How do we read a picture of a landscape? We may start by scanning it for natural boundaries or changes in terrain. In Claude-Joseph Vernet‘s The Shipwreck (1772), the first distinctions we might make are among the treacherous waves of the sea, the stony shoreline in the foreground, and the skyline of a sprawling metropolis. Next, we might consider the picture’s elements. We note the capsized ship, the ominous storm clouds, and the diminutive figures dwarfed by the expansive environment. Considering not just text, but historical context too, we may place this single moment into a larger historical narrative pertaining to sea travel and think about the role ships played in European trade, exploration, and slavery. Another approach would be to research the commissioning of the work and look for effects of the mediated relationships between artist and patron. Together, these features tell a story about the past.
But what happens if the picture is not entirely accurate? What if it conveys a partially fictitious or overly romanticized story about people and the landscape? Notably, Vernet was known for painting imagined landscape scenes that merely were inspired by the actual Italian coast. As specific as this painting may appear with its meticulous details (right down to the Dutch flag), it documents a scene that blurs the distinction between an actual place and one in Vernet’s mind. A setting sun that casts a dim spotlight on the overturned ship and sea foam that embraces the depicted figures underscores the composition’s fantastical tone. How do we use a picture to tell a story about human contact with a foreign environment when we can’t trust accuracy of the canvas?
To answer this question, consider Francois Joseph Kinsoen‘s portrait of Charles Victor Emmanuel Leclerc. We can employ it to tell stories about French culture, colonial history, and the Caribbean environment. But to do so, we must acknowledge that perception plays a fundamental role in storytelling. Contemporary and historical interpretations of the colonial intertwine to create new environmental stories. Kinsoen’s portrait reveals to us how perception has shaped and continues to shape our understanding of the colonial Caribbean landscape.
Painted in 1804, the portrait features Napoleon Bonaparte‘s military general in Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti). A shiny belt, luminescent sash, and glistening pants render Leclerc with a sense of authoritative masculinity. Mounted soldiers battle underneath his arm, and mountain peaks stand below his hat. The vegetation around his boots appears tamed, and the shadow created by his silhouette darkens the hues of the terrain. His body bifurcates the composition as he points towards an unknown destination beyond the edge of the canvas.
It is striking that the portrait depicts the landscape as controlled, regulated, organized. Leclerc’s body conforms to the landscape he occupies, and the landscape appears to conform to the body. This orderly formal arrangement mirrors the goals of the French imperial project in the eighteenth-century Caribbean. How we perceive the composition’s arrangement grounds the way in which stories about French colonial history and the environment is integral to the study of this portrait.
Long before Kinsoen, artists had been using compositional perspective as a tool to connote imperial authority over the landscape. A 1667 engraving by Jean Baptiste Du Tertre demonstrates the relationship between disciplined ordering and the environment. The picture centers on a plantation overseer who is distinguished by his light skin and extravagant costume. Connoting authority over the slaves and the landscape, his elevation fosters an omniscient point of view. The plateau on which he stands helps the artist mark a division of slave labor. On one side, indigo is grown; on the other, it is refined. The plateau creates a division also between the manicured land in the foreground and the uncultivated hills in the background. This arrangement of compositional elements manifest the seventeenth-century colonizer’s desire to subdue people and tame landscapes. Further bolstered by how the spectator is stationed on the same plateau as the overseer, this composition establishes an intimate relationship between spectator and content because he or she is instructed to visually organize the represented space and distinguish the different types of labor.
Of all the elements in Kinsoen’s portrait, visual culture theorists might be most fascinated by Leclerc’s arm. Similar to the earlier engraving, the arm also delineates a clear arrangement of space that instructs the spectator about how to perceive the painting. The right angle it cuts when raised away from his body creates a frame—a painting within the painting, a story within the story. The Haitian Revolution plays out in both paintings or stories. Napoleon Bonaparte had sent Leclerc (both fought in the French Revolution) to Saint-Domingue to reassert French power over the island after its antislavery and anticolonial insurgents drafted their own constitution in 1801. But Leclerc largely failed to forge stability and restore colonial authority. Ultimately, what had begun as a “crusade of civilized people of the West against the black barbarism that was on the rise in America” ended in 1804 with Leclerc’s military beset by yellow fever and forced out by local resistance.
