Caroline Wogan DurieuxA True Original (1896–1989)

(This essay by Earl Retif was included in Newcomb College 1886-2006, Higher Education for Women in New Orleans, edited by Susan Tucker and Beth Willinger.)

Caroline Wogan Durieux was a petite, proud Creole woman with piercing, hawk-like eyes who did not suffer fools gladly. Born of a Roman Catholic father and an Episcopalian mother, she developed a deep spiritual sense and a strong interest in things religious but with a sharply critical eye for all organized religion. She inherited a strong independent streak from her mother along with a burning desire to be an educated woman at a time when that was not the norm. Always intellectually curious, she constantly sought out new ideas and was reluctant to stay too long with what was tried and true. Learning new things and teaching others was as much a part of her life as being an artist. But from her earliest memory, she knew she saw things in a different way. She began to draw at the age of four when her grandmother gave her a slate tablet with slate pencils. She soon discovered that by spitting on the slate and whisking the pencil around, she could create something that resembled smoke. This resulted in a series of pictures of smoke-spewing chimneys until her mother informed the budding artist that spitting was not a proper activity for young ladies.1

While in grammar school, Durieux took art lessons on Saturdays from Mary Butler, a member of the Newcomb College faculty. Durieux remembered Butler fondly as a teacher who taught her the basic rules of art, like perspective, without imposing restrictions on what she drew. Durieux had been working in watercolors since the age of six and was exhibiting great promise under Butler’s tutelage.2 Some of those very early efforts from 1907–8 depicting the Ursuline Convent, the French Market, and the Morphy Courtyard are now housed in the Historic New Orleans Collection.

Upon Durieux’s graduation from high school at the bilingual private Cenas Institute for Girls, her mother insisted that she continue her education at Newcomb College in the Art School then headed by Ellsworth Woodward. Durieux received a broad education in both the fine arts and the liberal arts, but the one thing that Woodward drilled into all of his students was the importance of drawing.3 She once commented, “If I can draw at all, it’s because for four years every day we drew for four hours.”4

Although Woodward and his star pupil were not always on the best of terms, Durieux respected him for the strong foundation that he and her other Newcomb teachers gave her. Woodward discouraged any exposure to modern or European art and had very set ideas on what constituted true art. Durieux commented: “He was a precise man who expected his students to copy his work exactly. This didn’t sit very well with me, so I decided that I would do what he wanted even to copying his signature. Woodward always signed his work with his initials in block form. His EW and my CW (for Caroline Wogan) were as similar as I could make them.”5

Durieux was interested in satire, and she often used humor in her art. Woodward thought art was a serious matter into which humor should not intrude. Her independent spirit often roused the fiery temper of the legendary professor. Durieux recalled: “One day Professor Woodward gave us the theme, ‘To him who hath, more shall be given.’ I made a black and white line drawing that showed a man in a hospital surrounded by his five children being presented with a new set of twins by a nurse. It brought down the house because it was the only one that was funny. All the other students had chosen to work more solemnly. Woodward couldn’t take my drawing seriously. He would have if he could have; he just could not do it.”6

Durieux earned a bachelor of design in 1916 and a bachelor of art education in 1917 from Newcomb. Her subsequent attendance at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art from 1918 to 1919 was something of a coup for it was highly unusual in that period for parents to finance advanced studies for women. It was the custom in New Orleans for prominent families to formally introduce their young daughters into society via a season of lavish parties. Caroline, however, was able to convince her parents to use the funds set aside for her debut to continue her studies. She often stated that being a woman worked to her advantage since, as she said “my father would have never allowed a son to go into a career so impractical.”7

The Pennsylvania Academy was elevated to the forefront of American art education when Thomas Eakins (1844–1916) taught there from 1876 to 1886. Students from all over flocked to the school that educated the likes of Robert Henri (1856–1929), John Marin (1870–1953), Charles DeMuth (1883–1935), Charles Sheeler (1883–1965), and John Sloan (1871–1951). When Durieux attended, it was led by Henry McCarter (1866–1942), who had studied directly with Eakins. McCarter was a less rigid man than Woodward, and Durieux blossomed under his encouragement of individual expression.

