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French School (early 19th century)

‘Henri Christophe, Henri I, King of Haiti’

With old label reading Portrait de l’Empereur d’Haiti

Oil on canvas, H. 57.8 x W. 43.8 cm

John Charles Frear, New York
His sale, Christie’s New York, 20 October 1988, lot 164
Sale, Christie’s, South Kensington, 9 October 2012, lot 319C

Private collection, France

Depicted here is probably Henri Christophe (1767-1820), a key leader in the Haitian Revolution and the only monarch of the Kingdom of Haiti. Christophe was of Bambara ethnicity in West Africa. Beginning with the uprising of enslaved Africans of 1791, he rose to power in the ranks of the Haitian revolutionary military. The revolution succeeded in gaining independence from France in 1804. In 1805 he took part under Jean-Jacques Dessalines in capturing Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic) against French forces who acquired the colony from Spain in the Treaty of Basel. Soon after, he was promoted to colonel and admiral in contemporary sources, according to his title ‘Almirante de Marina’.


After Dessalines was assassinated, Christophe retreated to the Plaine- du-Nord and created a separate government. On 17 February 1807, he was elected president of the State of Haiti, as he named that area. Alexandre Pétion was elected president in the south. On 26 March 1811, Christophe created a kingdom in the north and was proclaimed Henry I, King of Haiti. He also created a nobility and named his legitimate son Jacques-Victor Henry as prince and heir.

On 18 June 1809, British ships HMS Latona and HMS Cherub captured the French flagship Félicité, which had left Guadeloupe in company with another frigate sailing to France with colonial produce. The frigate escaped through superior sailing despite Cherub having conducted a long chase. Félicité was captured and seized, and the British sold the vessel to Henri Christophe’s State of Haiti the next month. The Haitians renamed her Améthyste.
The French had their flagship seized and their colony lost, which was painful. The ship in the back is shown as a spill of victory behind the king. It is based on an engraving by Thomas-Charles Naudet (1773-1810) depicting the battle of Cap Français (Cap Haitiën) in 1802, titled Prise du Cap Français par l’Armée Française, sous le commandement du Général Le Clerc ; le 15 et 20 Pluviose, An 10. Paris. Prints like this would be spread and collected amongst the French. This battle in the north of Haiti was precisely where Henri Christophe defeated the French and freed the country from slavery. The king points at a drawing of a ship with a pair of compasses, a symbol of Henri laying the foundations for the Haitian Navy. The portrait is distinguished from a generic ‘orientalizing’ portrait of an African prince or Pirate by the French flag, a prominent feature in the painting. Many French would immediately recognize it as the seized flagship with their enemy proudly depicted in front of it.

Richard Evans (1784-1871) made the only official portraits of Henri and his son Prince Jacques-Victor-Henri Christophe in circa 1816. They are depicted as a military man focussing on his achievements in the revolution and not as a monarch. Grand socioeconomic ambitions characterized Christophe’s rule, and he used a despotic hand to achieve them. However, Christophe, who was illiterate, was deeply committed to public education and its ability to transform Haitian society. He saw it as a tool to combat racial prejudice internationally by allowing Haitians to reach their potential and showcase to a prejudiced world an enlightened Black nation.

Christophe (portrayed in the style of Reynolds and Lawrence) desired to visualize his rule through a known language borrowed from English taste - in further rejection of the French. Accordingly, he sent them to other heads of state as advertisements for his enlightened government and abolition. At the same time, caricatures started to appear in Europe, delegitimizing his rule and strongly contradicting this appearance.

King Henri I is known for constructing Citadel Henry, now known as Citadelle Laferrière, the Sans-Souci Palace, the royal chapel of Milot, and numerous other palaces. Under his policies of corvée, or forced labour bordering on slavery, the Kingdom earned revenues from agricultural production, primarily sugar; but the Haitian people resented the system. He agreed with Great Britain to respect its Caribbean colonies in exchange for their warnings to his government of any French naval activity threatening Haiti. In 1820, unpopular, ill and fearing a coup, he committed suicide. Jacques-Victor, his son and heir, was assassinated ten days later.

Why the king is depicted wearing a page costume, which enslaved black servants were often made to wear in Europe, remains unclear. However, it is possible that a French painter made this painting and drew his inspiration from his poor knowledge about the appearance of black people. Could Henri have ordered this portrait right after his naval victory before he formed his enlightened plans, or is he depicted as an illegitimate pirate king?

- Díaz Calcaño, “Richard Evans, Portraits of the Caribbean’s first Black king and prince,” in: Smarthistory, May 12, 2022
- Sullivan Robles, “A Black King in the Caribbean” in: Solving Social Issues through Multicultural Experiences: 20th Conference Monograph Series, NAAAS & Affiliates, Scarborough, 2012
- Conerly, 'Your Majesty’s Friend’: Foreign Alliances in the Reign of Henri Christophe MA diss., University of New Orleans, 2013
- Bailey, The Palace of Sans-Souci in Milot, Haiti, Deutscher Kunstverlag, Berlin, 2017

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