Close Look: Jacques Enguerrand Gourgue
Updated: Aug 29
The Narrative is pleased to launch its newest series, 'Close Look,' with this thoughtful read of Jacques Enguerrand Gourgue's Cristo de la Libertad, by University of Texas art history PhD student, Nicole Smythe-Johnson. Here, Smythe-Johnson draws out the layered complexities of symbolism found throughout the painting, and highlights a meaningful connection between the history of politics in the Caribbean, and current-day events in the U.S.
This year, through the ongoing generosity of collectors Joyce Christian and Rudy Green, Black Studies at the University of Texas proudly welcomed this important work of art to its growing collection. With a representation of artworks from across the Black Diaspora, the Christian-Green gift reinforces the ways in which Art Galleries at Black Studies explore the range of narratives which impact us all.
Cristo de la Libertad, Jacques Enguerrand Gourgue.
Date unknown, acrylic on canvas, 43” x 32.”
Layers of Hispañola: Jacques Enguerrand Gourgue’s Cristo de la Libertad
By Nicole Smythe-Johnson
As one of several works donated to the Art Galleries at Black Studies by Austin-based art collectors and philanthropists Rudy Green and Joyce Christian, Cristo de la Libertad by Jacques Enguerrand Gourgue, is exemplary of the diasporic breadth of black studies scholarship at UT Austin. Gourgue (1930-1996,) one of Haiti’s most celebrated artists, is a self-taught painter known for his surrealistic landscapes and still lifes, which are often charged with social commentary. Religion, both Christianity and Vodou, is also an ongoing theme in Gourgue’s work. He found early success with the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) acquisition of his 1947 painting Magic Table. He was only seventeen years old. His work continued to develop through interaction with other Haitian painters at Le Centre d’Art and, later, at the Foyer des Arts Plastiques in Port-au-Prince. He also lived in Madrid in the 1950s and 60s, where he became fascinated with Pablo Picasso’s work, and returned to Haiti toward the end of his life.
Gourgue’s Cristo de la Libertad (n.d.) is, like much of the artist’s work, a complex and layered painting in form and content. The work’s intricate details, curving lines, overlapping shapes and jewel-toned colors overwhelm the viewer, and demand a careful cataloguing of the picture plane. As Haitian art historian Gérald Alexis has noted about Haitian historical painting, “details… help structure these works. They play a part in achieving a unifying vision of harmony out of which the narrative emerges.” Let us spend some time with the details then.
...though this work initially seems animated by religious themes, it is in fact a complex commentary on the relationship between Haiti and its neighbor, the Dominican Republic...
At the center of the composition is a portrait of a white-haired, bearded man, with light eyes that stare out at the viewer. The disembodied head floats between a mountain peak in the background, and a crucified figure in the foreground. The figure on the cross wears a crown of thorns, and seems to be freeing himself from the wooden cross to which he has been nailed. The cross and the figure’s torso and left thigh form a diagonal line from the lower left corner of the painting toward the mountain range overlooking a body of water in the upper third of the painting. A second diagonal runs from a bug crawling up one of Gourgue’s signature skeletal trees in the lower right corner, through the roofs of neighboring houses, and up toward the other side of the body of water at the foot of the mountain. Overlaying all that, is a sort of shadow in the shape of the Statue of Liberty, her crowned head overlaying the mountain peak in the background and her base standing on the crucified figure. Finally, a lens-like circle at the center of the painting, discernable only by a thin outline and the difference between colors within it and without, establishes the man’s head and the crucified figure as the focal point of the work.
What can we make of these details? Art historian Ute Stebich notes that Gourgue’s “imagery is not easily interpreted by those not familiar with Haitian life, folklore and religion.” To that list I would add Haitian history and politics, because though this work initially seems animated by religious themes, it is in fact a complex commentary on the relationship between Haiti and its neighbor, the Dominican Republic, with whom it shares the island of Hispaniola.
The painting’s title is our most overt clue. It takes its name from a biography of Juan Pablo Duarte (1813-1876), one of the “founding fathers” of the Dominican Republic, written by Dominican writer, lawyer and controversial six-time president, Joaquín Balaguer (1907-2002). The text has become a kind of founding myth of the Dominican Republic, providing the foundation for a particularly conservative strain of Dominican nationalism. First published in 1950, El cristo de la libertad; vida de Juan Pablo Duarte casts Duarte as a Christ-like figure, virginal and pure— Balaguer writes of Duarte: he “was, like Jesus, forever a boy, and conserved the purity of his soul, hardening it with a sacred virginity”— and sacrificed for the greater cause of Dominican independence. After playing a leading role in the Dominican War of Independence against Haitian rule (1844-1856), Duarte refused the Dominican presidency and eventually died in poverty and exile. Balaguer’s text depicts Haitians as the nemeses of the saintly Duarte and his divine Trinitaria, defenders of the patria.
Given the work’s title, it is fair to assume that the man depicted at the center of the composition is Duarte. In Gourgue’s painting, however, unlike in Balaguer’s book, Duarte is not the Christ-like figure. He is superseded by the crucified figure in the foreground, whose bent knee overlaps with with Duarte’s chin. Parts of the scantily clad figure seem to merge with the ground on which he lies, taking on the shades of green, red and purple found elsewhere in the painting, while the parts of the figure that are skin-colored are a darker brown than Duarte’s beige complexion. The neighboring houses wedged between the two figures suggests the relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which has often been racialized. As we shall discover, Balaguer, the author of Cristo de la libertad, is a key figure in that racialization.