Upon her return to Louisiana, Caroline married Pierre Durieux (1889–1949) in April 1920. Pierre was a childhood friend and neighbor who worked in his family’s business, “importing laces, embroideries, white and colored dress goods and mosquito nettings.” His job gave Pierre the opportunity to forge friendships and relationships with many associates in the Latin countries. He learned their customs and spoke Spanish fluently. Shortly after their wedding, Pierre took a position with General Motors as part of its Cuban operation.8

The Durieuxs lived abroad in Havana in the early 1920s except for a short period when they returned to the Wogans’ summer home in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, to await the birth of what was to be their only child, Charles Wogan Durieux. Caroline describes her Cuban stay as one of “quiet artistic growth.” She thought Cuba was a very beautiful place, one that heightened her sense of color. Most of her paintings from the period were oils of still lifes, flowers, and landscapes.9

In the mid-1920s, New Orleans’ French Quarter became home to an extraordinary gathering of creative and talented people including the author William Faulkner, who lived across the alley from Durieux. Faulkner’s roommate at the time was William Spratling, who later moved to Mexico, where he created beautiful designs for handmade silver jewelry and one-of-a-kind art objects. Faulkner and Spratling would publish a privately printed book satirizing their circle of friends called Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles.

In 1926, Pierre was named the chief representative of General Motors for all of Latin America, and the family moved to Mexico City. He traveled extensively throughout the region while Caroline stayed in Mexico City and painted. Frans Blom (d. 1963), a professor in the Middle American Institute of Tulane University, provided Caroline with a letter of introduction to Diego Rivera (1886–1957), who eased her entry into the local community of artists. An artistic fervor was sweeping through Mexico at this time, with all the leading artists being encouraged to create public murals that would educate the masses about the history and achievements of the Mexican Revolution. The artistic leaders of this movement were José Clemente Orozco (1883–1949), David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896–1974), and Rivera.10

Durieux was impressed with the artistic genius of Diego Rivera, but as usual she stayed true to her own individual style. Rivera once remarked to Caroline, “I like your work, because it’s nothing like mine.”11 In 1929, Rene d’Harnoncourt (1901–1968), an important figure in the art world and later the director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, organized a solo exhibition of Caroline’s oils and drawings at the Sonora News Company. Diego Rivera wrote a favorable review of his friend’s exhibition and then chose the occasion to paint her portrait.

Portrait of Caroline Durieux, 1929, by Riego Rivera

Again, a promotion for Pierre marked an important development in his wife’s career. This time they moved to New York, where Caroline forged a lifelong friendship with Carl Zigrosser (1891–1975). Zigrosser would champion Durieux’s career first as director of the prestigious Weyhe Gallery on Lexington Avenue, then as the curator of prints at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and by including her in his many books on prints and their creators. It was Zigrosser who recognized Durieux’s talent and eye for satire and encouraged her adoption of lithography as a primary means of artistic expression.12 The result was her first print, the 1931 Teatro Lirico, which depicted a Mexican chorus line of less than fatal attraction.

In 1931, the Durieuxs again were transferred to Mexico City. Caroline was eager to learn more about lithography, and she enrolled in the Academy of San Carlos (now the National University of Mexico) to study with Emilio Amero (1901–1976). Amero had a passion for lithography and was a major influence on Durieux as well as many other artists in Mexico and the United States.

