By Candice Russell
Saint Soleil master Prospere Pierre Louis is one of Haiti’s greatest artists. His largest paintings are triumphs of exciting color combinations and forms that depict the process of transformation beginning witih the genesis of life, when sperm meets egg.
“Pensive Figure” (late 1980s), an acrylic on canvas measuring sixteen inches by twelve inches, distills everything that collectors admire about his work. Cross-hatching in black on a white ground and black for the beret worn by the single figure are typical touches. But it is the pops of color, judiciously placed, that elevate the painting beyond the ordinary.
Red, orange, yellow, purple, and blue enliven the composition. Louis differentiates the top portion of the figure in orange and the bottom in sky blue. Its ears are yellow with orange marks, as are the natural elements, like the variegated leaves on bushes that surround the figure. This exemplifies the well-known Haitian reverence for nature and its capacity to sustain life.
For the androgynous figure’s lips, drawn closed in enigmatic resolve, the artist employs the boldness of red. It is as used as well for painted fingernails and toenails. Encasing designs in purple and blue surround the figure, as if it is still in the womb and protected from the outside world.
The arms, disproportionate to the body, are thrust forward, with hands on belly and nearly clasped, as if in contentment. The legs are less well-formed. Tucked under the body, they appear not as long as the arms, though they are of the same width. It as if Louis wants all the attention to go to the face with the steady, unwavering gaze.
Benign equanimity is the term that best describes the expression worn by the near-human in “Pensive Figure.” This resolve speaks to the core of the Haitian character. Visit Haiti and the evidence is all around — Haitians are hard-working, determined, and resourceful. They are not complainers. They are not whiners. They don’t take pills to get through the day, like so many millions of people in Western countries with far more money and resources.
An artist as esteemed as Prospere Pierre Louis, one imagines, would do his best work in a large format. In fact, the larger, the better. And the large works by Louis are uniformly excellent, with each one different and compelling in its own right. A painting by him merited the cover of Selden Rodman’s “Where Art is Joy: Haitian Art, The First Forty Years” (1988). But I honestly cannot say that the larger paintings are better than the smaller ones.
The fact is this: Louis can work his magic just as ably when working small. Rare is such an artist, by the way. I own a few of his small paintings, all measuring sixteen inches by twelve inches, some horizontally placed, others vertical. I never saw a painting by Louis any smaller than this. All of these paintings are totally distinct, yet instantly recognizable as being from the artist’s hand, with figures outlined in black against a ground of color with natural elements.
“The Pensive Figure” shows the passivity and acceptance of growing into a sentient being. The Saint Soleil artists understand this essential mystery of life like no other group of Haitian artists. This divinely inspired painting by Prospere Pierre Louis distills the characteristics of his style at its best.