Philomé Obin (1892-1986)H

   Philomé Obin was arguably the greatest of all Haïtian painters. Only Hector Hyppolite and Castera Bazile — and possibly Rigaud Benoit, J–E Gourgue, and André Pierre — have won comparable critical acclaim, not to speak of commercial success.
  Certainly no Haitian artist, except perhaps Hyppolite, has been more influential. But the reasons for their influence differ. Hyppolite's derives mostly from his posthumous fame and the praise given his 'self-taught' style; in his relatively short 'professional' life Hyppolite trained few other painters. Seeing Hyppolite's popularity, and the prices his works commanded after his death, many artists tried to become 'the new Hyppolite' — and many gallery owners and collectors (I among them) looked for, and too often thought they had found him.

                            53. 'Le roi Christophe …'
                                     1980 (20x24)

   Unlike Hyppolite, Philomé trained scores if not hundreds of artists. His style has dominated the northern or Cap–Haïtien school for over half–a–century; it has been aped by dozens of painters — many talented, most not. Further, Philomé's brother, and a number of his children, grandchildren, nephews, and nieces are significant figures in Haitian art.

   Philomé had been painting for many years, most of his life in fact, before DeWitt Peters opened the Centre d'Art. Perhaps without much hope, but because 'I love this art,' he sent a small work to the Centre; Peters immediately recognized his talent and invited him to become a member of the Centre (meaning he would send it works for exhibit and sale). For the next four decades Philomé reigned as Haitian art's greatest living master. Among his finest works was the central mural over the high altar of the Episcopal Cathedral in Port–au–Prince, a city the stern Baptist considered dissolute and much disliked.







                     54. 'Nativité'                         
           c1979 (lithograph: 19x21)             

   I visited Philomé several times in his home and studio in Cap–Haïtien. On one visit I bought, and Philomé signed, the print Harmonieuse mélodie un Dimanche à la campagne.
   Nativité, also signed, I obtained from Selden Rodman, a leading American authority on Haitian art — and sometime colleague of Dewitt Peters — who knew Philomé for nearly 40 years, who maintained a small gallery in his Jacmel residence, and who hyped this work as 'The $100 Print!'


  I commissioned both Le roi Christophe sortant à la Citadelle and Auto–Portrait. (About the latter see Antoine Obin.)
When I arrived at Philomé's home in Cap–Haïtien to pick up Christophe, three paintings were on a shelf behind the old man's easel. The cards below them read 'Ned Hopkins,' 'Cicely Tyson' (an American actress), and 'Frankfurt Museum.' Mine was the best: the detail outshone what Philomé had done in the other two works.

75. 'Harmonieuse …'             
c1960 (print: 15x19)             

   Greeting me, Philomé was visibly disappointed. 'Ou est madame?' he asked. I'd been with a young woman when I commissioned the painting and — as a Haitian who knew Philomé well had told me — 'that old man never saw a blonde he didn't adore.' (A kitschy ceramic torso of a blonde stood on the balcony just off Philomé's studio.)
                 l       l      l
    I first saw Vision de l'Artiste Philomé Obin pendant le nuit du 15 au 16 Janvier 1948 in a 1973 exhibition sponsored by the American Federation of the Arts at Columbus Circle in Manhattan. (It appears in the exhibit's catalogue: Haitian Painting: The Naïve Tradition.)
H The work was already damaged — a gouge in the tree at the far right — when I next saw it, in 1979, in the artist's studio. It is dated 1948 in Philomé's signature bloc. (A portion of the work is visible, upper-right, in the photograph below.)

89. 'Auto–Portrait …'_                
1984 (24x20)                       

   I asked Philomé at the time if he'd ever sell it. 'No,' he replied, 'it is among my most pleasant memories.'
    Over three years after Philomé died a dealer offered me two works ostensibly by the master. I rejected them as forgeries: they were clearly the work of Antoine Obin, one of Philomé's sons.
    The dealer sued; Antoine admitted the fraud; and part of the settlement was Vision. The embarrassed dealer offered it to me for what he'd earlier asked for the faux Philomés. It is one of the few great bargains I've realized in over four decades of collecting Haitian art.

         228. 'L'Annonciation …'
       n/d (20x24)


   I traded for L'Annonciation with Jonathan Cheek, a collector in the Boston area. I have doubts about the work's authenticity, though Mr Cheek wrote that Ute Steibich, a noted authority, had vouched for it. Assuming that's so, Ms Steibich may have been having a bad hair day.

140. 'Vision de l'Artiste …'_                          
1948 (24x30)                                           

   At the very least someone other than the master touched the piece, if not a lot more. The characters, particularly the standing angel, are stiff; the title is poorly rendered compared to those on other Philomés, with orthographic errors uncharacteristic of the old man; and what appears to be an earlier notation is faintly visible, erased or painted over, partly below and extending to the right of the title.
l       l      l
   I don't know the date of The Funeral of Henri Christophe, but it's no later than the 1960s. In much of his work from the 1970s on Philomé repeats him–

251. 'Funerailles du Roi Henri Christophe'              
                                       n/d (24x30)                                     

self, though similar paintings always have at least some small differences. Unique themes like this Funerailles are then rare. This work was part of the October 2012–January 2013 Nottingham Contem–porary exhibition of Haitian art and appears in that exhibit's catalogue, Kafou. (The painting's title, in Philomé's typically neat hand, is barely visible just to the right of the guard.)
   The painting is typical of Philomé in its attention to detail, whether in the foliage seen through the larger window (or door) or in the distinct faces of the many people in the scene — or in the portrayal of the priest as a blanc. (From before the nation's founding until the mid-20th century, most Catholic priests were French [Breton, in fact]. For all his wickedness, Fran
çois [Papa Doc] changed that. He expelled the archbishop of Port-au-Prince and the entire Jesuit order; was excommunicated; then restored relations with the Vatican and secured the right to nominate bishops. Catholic clerics in Haïti today, including the recently named cardinal, are nearly all Haïtians.)
   The painting is also typical in a different way. Philomé was quoted, by Rodman, as saying he followed the "classical laws of perspective." While the figures in the front row do get smaller as they move toward the wall, they do so a bit too quickly. And the first few figures in the second row, if they stood up, would dwarf the soldiers in front of them. Classical laws of perspective indeed!


    H In early 2006 Nader's gallery in Coral Gables, Florida, was offering a similar work — same title, same size, but without the damage — for $50,000. It's possible that Philomé, unhappy with the damage to the original, copied it, or that someone else did.


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