In 1934, Durieux experimented with etching, a technique she learned from Howard Cook (1901–1980). Her images are very moving yet, for her, rare examples of overt political commentary. Caroline wrote to Carl Zigrosser: “All my etchings are harrowing. I think it is because the medium is such a precarious one—the least slip and all is lost. I can’t be funny on a copper plate. I feel tragic the moment I think of doing an etching.”13

Also in 1934, the first major exhibition of her lithographs, etchings, and drawings was held at the Galeria Central in Mexico City to unanimous critical acclaim. Zigrosser wrote: “Her most outstanding quality is her individualism. This work is all hers—original, personalized, without foreign influence. Her observations about human weakness are strong, satiric and ingenious. She is a creator of types, to which she gives the truth of life, making them a part of enduring and memorable art.”14 The Mexican poet Jose Gorostizo (1901–1973) remarked on her ability to balance comedy and pathos and declared her part of “the spiritual family of Charlie Chaplain.”15

In 1937, Pierre Durieux was diagnosed with severe cardiac disease, and his doctors ordered him to return to the United States. The couple left Mexico reluctantly and returned to New Orleans. Caroline was coming home in style, a celebrity not only feted for her own art but as a colleague of Diego Rivera and the other great artists of Mexico. In the June 1937 edition of the national literary magazine Coronet, eight lithographs depicting North Americans visiting Mexico were illustrated.16 In the article accompanying the illustrations, Harry Salpeter wrote: “She strips people no less remorselessly when they’re fully attired at the opera as at the beach, where they help by stripping themselves. Maybe the truth is that people are their own caricaturists waiting for a Durieux or a Peggy Bacon (1895–1987) to come along and tell on them. Perhaps, it is a little too early to say that she is a modern Goya, but whether this is a prophecy or exaggeration, it proves what an impact her work has made.”17

From March through September 1937, Caroline worked as a consultant on the Federal Writers’ Project, creating drawings for the New Orleans City Guide and the book Gumbo Ya-Ya.18 She wrote to Zigrosser: “The drawings will amuse you—Negro spirituals, Creole ladies, whores and cemeteries. We have a Negro on the project who knows everything and everybody on the dark side of New Orleans. Nothing goes on that we miss—prominent church men and women, sportin’ ladies, voodoo queens, he gets them all to pose for me.”19

The dean of Newcomb College, Pierce Butler, hired Durieux to teach in the art department for the 1937 fall term. Durieux always credited Woodward and Newcomb for her drawing skills, and she placed particular importance on ensuring that her students could draw before advancing to other classes.

Durieux took on a second job as director of the Federal Art Project (FAP) of the Works Progress Administration in February 1939. In a state where segregation by race remained legal until the 1960s, Caroline’s Louisiana division of the FAP was the only project not to practice segregation. Caroline always expressed great pride in that accomplishment: “I had a feeling that an artist is an artist and it doesn’t make any difference what color he or she is.”20 Robert Armstrong Andrews, associate director of the national office, praised Durieux’s work: “It is my observation that the people in Louisiana have more concern with the potentialities of the Negro and less for his limitations than the people of any other state.”21 Some of the notable artists who created works for the Louisiana FAP were Clarence Millet (1897–1959), John McCrady (1911–1968), Charles Reinicke (1906–1983), Laura Blocker Lewis (1915–), Knute Heldner (1886–1954), and Lawrence Arthur Jones (1910–1996).

In 1941, Durieux took a six-month leave from Newcomb and the FAP at the request of the Rockefeller Foundation to travel throughout Latin America with a special exhibit titled North American Paintings. The Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in conjunction with the federal government, sponsored the exhibition in an effort to promote President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor” policy. By the time Durieux returned to New Orleans, America had entered World War II. Many of the artists who had been on the FAP had left to fight overseas so Durieux enlisted those who remained in a silkscreen project that turned out posters supporting the war effort.

Louisiana State University offered Caroline a position in their art department in 1942. She decided to leave Newcomb because she thought, “it would be more challenging to be at a state university where you could teach both men and women.”22 Another lure was LSU’s more extensive printmaking facilities, which enabled Durieux to be more productive in her own lithographic output. The move also marked the first time she taught printmaking.

The 1940s saw the completion of three major projects by Durieux. She created ten lithographs to serve as illustrations for the book Mardi Gras Day, which also featured works by John McCrady and Ralph Wickiser.23 She oversaw the publication of a book by LSU Press titled Caroline Durieux: 43 Lithographs and Drawings with an introduction written by Carl Zigrosser. In addition, Durieux earned a master’s degree in fine art from LSU using her own lithographs as the basis of her thesis titled “An Inquiry into the Nature of Satire: 24 Satirical Lithographs.” This thesis is a treasure trove of information because it affords a rare look into the thought processes of a creative artist on twenty-four of her most important works. The illustrations Visitor and Revelations are two of the lithographs from her thesis.