The peak in the background is likely a reference to Pico Duarte the highest peak in the Dominican Republic and the Caribbean. Pico Duarte is part of the Cordillera Central range, which extends from the plains west of Santo Domingo into the northwest of Haiti, where it is known as Massif du Nord. The reference to Pico Duarte is significant, not only because the Cordillera links Haiti and the Dominican Republic geographically, but also because it brings the deployment of Duarte’s name and persona in contemporary Dominican politics into the frame. During the regime of Dominican dictator General Rafael Trujillo (1891-1961), Pico Duarte, originally named Monte Tina, was renamed Pico Trujillo. Its name was only changed to Pico Duarte after Trujillo’s death in 1961.
The history of interactions between Haiti and the Dominican Republic is long and complex, but Gourgue’s choice of title and his inclusion of details like Pico Duarte call our attention to specific moments in that history. Balaguer served as vice-president under General Trujillo, and succeeded the general’s brother as president in 1960. Trujillo notoriously ordered the massacre of ten to twenty thousand Haitians living on the border between the two nations in 1937, and tried to forcefully conscript Haitians to work on Dominican sugar plantations. Balaguer maintained his patron’s anti-Haitian posture throughout his presidencies. In fact, Amelia Hintzen, scholar of race, migration and citizenship in the Dominican Republic, identifies him as one of “the architects of anti-Haitian ideology” in the Dominican Republic. That designation is based on his work as both a writer and a politician. Through his writing, he promoted a Hispanophile vision of Dominicanidad—white, devoutly Catholic and exclusively Spanish-speaking— justifying Trujillo’s and his own aggressions against Haitians as a defense of Dominican sovereignty and culture.
The painting seems to ask, liberty for who? At what cost? And, who will pay?
PhD student in UT’s African and African Diaspora Studies program and Research Assistant at CUNY’s Dominican Studies Institute Archives and Library, Sophia Monegro, is from the Dominican Republic and works on Afro-Dominicanidad and nineteenth century geopolitics. I had been trying to place the geography depicted in Cristo de la Libertad without luck, having never been to either of Hispaniola’s nations. Though Gourgue has often depicted imagined landscapes, as in work like Paysage Imaginaire (n.d.), his inclusion of Pico Duarte, emphasized by a spiraling path up the lushly green mountain, suggested that the water bodies and more barren mountain faces in the painting might also reference real places. Upon seeing the painting, Monegro immediately recognized the body of water at the base of Pico Duarte as Dajabón River, also known as Massacre River because of two historical massacres that took place there. The 1937 massacre was the second of those. Massacre River runs along the northern section of the border between Haiti and Dominican Republic, just west of Pico Duarte. The contrast between the barren mountains on the other side of the river, and the verdant green of Pico Duarte in the painting are a common trope in representations of the border.
Monegro also pointed out that the boat in the river struck her as a representation of the constant migration and exchange between the two nations. She told me, “this painting seems to me a kind of corrective to Balaguer’s depiction of Duarte in El Cristo de Libertad. In other biographies like Juan Pablo Duarte: The Humanist,  we see that Duarte actually collaborated with Haitians to overthrow [Haitian President Jean-Pierre] Boyer. Boyer was hated on both sides of the border for his rural code that forced people to work on plantations.”
In Gourgue’s painting, we have a depiction of an elder Duarte, as opposed to Balaguer’s perpetual boy, that highlights the longstanding links between the two countries. The work redeploys the vocabulary of the dominant narrative of the two nations— whereby Haiti and the Dominican Republic live contentiously on an island, defined by their racial and cultural difference— to reveal the ongoing, intimate and oft-overlooked enmeshment between the two. The inclusion of the shadow of New York’s Statue of Liberty— which refers as much to the ideal of liberty, as to U.S. military and political intervention in both countries, the U.S.’s support of Balaguer during his most repressive years as president, and Duarte and many other Dominicans’ connections to New York City where a statue of the Dominican hero stands in a square bearing his name— adds a touch of irony and brings histories further afield into the frame. The painting seems to ask, liberty for who? At what cost? And, who will pay? In our current moment, with the prevalence of overt anti-immigrant and anti-black discourse in U.S. American politics, those questions remain timely.
Recommended Further Reading:
Espaillat, Rhina P. and Sarah Aponte, eds. Juan Pablo Duarte: The Humanist / Juan Pablo Duarte: El humanista: A Bilingual Selection of his Writings Seleccion bilingue de sus escritos. Biblioteca Nacional Pedro Henríquez Ureña, CUNY Dominican Studies Institute: Santo Domingo, New York, 2015.
Mayes, April J. and Kiran C. Jayaram, eds. Transnational Hispaniola: New Directions in Haitian and Dominican Studies, Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2018.
Paulino, Edward. Dividing Hispaniola: The Dominican Republic's Border Campaign against Haiti, 1930-1961 (Pitt Latin American Series). Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016.
 Founded in 1944, Le Centre d’Art is Haiti’s best known art institution. The informal school and art gallery is well known for its promotion of what’s come to be known as “the naïve tradition,” which focused on untrained artists from the Haitian lower classes. Foyer des Arts Plastiques was founded in 1950 by trained artists who helped to found Le Centre d’Art, but became disillusioned by le centre’s increasingly primitivist focus.