Watercolors from St. Charles Parish, Louisiana, 1859 Painted by Fr. Joseph M. Paret
At the time of discovery of the Paret watercolors, in a proposal to publish the 1859 paintings, Louisiana State University (LSU) Art Museum Director Pat Bacot said the Paret paintings were “the most important single group of landscape paintings done before the Civil War in Louisiana. Nothing is comparable to them. Yet, these paintings have never been displayed in Louisiana.”
The Red Church, St. Charles, March 20, 1859, Fr. Paret watercolor draw ing. A Sunday afternoon in the area surrounding the Little Red Church, March 20, 185 9—the shadows that stretch out toward the east indicate that the pastor of Little Red Church is about to celebrate vespers. The plot of land on which Little Red Church was established in 1806 was rather large—ten arpents of face (along the river) and thirty arpents of depth. The cemetery of S t. Charles is one of the oldest in Louisiana. Its oldest remain ing tomb dates back to 1770. Part of the cemetery illustrated by Paret w as later washed away by Mississippi floodwaters. Another part w as buried under the embankment during the construct ion of a new levee. The church no longer stand s. A replica of the Red Church is on display on the grounds at the entrance to the cemetery.
His paintings were subsequently published by LSU Press. His journal, Mon Journal d’Amerique, a collection of correspondence with his family in 1853, was published in France by Marcel Boyer 140 years later, in 1993. More information regarding Fr. Paret’s watercolors and journal can be found in Plantations by the River by Marcel Boyer, edited by Jay D. Edwards and published by LSU Press. (Photos courtesy of Fred B. Kniffen Cultural Resources Laboratory, Department of Geography and Anthropology, Louisiana State University)
Fr. Paret’s paintings provide so many aspects of life in St. Charles just two years before the Civil War, giving firsthand views of plantation layouts, fence and building materials, gardens, and so much more. Many plantations in St. Charles appear to be small villages, which included amenities such as a family cemetery, chapel, and schoolhouse.
Prominently featured in almost all of Father Paret’s paintings are the Mississippi River and its many diverse modes of transportation. Using canoes to transport goods and to travel, American Indians traversed the river long before Europeans arrived. Samuel Clemens’s Mark Twain was fascinated with and came to love and respect the Mississippi River and all surrounding it. It was the backbone of the German Coast. The most coveted and valuable land was that fronting the river. Many styles of boats were designed for different uses. Flatboats were popular and even had living quarters. When a destination was reached, most were taken apart and lumber was used for construction or firewood. As with limestone used for ballasts in sea-going vessels and eventually used as masonry for New Orleans homes, many houses from this era include salvaged flatboat wood. Many early sidewalks (banquettes ) were constructed of flatboat wood. Those settling downriver in St. Charles Parish also reused all salvageable materials onboard. Bargeboard houses are located throughout St. Charles Parish.
Buggies appear to be the main mode of travel in the parish. Those traveling by water are seen in luggers, bateaux, pirogues, flatboats, padd le wheelers, and steamboats. Creole architecture dominated the landscape. Except for Ormond, all of the Paret plantations, including all of the accessory buildings, have disappeared from the landscape, perhaps destroyed by the Civil War, Mother Nature, or progress.
The presbytery of the Red Church, now called a rectory, was Fr. Paret’s residence and is so vividly portrayed in his watercolors. But it lasted not even a quarter-century, burning in 1877. During his tenure at Red Church, Fr. Paret convinced his brothers to visit the financially stable civil parish and his home at Red Church. One brother became a permanent resident of the parish, leaving descendants in Louisiana today.
But not all of the people in St. Charles were wealthy, affluent plantation owners as depicted in Paret’s watercolors. The small farmers of the German Coast continued to exist with the larger plantations. Many “Americans” immigrated to the parish in search of riches they often did not find. The plantation economy depended on slaves and census reports at the time show St. Charles had five slaves to every white person. Only about one-third of the white population did not have slaves at this time. Of the fifty-two plantations in the parish, the largest were on the west bank. Since it has been documented that there were more doctors than schoolteachers in the parish, plantation laborers may have been very well cared for by their owners as reported.
Interestingly, at that time, many of the Catholic churches had either slaves or free blacks living at the rectory address. Apparently the slaves living at Red Church were not listed as belonging to Fr. Paret, but to his French housekeepers, a couple he recruited from France.
One could assume that Fr. Paret’s appetite for sketching the beautiful plantation estates of St. Charles was completely tempered by the destruction he witnessed during the Civil War—to the point that his sketchbook is silent on the subject. But perhaps not—perhaps he gave some of his watercolors to friends in St. Charles. The discovery in France only emphasizes the possibility that other such treasures could be hidden in family closets, albums, or attics in St. Charles or elsewhere.
Fr. Paret’s watercolors and journal are presently owned by the Choretier family in the Forez-Viennois region of the Department of Loire, France.
“Although travel accounts, diaries, and collections of correspondence exist from this same period, the importance of these colorful visuals (by Fr. Paret) survives not only as a chronicle of social history, but as documentation of properties that, for the most part, no longer exist…The ability to compile records that mean little as individual items and much as a group is central to the recording and understanding of the history of any region. Seen in conjunction with the array of materials for the study of the plantation culture of south Louisiana, the watercolors stand out as a unique body of work…As former colonies search for validation and connection with their parent countries, a bond through observed realities reaffirms their mutual influences.”
— Mary Louise Christovich, President, Kemper and Leila Williams Foundation
Information on Fr. Paret and his paintings has been extracted from Plantations by the River by Marcel Boyer published by LSU Press.
The citizens of Louisiana, in particular the citizens of St. Charles Parish, are grateful to Fr. Paret’s family for agreeing to share the journal and watercolors.
This text is copyright © material by Marilyn Richoux, Joan Becnel and Suzanne Friloux, from St. Charles Parish, Louisiana: A Pictorial History, 2010.