Marie Adrien Persac. ‘Palo Alto Plantation, near Donaldsonville, Louisiana.’ Gouache and collage on paper, 17″ x 23″, 1850’s. Private collection
A closer look at the Persac painting of Palo Alto (click on image for larger resolution) will reveal some interesting details and features. The window shutters on the main house, for example, are yellow in the painting: though the shutters have always been green, the green paint in Persac’s picture flaked off over time, revealing the yellow undercoat he had painted in order to make the final green of the finished work more vivid. When the painting was cleaned and restored in recent years, Persac’s original green was brought back. The combination of white and green was typical of such dwellings in mid-19th century Louisiana plantation dwellings.
The sugar house, where the cane was processed immediately after harvest into molasses and various grades of sugar, is just visible in the distant background of the painting. Only the wealthiest of planters generally built sugar houses of masonry: the one at Palo Alto was of wood. Federal troops were quartered in the sugar house in the early years of the war and it was not burned, though it has not survived. In both foreground and background of the painting horizontal rail fences are in evidence. Not in evidence is the extensive gridwork of ditches and canals common in all sugar plantations: their function was to drain excess water into the bayous which formed the rear boundaries of these agricultural operations. Maintenance of both fences and ditches constituted some of the main work of plantation slaves during the months when sugar cane was not being cultivated, harvested or processed.
To the left and slightly in front of the main house is a small frame structure with no chimney, which may have been a dairy, judging from its proximity to the plantation kitchen. To the right of the house is what is known in French as a ‘pigeonnier’, a pigeon house both ornamental and functional, with pyramidal roof and small shed attached. Though the original structure did not survive, it has been reconstructed in more recent years from an examination of the painting. A primitive shed in the middle ground of the painting appears to stand directly on the ground and has a dirt floor. The small boats moored nearby indicate that it would have been either a boat shed or storage facility for goods shipped or received via the bayou.
A small vine-covered cottage stands in the center of the painting, with white curtains pulled to either side of a central opening. According to family tradition, this was the schoolhouse. An English governess named Mrs. Goddard is recorded in the 1860 census as living with the Ayraud family. Just to the right of this, the small overseer’s house appears alongside the double row of slave quarters, each with two rooms, a chimney and open gallery across the front. It is interesting to note that they are of above-ground construction, and that the cabins on the right have steep double-pitched roofs, more typical of Creole than American design. Their proximity to one side of the manor house is also unusual, since slave quarters were often built some distance to the rear and not immediately visible.
Another point: the large figures in the foreground are actually collage, images cut by Persac from magazines and inserted into the painting, a common practice with Persac. The figures in the background of the picture, however, were drawn and painted by the artist, including the occupants of the sailboat, the people and animals on the farther bank, and the carriage with its passengers and horses passing the front of the house. And one more thing of note: anyone familiar with Palo Alto today will be struck by the relative lack of vegetation evident in the painting, which would have been executed not long after the land itself was originally cleared for planting and the house constructed in what had so recently been a wilderness.