An ›Oath of the Ancestors‹ and an Undermining of the ›White God‹

The painting had, by this time, become a ›national icon‹. Painted in Paris in 1822, it had been clandestinely brought to Haïti and mostly forgotten in Europe. It was not until 1991, that it was both ›rediscovered‹ in a cathedral in Port-au-Prince and (after negotiations with the Haïtian government) transported to the Musées de France in Versailles, where from 1995 to 1997 it was restored. In the presence of the ambassador of Haïti it was presented to the public in the Louvre in 1998 and, after a stopover in Guadeloupe, the native island of the painter, was hanged up in the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince.1 Just under a decade after this, it emerged on a cover of an edited volume on the revolution in Haïti.2

Lethiere Painting

   During the earthquake at the beginning of the year 2010, the painting took some damage. French rescue workers were able to retrieve it and it was again taken to France for restoration.3 Before it was returned to Haïti in 2012, the Louvre put in on display once more, this time as a part of an exhibition with the title ›Le Musée Monde‹, curated by Marie Gustave Le Clézio.4 Once again, the representatives of Haïti participated in the presentation: the painting adorned the cover page of the periodical newsletter by the embassy of Haïti in Paris5 and the then foreign minister and later prime minister of Haïti, Laurent Lamothe, visited the exhibition.6

Lettre Trimestrielle  Haitian politicians

   Nevertheless, a young scientist, who investigated into the history of the painting, criticized this approach: »History seems to repeat itself through the exhibition of the Oath of the Ancestors«.7 While this addressed the exhibition, a commentary quoted by her explained: »If God has no Ethnicity, then why is he always depicted as caucasian?«.

   The assessment that a »Dieu trop blanc« could be seen in the painting was also what a doctoral student got as an answer when she interrogated art students.8 They could have easily oriented themselves by the literature about Lethière’s painting, which calls »the choice to include a figure of God impossibly promising« – because »[w]hat color could he be other than white?«9 Darcy Grimaldo Gringsby basically sees three reasons for this: at the time when the painting was created, the power relations in Haïti had changed – the whole island was a unified republic with a ›mulatto‹ as president; furthermore, the Bourbon Restoration existed in France – and the artist attempted to combine the subject with that of the revolution; finally, the ›white‹ God literally was a father figure – this is said to be a hardly hidden reference to the ›white‹ father of the artist.


   Only at first sight, this seems to fit in neatly with the painter’s biography.10 Guillaume Guillon-Lethière was born on 10 January 1760 in Guadeloupe. He was the illegitimate son of a royal official named Guillon and a freed black slave. Because his father already had two marital sons, he called himself after his status as the third son ›Le Thiers‹ or ›Le Thière‹. His father enabled him to fulfil his dream of becoming a painter, and send him to the drawing school in Rouen (France) in 1774. There he won several prizes and was accepted into the Royal Academy in 1777. From 1786 to 1791 he lived in Rome, then returned to Paris and started exhibiting his works in the Salons. In 1807 he became the director of the French Academy in Rome, where he stayed until 1816.

JAD Ingres

   From this time originates a portrait of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. In 1818 Lethière became a membre de l’Institut, and in 1819 professor at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Even though he was occasionally called ›Lethière le mulâtre‹, he was counted amongst the elites of prerevolutionary, revolutionary and restorative France. This became apparent not least in the painting ›Meeting of Artists in Isabey’s Studio‹ (1798) by Louis-Léopold Boilly.

Meeting of Artists

   The painting implicitly deals with the meaning of the ›big three‹ of social differentiation: class, gender and race. Problems of social stratification are radically shielded and the entirety of the artists, congregated by Jean Baptiste Isabey, are depicted as distinguished and courtly dressed gentlemen. Altogether thirty-one men from all areas of art – actors, architects, engravers, musicians, painters, sculptors, writers – are represented.11 The exclusive character of their circle is even more emphasized by the circumstance that women are not permitted in his depiction (except, of course, their allegoric version which is represented here by Minerva who, in Antiquity, acted as, inter alia, the guardian of art).12 In terms of ›race‹, the portrayal is integrative. Draped in a rust-coloured cloak, Lethière is standing clearly visible in the middle of the painting, is engrossed in conversation and is fully facing the spectator, his forehead in particular brightened by the incident light.

