The Spiritual Paintings of Saincilus Ismael

By Candice Russell

It is curious how some paintings have the power to grow on you. At first, you may not appreciate their virtues. But, in living with an artwork about which you initially felt indifference or even contempt, familiarity breeds awareness, followed by fondness.

This process occurred for me after buying a painting by Gerard Paul in the 1980s. It portrayed a man becoming a woman, a confused gender portrayal that left me baffled. The background was a mixture of colors, a quasi-psychedelic melange, created as if in a drug-induced state. Yet there was a precision about it in line and form that revealed no mental impairment on the part of its maker. The artist knew exactly what he was doing.

Why did I buy the Gerard Paul painting that I didn’t like? My boyfriend talked me into it. He was an artist with sophisticated taste who lobbied hard for me to purchase the painting. And so I did, hanging it on the living room wall with reluctance.

Over the years, I began to appreciate the sense of humor in the painting. In early November during Vodou (voodoo) ceremonies for the Guede spirits in charge of death, gender-switching is normal. This acting out in unaccustomed ways equates to Halloween, when assuming another identity is fun for one night of the year.

Eventually, I fell in love with painting “Transformation” by Gerard Paul, which I am glad to say I still own. Having seen many more paintings by the artist since the mid-1980s, I can say I never saw another one like it.

My infatuation with the paintings of the late Saincilus Ismael was also slow in coming. While I owned the Biblically inspired works of this artist, I never drew spiritual sustenance from them, as I did from so many other artworks.

Madonna in Gold
Madonna in Gold by Saincilus Ismael



Then I bought a Saincilus Ismael painting and hung it in my bedroom. It is typical of his ouevre, featuring a Madonna figure in long robes holding twin girls — the Marassa. They are the mischievous yet divine children of God.

Discovering another Ismael painting last December, I was smitten by its color, patterning, and even its imperfections, like the uneven line that forms the outer border framing the subjects. Since the painting just arrived at my home, I am thrilled. I can’t stop studying the minuteness of careful brush strokes in the background of “Madonna in Gold,” an oil on canvas measuring 20 inches y 16 inches, with a hand-painted frame by Robert La Fleur.

Gold positively radiates from this magnificent painting. Both mother and baby wear identical halos that resemble sunbursts. These stately headpieces are multi-colored in shades of green, red, blue and purple, then orange; each color has straight or squiggly lines or designs. The Madonna wears a gold crown over the long brown head covering that drapes from her shoulders to upper arms.

Like Gerard Valcin, a Haitian painter who was a tile setter before turning to art, Ismael pays attention to details, like the pattern on the floor and wall behind the Madonna. Starbursts in green and orange adorn these surfaces with manufactured-looking perfection. Yet these surfaces do not detract from the subjects, but serve to enhance them.

With his paintings resembling Russian icons, but with a decidedly Haitian flair, Ismael has imitators in his wake who carry on his imagery. But there is detectable difference in his paintings. Study enough of them up close and you’ll know what I mean.

Not just limited to Biblical themes, Ismael is also known for scenes of revelers — musicians playing instruments and people dancing, all enjoying the excitement of sound and movement. Obviously, these works convey a gaiety that the serene Biblical works do not. The artist speaks to a range of moods.

Saincilus Ismael was born in Petite Riviere de l’Artibonite. He began to paint in 1958, after visiting the Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince. His work bears the influence of Byzantine art he saw in books. He became director of the ceramics center in Deschapelles. Painters Michel-Ange Altidort and Carlo Jean Baptiste were among his students. Ismael died in 2000.

While his paintings are prized, they have gone unnoticed by some prominent authors. There is nary a mention of Ismael in Selden Rodman’s seminal book “Where Art is Joy: Haitian Art, The First Forty Years” (1988). Nor is he present in “Haitian Art: The Legend and Legacy of the Naive Tradition” (1985) by L.G. Hoffman.

Ismael is in my book “Masterpieces of Haitian Art” (2013) and his works are coveted by the cognoscenti, only in part because there are so few in circulation. Only Andre Pierre presented his religious subjects in similarly regal fashion. They are Godly personages from a world of faith that has sustained the Haitian population through poverty, political upheaval, floods and earthquakes. If the Vatican in Rome, Italy ever establishes a gallery of global Christian art, the paintings of Saincilus Ismael would fit right in, representing Haitian visual expression at its best.