Visitor, 1944, by Caroline Durieux

Durieux’s lithographs of the 1930s and 1940s rank as some of the finest satirical pieces ever made. In Visitor, death is portrayed in the French fashion as feminine seductress rather than as grim reaper. Durieux’s ladylike skeleton in all her finery comes to pay yet another call in wartime New Orleans. Her contribution to Carl Zigrosser’s Artists for Victory exhibition was Bourbon Street, in which Durieux chose to portray our servicemen in a rest-and-relaxation setting listening to the jazzy vocals of two singers in a local club. Religion was a recurring theme in Durieux’s work, as portrayed in the lithographs Priests, Benediction, First Communion 1 and 2 and Nuns on Orleans Street.

Revelations, 1945, by Caroline Durieux

In October 1949, Pierre Durieux, overcome by the health problems that had plagued him since the couple’s return from Mexico, boarded a bus to New Orleans from Baton Rouge, checked into the St. Charles Hotel, and took his life. Caroline rarely spoke of this, but she made a pencil drawing of Pierre that calls to mind a death mask. Caroline’s way of dealing with her husband’s death was to throw herself even more into her work.

During the 1950s, Caroline traveled to Europe to work at Desjobert and Lacourierre, two of the great ateliers of Paris, where she created several series of color lithographs as well as etchings. Insomnie contrasts an initial humorous impact with a most serious underlying message, which challenges the idea of death as that final, peaceful sleep. Deep South is the artist’s statement on the Ku Klux Klan, complete with white-hooded figures and stylized crosses all rendered in a subtle red, white, and blue motif. The lithographs created in Paris represent the first time Durieux used color in printmaking. At first, her use of color was almost incidental to the lithographs she created, but soon she began to produce color-rich images.

Perhaps it is most important to know that Durieux was an innovator. Never content with her past accomplishments, she always strove to create exciting new images in interesting new ways. In the early 1950s, Durieux began her experimental work on electron printmaking, demonstrating the peaceful use of atomic technology.24 When she showed her electron prints to Arthur Heintzelman, then keeper of prints at the Boston Public Library, he drew a historical parallel with the cliché verres of the French artist Camille Corot (1796–1895), which he brought out to show her.25 Her curiosity piqued, Durieux began to explore the possibilities of creating cliché verres in color. She successfully produced the first color cliché verres while simultaneously perfecting her technique for electron prints.

Durieux might be less widely known today precisely because of her pioneering creativity in these avant-garde fields. Though Carl Zigrosser championed her prints in all media, the general public remained hesitant to accept the new methods to which she devoted the last thirty years of her artistic life. Zigrosser, writing about Impasse in The Appeal of Prints, stated: “Electron prints . . . are true prints which indeed have a direct and intimate connection with the artist’s own handiwork.”26 Impasse, Zigrosser continued, “depicts our constant struggle to overcome professional or emotional inertia in everyday life. We often become so bound by daily activities, so familiar and secure, that we fail to break the binds that prevent us from achieving our true potential.”

By 1964, Durieux had retired from active teaching but was named professor emeritus and continued to work with individual students at her home and studio on the fringe of the LSU campus. During her teaching career at both Newcomb and LSU, she influenced the lives and careers of innumerable students who would go on to artistic careers of their own. Most notable among the Durieux students were Jesselyn Zurik (1916–), Robert Gordy (1933–1986), George Dureau (1930–), Elemore Morgan, Jr. (1931–), and Aris Koutroulis (1938–). In an oral history interview, Koutroulis talked about Durieux the professor: “And of course the major person who had a lot to do with my life was Caroline Durieux, the printmaker. She was fantastic. I learned from her not only about art but also learned about life. She was just absolutely amazing in her way of life and her way of thinking, the clarity of her mind and her presence of knowing what is and what isn’t, what’s real and what’s illusion. . . . She imposed a certain discipline about working, about the process of working, somehow about the beauty of working.”27

The ten years between 1964 and 1975 seemed to be less active in Durieux’s career. She concentrated on her work with both electron printing and cliché verre, producing thirty-five images in that period. However, less attention was being paid to her work: nothing new was being written and there were no big exhibitions. Except in her local community, Caroline Durieux seemed to be an artist relegated to the history books. She and her art were out of fashion.

