oil on board
22 7/8 x 28 in.
ex. Wallace Campbell
ex. Sotheby's, New York, 18 November 1991, lot 40.
When Haitian poet and art critic Philippe Thoby-Marcelin first encountered the work of Hector Hyppolite at the Centre d’art, he soon realized that Hyppolite made no distinction between the real and the imaginary.1 This is evidenced in the art of this humble man whose main vocation was that of a healer. Since he never received payment for his work as a healer, he was often forced to take odd jobs, like decorating the doors of the roadside bar, Ici La Renaissance, in Montrouis, a seaside village fifty miles northwest of Port-au-Prince. Any material gain he may have received from this job, we will never know; however, it did pave the way for his international success, becoming one of Haiti’s most celebrated painters.
Because of his notoriety, he was often asked about his work, but he rarely responded, and if he did, his answers were typically confounding. Hyppolite responded with a smile both enigmatic and tender, sad, and wry, which only amplified his mysterious character. He was a devotee of La Sirène (The Mermaid), a divinity of the Voodoo Pantheon. To connect with and be near her, Hyppolite lived by the sea. One of his neighbors, a man named Simon, reported seeing an ethereal figure leaving Hyppolite’s house one evening, heading towards the sea. "It was La Sirène he said. Hector Hyppolite never denied this fact. La Sirène cared for his well-being and the painter believed she was responsible for both his good and bad paintings. Hyppolite’s many whims had to be satisfied at all costs to avoid the wrath of this divinity of the waters. It was to please La Sirène that Hyppolite got the American artist and school teacher, Dewitt Peters 2 to finance the construction of a boat to take his friends from the Centre d’art on a fantastic voyage. Before its completion, the boat was sold for 700 gourdes, to cover certain expenses of his inexorable journey towards death, a journey he made alone on the morning of June 8, 1948.
Hector Hyppolite is the first known popular Haitian artist whose works focused primarily on voodoo spirituality. Most of his paintings are essentially descriptive thus revealing nothing about the mysteries of the popular religion. In his hands, the iconography specific to voodoo was reduced to vèvès (or religious symbols). Hector had first-hand knowledge of the repertory of vèvès, and often executed these enigmatic drawings directly on the ground near the central pillar of the temples during a ceremony.3 Some symbols are not obvious at first but may be identified as a guiding element or structure in a work, linking the figure to the lwa (or spirit) he wanted to revere. This was one of the fundamental ways in which he developed a process to represent the lwas of the voodoo pantheon that is quite different from later representations of voodoo divinities in the chromo-lithographies, introduced in Haiti by the Catholic church in the 19th century.
If it is true that Hector Hyppolite expressed his religious faith in his paintings, these works also reveal his personal experiences with nature, his observations from everyday life and the fantasies he elaborated from both. We know the importance of women in his life. Because of his privileged relationship with La Sirène, Hyppolite never married, nor did he have any stable common-law relationship. Nevertheless, he did have countless mistresses. It is no wonder that sensual women are very much present in a series of genre scenes depicting Haiti’s bourgeois lifestyle. Due to the social and economic context in which Hector Hyppolite lived, one could expect that his paintings of the bourgeoisie carried some criticism, a certain bitterness perhaps, or an element of subversion. Considering his work in its totality however, one may come to see that his subjects are perhaps instead motivated by the notion that bourgeois women were akin to the female divinities he so faithfully served. The women he painted are often depicted in a sensual manner, rendered nude, or wearing sumptuous clothes. These images are ambiguous because in many of them, the dual nature of the female figure—both worldly and otherworldly--is indicated symbolically. Two examples of this are Hyppolite’s Women with Flowers and Birds - Maitresse Erzulie and the present work La Dame en vert - La Sirène,4 obviously an earlier work judging from its technical qualities. In Woman with Flowers and Birds, the figure (Maitresse Erzulie), stands among elements of the real world and holds a branch indicating that she is part of that world. Yet, her body defies gravity. Her feet, shown in profile against the light background, rest on nothing, and this elevation in midair imbues her with certain characteristics, a sort of magical naturalism indicating that she exists alongside (or beyond) reality.
In contrast to Erzulie, La Sirène has no legs or feet, but rather a fish tail. As a result, she can only be depicted reclining like the figure in the painting La Femme en vert. Here she wears a fancy dress long and wide enough to conceal her fish tail. Central to the composition of the painting is a mirror, one of La Sirène’s main attributes, which serves as a threshold or portal between realms. She holds a watery fruit, one of her favorites, taken from the bowl on a stand by her bed. These are all revealing and potent symbols. The French surrealist poet André Breton 5 wrote that the paintings of Hyppolite bear the stamp of authenticity. “Hyppolite has a secret”, he added. This secret is preciously contained in his works. Perhaps if we examine them more closely, the secrets may be revealed.
Gerald Alexis, art historian and author, Peintres Haïtiens, 2002.
1 Thoby-Marcelin, Philippe and Chenet, Jean, "La double vie d’Hector Hyppolite, artiste et prêtre vodou (extraits)",Conjonction, no 16, Port-au-Prince, août 1948, pp. 40 - 44.
2 Dewitt Peters was the director of the Centre d’art.
3 Hyppolite drew the vèvès in Milo Marcelin’sMythologie vodou: rite arada, Éditions haïtiennes, Port-au-Prince, 1949.
4 Some believe thatErzulie andLa Sirène are of the same family. The latter is often referred to as the Erzulie of the sea. They have many common traits: They bring wealth, romance, love, and success. They are both beautiful and both like luxurious ambiances and goods.
5 Breton, Andre - "Révolution surréaliste en Haïti", https://parolenarchipel.wordpress.com/2013/02/07/en-1945-andre-breton-decouvre-hector-hyppolite-a-port-au-prince/