Like Alexandre Dumas, the author of Man In The Iron Mask, Lethiere was a man of color. (I am hoping that the presence of this painting in Rhode Island will prove providential. For, RISD was founded by Providence’s art community to celebrate the prize which one of their members – the African American Edward Bannister – won for landscape painting at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876.)
Biographical material on Lethiere always mention he was the illegitimate son of a colonial official from the French West Indian island of Guadalupe. However, it was not until 1977, in a five-volume work on Ingres (who had been a student of his) that Lethiere’s mother was described as a mulatto. Judging from the portraits Ingres did of him, however, she was probably more Caucasian – no doubt, a quadroon like so many of the mixed blood women of the French colonies whether here in New Orleans or des Antilles, whose sway over their white masters had almost become legendary by the end of the 18th century. Read about his life here.