypical racist attributes. Toussaint’s story troubled both slave owners and abolitionists alike as they envisioned a slave revolt in the United States that would overthrow the white population.

Listening to Jon Prown’s talk at the symposium, I kept wondering why, if people at this time feared a man such as Toussaint, they would create a pitcher, even a racialized and maybe racist pitcher, of the leader. What message did it send to have his image sitting at your table? Since the pitcher held liquids that were consumed during meals, was it a way to have the former slave keep on serving? Was it to serve as a reminder or warning of what could happen? Was it some sort of violent act in which Toussaint’s head was in effect chopped off? Or was it to praise the Haitian general, since this was at a time when abolitionists used ceramics to further their cause?

What do you think? The Toussaint L’Ouverture pitcher is back on view in the Decorative Arts Galleries on the Lower Level at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Claudia Mooney works for Chipstone, the Milwaukee-based foundation dedicated to promoting American decorative arts scholarship. She researches objects and creates relevant programming for Chipstone’s exhibitions at the Milwaukee Art Museum and in the community.
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3 Responses to A Meal with Toussaint L’Ouverture

  1. twf says:

    Of historical interest — You can see a clip of Toussaint’s last moments in prison from the award-winning new short film “The Last Days of Toussaint L’Ouverture” at http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2468184/ This film is the basis for a new feature (not with Danny Glover) that is in development.

  2. Claudia Mooney says:

    Great! Thanks Martha!

  3. Pingback: Objects in Focus | Milwaukee Art Museum Blog

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