The Spirit of Haiti


Located on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, Haiti has struggled with centuries of political oppression and violence that has left the country poor and vulnerable to natural disasters. Spain and France controlled the island from 1492 until 1791 when a successful slave uprising led to the formation of the first black republic in the Western Hemisphere. Since independence, a series of corrupt dictators have replaced colonial rule and plunged the nation into constant political upheaval.

Despite these hardships, Haiti has developed a flourishing artistic tradition that first gained international recognition in 1944 with the founding of the Centre d’Art in Port au Prince. Led by DeWitt Peters, an American painter teaching English in Haiti, the center encouraged self-taught artists to develop a style unique to Haiti by providing them with resources and promoting their work to the outside world. Paintings typically feature bold, vivid colors and simple forms, often with distorted perspective and flat, decorative surfaces of pattern and color.  

Haitian art is often called “primitive” and “naïve”, terms that misleadingly suggest a lack of sophistication in style and content. Although they do not necessarily follow formal artistic conventions, Haitian artists work in a spectrum of distinct styles, and their works address the complexities and ambiguities of life in Haiti: its tumultuous history, its complex spiritual beliefs and its ecological and social problems.

Jasmin Joseph, Haitian, b. 1923, Coeur (Heart), 1974, oil on Masonite, City of Davenport Art Collection, Gift of Dr. Walter E. Neiswanger, M.D., 1976.21

Paul Claude Gardère, Haitian, b. 1944, Madonna (Madame Duvalier), 1983, oil on Masonite, City of Davenport Art Collection, Gift of Dr. Walter E. Neiswanger, M.D., 1994.12