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Wall Street Journal

Rising Art Star Brings Fresh Lens to ‘Forgotten’ Life of 19th Century Creoles

October 7, 2020

Painting by Andrew LaMar Hopkins titled "Creole Tête-à-tête"

Andrew LaMar Hopkins, Creole Tête-à-tête, 2020. Acrylic on canvas board; 12 x 16 in (30.5 x 40.6 cm)

Portrait of artist Andrew LaMar Hopkins

Andrew LaMar Hopkins, who painted on the side while selling antiques in New Orleans, is getting his first New York solo exhibition.

Painting by Andrew LaMar Hopkins titled Creole Elegance

Andrew LaMar Hopkins, Creole Elegance, 2020. Acrylic on canvas board; 12 x 9 in (30.5 x 22.9 cm)

Painting by Andrew LaMar Hopkins titled "Creole Tranquility"

Andrew LaMar Hopkins, Creole Tranquility, 2020. Acrylic on canvas board; 14 x 11 in (35.6 x 27.9 cm)

Painting by Andrew LaMar Hopkins titled Gabriel Aime at Le Petit Versailles, n.d.

Andrew LaMar Hopkins, Gabriel Aime at Le Petit Versailles, n.d. Acrylic on canvas board; 14 x 11 in (35.6 x 27.9 cm)

by Kelly Crow

Two decades ago, Andrew LaMar Hopkins was working as an antiques dealer in New Orleans, selling cabriole-leg tables and gilt mantel clocks from a Garden District shop he ran with his then-boyfriend. On the side, Mr. Hopkins painted small, folksy scenes of 19th century Creole life, which he sold for $300 apiece.

Today, Mr. Hopkins’s side gig is attracting mainstream attention spurred by the art-world heavyweights behind his first New York solo show opening for in-person visitors Oct. 7 at Venus Over Manhattan.

Adam Lindemann, the collector who launched the gallery, is known for championing self-taught and overlooked artists. Alison Gingeras, a favorite curator of mega-collectors like Christie’s owner François Pinault , organized the show. Ms. Gingeras is known for mounting buzzy, unorthodox shows like John Currin’s paintings of men at the Dallas Contemporary, which stood out because the artist is better known for painting nude women. (Prices for Mr. Hopkins’ works are rising commensurately, ranging between $6,500 and $30,000, the gallery said.)

Mr. Hopkins’ work officially debuted in the New York art scene last year when a dealer in antique miniatures showed a few of his works alongside her historic pieces at the Winter Show at the Park Avenue Armory. Ms. Gingeras missed that fair but said she “went crazy” when a friend told her to check out his paintings on social media earlier this year. She saw that Mr. Hopkins—a Black gay man who sometimes dresses in drag yet paints like Grandma Moses—was tackling complex ideas about race, class and U.S. history with refreshing ease. “Andrew has this infectious joie de vivre,” she said. “He paints the world through a rose-colored glass, but I like his power of positive thinking.”

The world Mr. Hopkins paints is early 1800s Creole, a term that loosely describes the descendants of people born in the South under French and Spanish colonial rule, including New Orleans. For decades leading up to the Civil War, free Black people mingled with whites in the city and attained a measure of wealth and standing that was unheard-of elsewhere in the antebellum South. This history stunned Mr. Hopkins when he learned it during a childhood library visit.

Growing up in Mobile, Ala., the 43-year-old artist said he was taught the horrors of slavery but was delighted to discover that some freeborn Black people had nevertheless thrived, often working as architects or iron workers (see those filigreed balcony railings in the French Quarter). Some even traveled regularly to France to shop for the latest fashions and commissioned artists to paint them. By the time Mr. Hopkins was a teenager, he had moved with his family to New Orleans and discovered his own ancestors were Creole. His infatuation with that bygone era was set. “I paint everyone from that time period,” he said, “but I want to be the voice for the forgotten, mysterious ones.”

In “Creole Elegance,” a work in the new show, he depicts a young Creole woman in a blue, satin gown standing in front of a brick building, each red block painted with a hair-thin brush.

In “Creole Tranquility,” a wealthy Creole couple pose with their infant in an ornately decorated room—complete with a portrait of a bejeweled Black ancestor. In some works, he paints white men in cheeky poses, like lounging nude on sofas or taking baths. In other works, he paints Creoles standing on vast estates, surrounded by status symbols like black swans.

Mr. Hopkins said the past he is painting derives in part from his own imagination, but likes to outfit his interiors with true depictions of antiques he still admires and once used to sell, mostly 18th century French furniture.

In one work, he also nods slyly to the world’s most-expensive painting, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi,” which was discovered in a Louisiana auction by a pair of New York dealers in 2005 and later resold at Christie’s for $450 million. Mr. Hopkins never got a chance to see the masterpiece before it left the state, but he painted a miniature version of it within his painting “Gabriel Aime at Le Petit Versailles.” Mr. Hopkins said Mr. Aime, the son of a major slave-owning sugar planter, never owned ’Salvator Mundi,’ but was known for traveling to Europe and sending home “crates and crates” of decorative arts.

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