As art historian and Lacanian theorist Kaja Silverman suggests, history becomes part of the image as spectators perceive the depicted content. This history occupies an unstable and potentially even volatile space between the perceiving subject and the represented subject. The historical can be thought of as a screen through which we apprehend painted forms and represented space. Leclerc makes direct eye contact with the spectator, attempting to pull attention toward him and his biography. However, all the action in the portrait is beneath his arm, where blurry bodies engage in combat. Cast in shadow and fragments and riddled with ambiguity, this battle undermines the stable and almost still relationship between Leclerc and the landscape. Perception of the composition’s forms and its formal arrangement becomes entangled with its historical occasion.
Kinsoen’s portrait demonstrates Napoleon’s desire to stabilize Saint-Domingue more than it represents a “real” moment.
That landscape, like Leclerc, has a history. But it is a peculiar history where perception also mediates the way in which we use the canvas to tell stories. The Saint-Domingue environment was not simply tamed or manicured. The French metropole was reproduced in the Caribbean through transplantation. Plants from Europe and other Caribbean islands were physically moved there to modify the terrain. For Jill Casid, this exotic fauna, some of which adorned the grand entrances of colonial residences and public spaces, signals the violent process of division and possession. Cultivation of the landscape served to plant over or mask slavery, conquest, and colonization. The military foray under Leclerc’s arm serves as a reminder of the acts of displacement or planting over of the indigenous landscape. In this way, we use landscape not as a noun, but as a verb (as in landscaping).
French colonizers were not the only ones who landscaped Saint-Domingue. Enslaved people carved out spaces of their own. But, as Casid also argues, slave gardens did not simply recreate indigenous Caribbean or African landscapes. Rather, slave gardening worked with and against the landscape by using similar technologies and techniques. Visitors to the Caribbean were struck by the incongruence between the ordered vegetation of the plantations and the seemingly untamed vegetation within the spaces allotted to slave gardening. This changes the way we consider the apparently wild places on the margins of Kinsoen’s canvas. If this portrait portrays landscaping—the verb, as opposed to landscape, the noun—then it also embodies the way in which perception modifies our interpretations of the scene.
It is traditional for colonial images to leave signs of occupation and enslavement out of frame. Work that does depict slave labor usually obscures its violence, with slaves frolicking in verdant and tranquil landscapes. And, some may argue that that this was historically accurate. Because plantation architecture privileged maximizing profits, slave quarters were often positioned nowhere near the sugar fields or the overseer’s residence. Coerced laborers were housed on low, swampy, or mosquito-infested lands. Flat and other more “desirable lands” were reserved for sugar production. Yet, if we were to follow Leclerc’s pointed finger off into the distance, we might find ourselves among the homes and gardens of the enslaved. We do not know specifically what he is pointing toward. Moreover, a scene of battle (albeit an ambiguous one) is highlighted in this portrait.
We are reminded that the practices of storytelling and perceiving a landscape go hand in hand. This reminds us, moreover, to be careful about the way we tell stories. We must be sensitive to the notion that Saint-Domingue was a real place and Leclerc was a real historical actor, but the stories of both can become obscured, adulterated, and potentially even falsified through the artist’s composition and our perceptions of these representations.
Scholars can be quick to understand images as primary sources that promise an unadulterated vision of the past. Treated as a hermetically sealed, images may be thought to produce meaning only in respect to the time they were created. Visual cultural theorists would assert that the canvas is merely a tool that mediates the spectator’s perception of its depicted content and that that the spectator’s perception is an integral component of the image. A portrait like Kinsoen’s reveals as much, if not more, about how we perceive representations of landscaped spaces as it does about the history of conquest in the Caribbean. Likewise, stories can reveal more about the storyteller than about their content. Kinsoen’s portrait demonstrates Napoleon’s desire to stabilize Saint-Domingue more than it represents a “real” moment. His colonial anxiety is right there on the canvas. We just need to know where to look.
Featured image: François Gérard, Napoléon Bonaparte Premier Consul (1803). Image from the Musée Condé.
Michael H. Feinberg is a doctoral student studying French eighteenth-century painting at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His current research interests include representations of the Caribbean landscape, corporeal representations, and psychoanalysis. His last contribution to Edge Effects was “Rethinking Girodet’s Portrait of Citizen Belley” (May 2016). Website. Contact.