Visualizing Toussaint Louverture

In the context of the British Museum exhibition on Toussaint Louverture (open till 22 April), I have published a blog post on the museum site on visual representation of the Haitian revolutionary leader. A fuller version of the text appears below.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, Saint Dominigue (now Haiti) had achieved the status of France’s richest colony. Sugar, coffee, cotton and indigo produced by the enslaved population made a significant contribution to the wealth of France. Although resistance to slavery – through poisoning, infanticide and everyday acts of disruption – had long been widespread, this was brutally policed, and any challenge to the plantation system was violently repressed. The Revolutionary events in France provided the context, however, for more systematic and sustained struggle for emancipation. This was led initially by the free coloured people of Saint-Domingue, whose aim was equality with the colony’s white inhabitants, but these events spread from August 1791 to a wider revolt among the enslaved black population. The events that would become the Haitian Revolution were led by Toussaint Louverture, a formerly enslaved man who would rise to the rank of Governor-General of the colony. Louverture led his armies in a struggle against the British, French and Spanish, and eventually sided with France to abolish slavery – including in the neighbouring Spanish colony of Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic), which he occupied to unite the island of Hispaniola.

Louverture’s success riled Napoleon Bonaparte, who sent an expeditionary force in 1801, under the command of his brother-in-law General Charles Leclerc, to re-establish French rule and restore slavery. Louverture was arrested in May 1802, and exiled in France where he died in prison in the Jura in April the following year. Meanwhile, understanding the intentions of Leclerc’s occupying force, Louverture’s general Jean-Jacques Dessalines reignited the revolutionary struggle, defeated the French at the Battle of Vertières in November 1803, and went on to declare Haitian independence on 1 January 1804. Haiti became the first independent black republic in the world, and the second nation in the Western hemisphere (following the USA) to gain its independence in an anti-colonial war. Unlike the American and French Revolutions, however, the struggle in Haiti was motivated by a quest for universal as opposed to selective emancipation. This aim was rooted in an inclusive understanding of human rights that extended to all, and depended on the ending of both colonial hegemony and enslavement. Known in Haiti as the ‘Precursor’, Toussaint Louverture is celebrated widely as the military genius, political strategist and diplomatic tactician who transformed a revolt into a revolution, and laid the foundation for Haitian independence. His world historical achievement served as an inspiration and warning across the Americas, and continues to motivate radical and anti-racist movements throughout the world. He has been widely represented, in the two centuries since his death, in literature and historiography. This blog post provides an overview of his re-figuring in the visual arts.


The Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art has recently acquired Lubaina Himid’s Toussaint L’Ouverture, a mixed media portrait of the revolutionary leader from 1987 that uses a collage of words from contemporary newspaper headlines – ‘RACIST’, ‘TORTURE’, ‘ABUSE’ – to underline the contrast between the promise of universal emancipation won by the Haitian Revolution and the persistence of inequalities relating to race and ethnicity in the modern world. ‘The news wouldn’t be news,’ writes the artist in the piece, ‘if you had heard of Toussaint L’Ouverture.’ Inspired in other works by her reading of C.L.R. James’s Black Jacobins, Himid also produced a series of watercolours on the Haitian revolutionary leader, ‘Scenes from the life of Toussaint L’Ouverture’. This is in part a playful domestication of her subject’s life in which, bringing Louverture’s wife into the frame, she asks: ‘but who does the laundry?’ In another piece, ‘What are monuments for? Possible landmarks on the urban map’, Himid subverts conventional city guidebooks by raising a statue of Louverture in Trafalgar Square, using the imagined presence of the revolutionary leader to foreground alternative Black histories of European capitals. Taken together, this is work that not only challenges the silencing of Haiti in British historiography (an amnesia all the more surprising given the key role played by British troops in the struggle against Louverture between 1793 and 1798 in revolutionary Saint-Domingue), but also stresses the continued relevance, for parallel struggles today, of the historic Haitian fight against both slavery and colonial hegemony.

