By Candice Russell
One of the most under-rated artists in Haiti is Francoise Eliassaint. Yet, for those who adore her distinctive imagery and style in paintings, she has few, if any, peers — male or female. The only artist I can think of to whom she can be rightly compared is Saincilus Ismael, because both display a profound fondness for religious subjects.
Born in Puerto Principe in 1962, Eliassaint caught the painting bug by virtue of observation. She was the girlfriend, then the wife, of well-known artist Andre Normil, who worked in a studio one floor below the gallery of Issa el-Saieh in Port-au-Prince. Then she turned to her own canvases, methodically painting at a slow pace. Her subjects included scenes of daily life and Haitian revolutionary heroes. But it was the religious paintings that caught the eye of collectors.
Just try to find the paintings of this female artist online. They are few and far between. According to el-Saieh, she created just one painting in six weeks. During one of my visits to Haiti, he bragged about having no Eliassaints available for sale and commissions with galleries on other Caribbean islands waiting to be fulfilled.
But subsequent trips to Haiti brought success for me in buying the artist’s remarkable work, which gave me opportunities to live with her paintings, study, and appreciate them. I gravitate to the religious/spiritual works, usually of the Virgin Mary or the Haitian spirit Erzulie — a heady mixture of Roman Catholicism and Haitian Vodou.
One of my personal favorites is “Erzulie Danthor and Child” (1988), on page 62 of my book “Masterpieces of Haitian Art.” The governess of love is in a blue headdress with a crown, on top of which is a Christian cross. Balanced on her left arm is a girl child of age five in an orange dress with white lace embellishments at the neck, wrists, and hem. These two figures are encased in an oval frame, surrounded by a square with pink flowers, and a second border of a flowering green vine. Reminiscent of Russian icons in silver and gold, the painting projects an air of unintimidating majesty.
Within her impressive body of work, there have been departures from the religious imagery. “The Coffee Drinkers” (1989) shows a family brewing coffee at a fire, outside their humble home. When I hung the painting in my living room, my Haitian next-door neighbor said it reminded her of her childhood in Haiti.
In another case, Eliassaint made a stab at the Saint Soleil style, using an amoebic proto-human as the main subject, surrounded by gaily colored criss-cross marks and other decorative flourishes. “Maternal Figure” (1989) may have been her only foray into this sub-genre of Haitian art, which she accomplished with a psychic connection to the imagery of Saint Soleil’s only female artist, Louisiane Saint Fleurant. A heart adorns the body of the main subject — it is the symbol of Erzulie. The two pink fish at her feet evoke a connection to La Sirene, who is the cousin of Erzulie.
The paintings of Francoise Eliassaint manage to be beautiful without being sentimental or overdone. Her figures radiate a purity of heart and religious fervor. One can see that these works come from the hand of a woman sustained by faith, just like the Haitian people.