It is with regret that news must be reported about the passing of a great lady, Francine Murat, the long-time director of Le Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. As the standard bearer for this seminal institution within Haitian art for several decades, Murat was instrumental in the careers of an untold number of artists. Since the building itself was destroyed in the January 12th earthquake and with no one at the reins, one cannot help but wonder who will resurrect Le Centre d’Art and shepherd its development in decades to come.
The death of Murat was expressed beautifully in a letter by Fritz Racine, President of the Haitian Art Society, hereby quoted in toto: “Adieu Francine: The Haitian Art Society in Washington, D.C. is deeply saddened by the news of the death of Francine Murat, Director of the Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince. Francine died on February 25, 2010, six weeks following the collapse of the Centre d’Art building during the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti on January 12.
“Francine has been associated with the Centre d’Art since its opening in 1944, first as administrative assistant to the founder DeWitt Peters, then as its director for over forty years until her death. Her extended professional service has earned her public recognition as an authority on Haitian art. Francine Murat has carried out with grace, competence and perseverance — and often under trying circumstances — the remarkable tradition of this unique and longest living art institution of Haiti.
“The Haitian Art Society salutes the departure of this icon of Haitian art. May her beautiful soul rest in peace.”
My own memories of Murat are lovely. I recall her quiet presence overseeing Le Centre d’Art. She was a tall, thin woman of elegance, with her head wrapped in a colorful scarf. If you knew enough to ask about the special stash of paintings locked in a closet on the second floor, she would accommodate an avid art collector’s request and leave the person alone to pick through the treasures for purchase. She also allowed visitors into the room housing the center’s permanent collection of Haitian art. I remember the poignancy of paintings by Jasmin Joseph, whose allegorical paintings of anthropomorphic animals told stories about Haitian life.
Murat kindly accommodated an odd request I made of her by telephone, after my then-husband and I had taken a wonderful art-buying trip to Haiti one year. After returning home, I developed the many photos I had taken and marveled at a particular painting we had found at Le Centre d’Art. It was a large canvas by Lionel Saint Eloi of a Vodou ceremony, with musicians, prayer, celebration and sacrifice going on in different quadrants of the painting. How had we passed it by? I found the phone number of Le Centre d’Art, Murat set a price, and the transaction was in process. Soon, the painting was mailed to us, to our eternal delight.
Rendered in muted colors, with a hand-painted statement on the back of the canvas about how the artist made a commitment to the integrity of his profession, the painting was (and is) a dazzler. Not surprisingly, it was chosen by director George Bolge of the Boca Raton Museum of Art in Boca Raton, Florida, for an exhibition of Haitian paintings in 2004. It is one of my favorite paintings.
Haiti and Haitian art collectors everywhere will miss Francine Murat and her benevolence to all who cherish Haitian art.