The award of the Turner Prize to Himid in December of last year has brought her oeuvre to the attention of a wider audience, and in the process has increased general awareness of the stories of the Haitian Revolution. It is important to stress, however, that Himid’s representations of Louverture are part of a wider and eclectic catalogue of visual re-figurings that began to be produced – as prints, or frontispieces to early biographies – during the revolutionary’s life time, and then proliferated post mortem as his reputation continued to grow. There are no surviving formal portraits of Louverture, meaning that much commentary on these images focuses on questions of the true likeness of their subject. For instance, illustrations in an account of the Revolution by a British army officer present in Saint-Domingue at the time, by Marcus Rainsford, are often thought to have been drawn from life, but it is the distinctive profile of a lithograph by Maurin, produced thirty years after Louverture’s death and rejected as a likeness by its subject’s surviving son Isaac, that has achieved iconic status. Stories of newly discovered contemporary paintings of the revolutionary leader are not uncommon, but of equal importance for those interested in the afterlives of Louverture are the many visual representations produced subsequently. These range in tone from the parodic to the celebratory, from Cham’s caricatures in Le Punch à Paris in 1850 to much more recent works by Kimathi Donkor, Edouard Duval-Carrié and Ulrick Jean-Pierre.

One of the most striking contributions to this catalogue of representations is Jacob Lawrence’s ‘Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture’, produced in 1938 in the final years of the Harlem Renaissance and in the wake of the U.S. occupation of Haiti. The artist is remembered for a series of painted biographies, including those of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and John Brown, but what is memorable about the original panels of the Louverture series is the way in which they illustrate the continued transnational impact of Haiti in debates about African-American identity. Lawrence describes being inspired by orators on street corners in Harlem invoking the example of Toussaint Louverture, and his forty-one episodes tell the story of a country colonized and of a people enslaved – but also of the inspiring role of the revolutionary leaders in shaping a revolution that culminated in the declaration of Haitian independence by Dessalines on 1 January 1804.

In the context of the wider corpus of visual representation of Louverture, Lawrence’s series arguably plays a pivotal role. It is in dialogue with earlier representations of the Haitian Revolutionary leader, a number of which the artist consulted in the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library (now the Schomberg Center): the striking profile of the Haitian revolutionary in image 20 (currently on display at the British Museum in Room 3) is, for instance, drawn from Maurin’s lithograph, and image 26, a three-quarter portrait of Louverture at the capture of Mirebalois, is reminiscent of the earlier work of Edinburgh artist John Kay from 1802 (Kay’s etching is also on display in Room 3). Yet, at the same time, the adoption by the series of a comic book aesthetic (in terms of formal devices adopted, as well as the sequential narrative it deploys) anticipates subsequent accounts of the Haitian Revolution and the lives of its leaders in bande dessinée and other graphic genres. For in the two centuries since his death, each generation has complemented literary and historiographic re-figurings of Toussaint Louverture – and of the radical implications of the struggle he led – with parallel retranslations of his life and influence into new graphic forms.

Alongside the visual representations of Louverture in the work of leading contemporary artists such as Donkor, Duval-Carrié and Himid, the revolutionary leader is increasingly pictured in popular culture, in the ‘Corpse Talk’ strip by Adam Murphy in issue 152 of The Phoenix, in Drums of Freedom, the visually rich biography of Louverture by the Guyanese comics creator Barrington Braithwaite, and in a new graphic history of the Haitian Revolution by Rocky Cotard and Laurent Dubois. The increasing visibility of Louverture as global revolutionary figure suggests that he is progressively achieving a transcultural iconicity that is perhaps only rivalled by that of Che Guevara; but such ubiquity is accompanied by clear challenges: does it imply the final stage in what David Scott sees as Louverture’s conscription to forms of neo-colonial modernity; or does it contain the residual potential for reignition, in the present, of the Haitian revolutionary’s struggle for universal emancipation and for ‘Liberty and Equality to reign’, not least in Haiti itself?

Charles Forsdick is co-author, with Christian Hogsbjerg, of Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in an Age of Revolution (Pluto, 2017). The biography contains a dossier of recent representations of Louverture, including works by a number of the artists mentioned in this post.

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