The late 1970s saw a resurgence of interest in the art and artists who had begun their careers in the early part of the twentieth century. All of a sudden, Caroline Durieux and her art were again relevant. In 1976, the Historic New Orleans Collection (HNOC) mounted a major retrospective of her work at their Royal Street gallery—the first exhibition ever held in that institution for a living artist. In 1977, Loyola University mounted a retrospective that complemented the one held earlier at HNOC, and LSU Press published an expanded version of its 1949 book on Durieux’s lithographs with added illustrations and additional text. In 1978, at the age of eighty-two, Durieux conducted a three-day seminar on cliché verre printing in connection with Wayne State University and the Detroit Institute of the Arts. A full description of Durieux’s role in the development of this process can be found in Cliché Verre, published by the Detroit Institute in 1980. At that time, the only cliché verre in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art was Durieux’s Frail Banner. The LSU Museum also mounted an exhibition in 1978, Art, the Atom and LSU: An Exhibition of Electron Prints, showing only the artist’s electron prints.

June and Norman Kraeft of the prestigious June 1 Gallery mounted an exhibition, Caroline Durieux: Three Lifetimes in Printmaking in 1979, in both their Washington, D.C., and Connecticut locations. The Kraefts later included Durieux’s work in their book Great American Prints. In a 1980 ceremony, the National Women’s Caucus chose Caroline Durieux to receive a lifetime achievement award for Outstanding Achievement in the Visual Arts.28 Newcomb College mounted a retrospective entitled Caroline Durieux, Five Decades in Printmaking, just one of five exhibitions of the artist’s work held that same year to coincide with the award.29

Howard Mumford Jones, a Pulitzer Prize–winning writer on American culture, wrote in the March 1978 edition of the New Republic: “I suppose Caroline Durieux of Louisiana was born too far South (and continues obstinately to live and work in and around New Orleans) for the critical telescopes of the New York art critics. There is now . . . another opportunity to consider the worth of this artist. Some satirists go to work with a meat-axe and some with a stiletto, but Durieux prefers the finest and sharpest of needles.”30

Durieux’s artistic career was ended in the early 1980s by a stroke that impaired her hand-eye coordination. She refused to draw or paint after that, even avoiding the art therapy that was prescribed as part of her recovery. She retreated into a world of books and had the library deliver seven new books each week. She read voraciously, seeming to prefer works in her first language, French, or her adopted language, Spanish. She liked to keep her language skills sharp, and this was her way of doing so. When friends visited, she would often be armed with things she had read that she would strongly insist they read. Her visitors often left looking for translators so that they could keep up with their frail friend. Hers was indeed a lifetime of learning until the day she died in 1989.

Artist, teacher, innovator—these were words often used to describe Caroline Durieux. While all are true, this daughter of Newcomb might have preferred to be remembered most as a learned and fiercely independent woman unafraid to speak her mind. She was a true original.31

