Benoit, RigaudH (1911–86)

   Rigaud Benoit is one of the supreme masters of Haitian art. His huge mural, The Raising of Lazarus, was one of three that rose above the high altar in the Episcopal Cathedral. (The others were by Castera Bazile and Philomé Obin.)

   According to legend, Benoit was the driver of the Centre d'Art's jeep in the late 1940s. Spotting artistic talent in decorations Benoit had applied to the vehicle, DeWitt Peters urged him to paint.

   In the film Krik? Krak! (see Reading), Benoit disputes that account. He says he was a taxi driver; visited the Centre d'Art on his day off; decided he could do as well as artists exhibited there; returned home; painted a bit; brought a couple of works to Peters; and was immediately enrolled as one of the Centre's resident artists.

   Benoit worked slowly and carefully, a handful of pieces a year and collectors have vied for his art from the very 

beginning. His better works today command five figure prices.

   I tried to locate Benoit on several visits

 

to Haïti in the 1970s and early '80s. Gallery owners were, understandably, not helpful.
   In 1985 I ran into a broker (or hustler) who took me to Bigaud's home. I commissioned 'Wedding Reception' — the last painting, as it turned out, that the artist completed.

   A few months before Benoit's death the 'broker' called to say 'my' work was finished. I rushed from San Francisco to Port-au-Prince — cashier's check in hand — to find that the painting existed only in charcoal.
   In its place, Benoit offered me a large and gorgeous vodou piece. Though he said I could pay him in installments, I was uncomfortable with the idea and declined his offer.

   While I have regretted that decision, I am far from unhappy with Wedding Reception. The 'shell' — roof, walls, floor — is like one Benoit painted many times, but I am aware of no two identical scenes within that shell.

 

 103. Wedding Reception_
     1986 (18x24)

 

 

 

 

 

  In early 2006 Gary Nader's gallery in Miami was offering a similar Benoit, also 18x24, for $35,000. That work, however,
had considerably less detail .

 

 

 


   245. Le Jardin d'Éden
           (Adam and Eve)
            1982 (20x16)

  Benoit painted both scenes of Haitian life and religious scenes (vodou and Christian and sometimes both, mixed). The latter generally display his imagination to greater effect and are the more highly prized. This work was acquired from Aderson Exumé, scion of a famous name in Haitian art and himself a major collector who lives in the eastern U S.


 


 

x

   The night before I finally located Benoit, I'd gone to the casino recently installed in what had been the main restaurant of the El Rancho Hotel.
  
Not being much of a gambler, I'd played a five–cent slot machine. Voila! I hit the jackpot — 5,000 nickels, or $250.
  
That was close to all the cash I had for my last day in Haïti: as usual I'd already bought a lot of paintings.
  
Benoit asked for a down–payment of $1,750, or half of what he wanted for the painting I wanted to commission.
  
I told him I had only $250 on me, but would send him a check for the remaining $1,500 as soon as I returned to California. He agreed.

   I sent the check, mindlessly, not by registered mail. It didn't arrive and didn't arrive. I received several phone calls from the broker asking where the money was. Finally I put a trace on the letter and a stop-payment on the check.

 

 

 

   The Rest of the Story
 
  T
he envelope had gone to … Tahiti.
  
I sent another check to Benoit — this one for the balance of what he wanted for the painting. I asked the broker to destroy the first one if and when it arrived. Both checks got to Haïti about the same time; and, of course, both were cashed, possibly by the broker rather than by Benoit. (So much for stop–payment orders.)
   S
oon a call came informing me not only that Benoit had finished the painting, but that he had died.
  
I was on a plane the next day, arriving in Haïti only to find that my broker had failed to secure the work and that the artist's daughter had squirreled the painting to Montréal, where she lived. I met her and her brother, Rigaud Benoit fils, at a house in downtown Port-au-Prince. They insisted they would not give up their father's 'last painting.'
   A
nother great artist, J–E Gourgue, inter-
_______________

* He also failed to secure a work I had com-missioned a bit earlier from Adam Léontis,  who died about the time as Benoit.  

 

 

x

vened. Gourgue spent over two hours negotiating an agreement that awarded me the painting. It required an extortionate payoff to the Benoits, and still another flight — this one to New York City — to pick up the work. My total outlay was nearly four times Benoit's asking price. For less than I ended up spending, I could have had Benoit's fine vodou piece.

   For all that, I love this work and its details — the musicians, the buffet, the intricately drawn chairs. (The individual strands of wicker are not visible in the photo.) Bigaud's daughter, who brought the painting from Montréal to New York, thought the musicians especially 'typical of my father.'
   
The work is a wedding reception, not the wedding ceremony I had wanted. No matter: it's a Rigaud Benoit — and there aren't a lot of them. (A similar work, dated 1977, appears in Gérald Alexis's Peintres Haïtien: see Reading).

 

 

            

           

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