Notes

  1. Much of this essay is based on the author’s conversations and friendship with Durieux over many years. See also Ann Michelle Moore, “The Life and Work of Caroline Spelman Wogan Durieux (1896–1989)” (master’s thesis, Tulane University, 1992), 12.
  2. Caroline Durieux, interview by Lois Bannon, Baton Rouge, 1975, in possession of the author.
  3. Moore, “The Life and Work of Caroline Spelman Wogan Durieux,” 15–16.
  4. Caroline Durieux, interview by Dennis Barrie and Marilyn Symmes, Archives of American Art, June 1978.
  5. Moore, “The Life and Work of Caroline Spelman Wogan Durieux,” 19–20.
  6. Caroline Durieux, “An Inquiry into the Nature of Satire: Twenty-Four Satirical Lithographs” (master’s thesis, Louisiana State University, 1949).
  7. Durieux interview by Bannon.
  8. Moore, “The Life and Work of Caroline Spelman Wogan Durieux,” 37.
  9. Ibid., 39–40.
  10. Ibid., 44–46.
  11. Cynthia Lamey, “The Graphic Art of Caroline Durieux” paper, n.d., 2.
  12. Lithography is a form of printmaking that utilizes the principle that grease and water do not mix. The process involves the production of an image on a flat metal or traditionally limestone surface by treating the items to be printed with a greasy substance to which ink adheres, while treating the nonimage areas to repel ink. Impressions of this are then printed onto paper and can be used for multiple productions.
  13. Carl Zigrosser, The Artist in America: Twenty-four Close-ups of Contemporary Printmakers (New York: Knopf, 1942), 128.
  14. Ibid., 131.
  15. Richard Cox, Caroline Durieux: Lithographs of the Thirties and Forties (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977), 11.
  16. Moore, “The Life and Work of Caroline Spelman Wogan Durieux,” 73.
  17. Harry Salpeter, “About Caroline Durieux: A Southern Girl Whose Pictures Have No Languor, but an Icy Bite,” Coronet, June 1937, 50.
  18. Lyle Saxon, New Orleans City Guide (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1938); Lyle Saxon, Gumbo Ya-Ya (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1945).
  19. Zigrosser, The Artist in America, 130.
  20. Durieux interview by Barrie and Symmes.
  21. Robert Armstrong Andrews to Caroline Durieux, June 26, 1939.
  22. Durieux interview by Barrie and Symmes.
  23. Ralph Wickiser, Caroline Durieux, and John McCrady, Mardi Gras Day (New York: Henry Holt, 1948).
  24. An electron print is made by creating an image on a flat surface with ink that contains radioactive isotopes. The radioactive image is placed in contact with a sheet of photographic paper in a light-tight envelope. The envelope is then placed between two pieces of glass, ensuring absolute contact between the photographic paper and the matrix. The radioactive image reacts with the photographic paper to produce an exact print of the image onto the paper. The original image is radioactive; the final electron print is not (Caroline Durieux Gallery Guide, LSU Museum of Art, 2010).
  25. A cliché verre print has the characteristics of both printmaking and photography. The process involves two basic steps. In the first step, the artist makes an image on a matrix (as in printmaking) that is transparent or partially transparent. This involves coating a transparent glass plate or sheet of plastic film with an opaque emulsion, such as printer’s ink, on which the artist then draws an image with an etching needle or other sharp instrument to reveal the glass plate surface. The hand-drawn matrix is then used in a manner of a photographic negative when it is superimposed on light-sensitive paper and exposed to light. The light acts as the printing agent as it passes through the drawn areas of the glass plate to darken the corresponding portions on the photographic paper below, replicating the image as a positive print as in photography (http://arts.jrank.org/pages/9550/Clich%C3%A9-verre.html).
  26. Carl Zigrosser, The Appeal of Prints (Kennett Square, Pa.: KNA Press, 1970), 78.
  27. Aris Koutroulis, interview by James Crawford, Archives of American Art, January 1976.
  28. Ida Rittenberg Kohlmeyer (NC 1933) also received an award the same year (see the Ida Kohlmeyer interview in this volume).
  29. A posthumous exhibit, From Society to Socialism: The Art of Caroline Durieux, was held at the Newcomb Art Gallery, in spring of 2008, with the author as curator.
  30. Howard Mumford Jones, “Books Considered,” New Republic, March 1978, 34–35.
  31. The largest collection of Durieux works may be seen in the following museums: the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia; the Historic New Orleans Collection, and the Louisiana State Museum, both in New Orleans; the Museum of Art at Louisiana State University and the Louisiana Art and Science Museum, both in Baton Rouge; and the Meridian Museum of Art, Meridian, Mississippi.
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