Detail Lethière

   Hence there is no obvious reason, why the painter should have fallen for the idea to demonstrate and celebrate the origin from a ›white‹ father in an apotheosis of the Haïtian Revolution by placing the symbolical oath of the ›coloured‹ Alexandre Sabès Pétion and the ›black‹ Jean-Jacques Dessalines under the blessing of a ›white‹ God.13

   The ›white‹ God in Lethière’s painting, of course, gives occasion to ask to what extent he was also chosen to overwrite ›black‹ rites. After all ›vodou‹ was a form of religious autonomy which, in the time of the revolution, had survived lengthy governmental and clerical attempts of repression, even though it had been forced into illegality and could only be practiced concealed or in secrecy. In the course of this development, »Vodou became the axis mundi of the black community in Haiti«.14

Dutty  Fatiman

   Incidentally, Boukman Dutty, a voudou priest himself, is said to have made the signal for the insurrection. He lead the ceremony (of which many images are circulating today) together with the voodoo priestess Cécile Fatiman (a ›mulatto‹). In its process he talked about God and resistance: »The Good Lord who created the sun which gives light from above, [...] this god, hidden in the clouds, watches us. He sees all that the white man does. The god of the white man calls him to commit crimes; our god asks only good works from us. But this god who is so good orders revenge! [...] Throw away the image of the god of the whites who thirsts for our tears and listen to the voice of liberty which speaks in the hearts of all of us«.15


   The »Good Lord [...] hidden in the clouds« had assumed several aggregation states over the history of colonialism and slave trade. Here, he was involved in the initiation of slave trade in the form of the unigenituts dei filius Jesus and, in the person of dei genitrix Maria, was the leading figure of a slave revolt.

   Part of the chumminess of Christianity and racism was, that one of the ships, with which the participation of England in the transatlantic slave trade was launched, bore the name ›Jesus‹. It was a four-masted carrack, the ›Jesus of Lübeck‹, which Henry VIII had purchased as a reinforcement of his fleet and which Elizabeth I had lent out to the pirate John Hawkins, who made it his flagship and used it for slave trade.16


   This did not stop the rebels of Stono River in 1739 to start their insurrection on Saturday 8, the day of Nativity of Virgin Mary.17 The leaders of the rebellion came from the Congo where the traditional adoration of Maria had once again increased after the execution of Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita in 1706. She wanted to end the reign of the Portuguese and rebuild the kingdom of the Congo. She thought herself to be in league with God and assumed that Mary and Jesus in fact came from the Congo. Her version of the ›Ave Maria‹ contained the plea »Pray for us, Santa [Holy] Mother of Nzambi a Mpungo, so that we may be worthy of the promises of Christ«.

   In the Haïtian Vodou culture, the varieties of Virgin Mary were represented by diverse goddesses, the Mater Dolorosa by the light-skinned Ezili Freda and the Mater Salvatoris by the dark-skinned Ezili Dantò (which both until today circulate as kitschy devotional objects).18 The skin colours of God and his own were well flexible. Their Christian version was exported by the Europeans, but their quasi-ethnic characteristics were not sacrosanct. This held true also for the Son of God: »There were no dominant images of Jesus in early colonial America. [...] Jesus was neither white, nor red, nor black, and all types of people could interact with him«.19

Freda  Danto

   That the painting ended up in a church had little to do with God but much with the political circumstances. It was not too pious and too white, but too black and too utopian. Painted in 1822, in the following year the son of the artist brought it to Haïti, where »this exceptional gift proved rather out of place«.20 For this reason it was not hung up in the presidential palace but committed to the church (and, not until eighty years had passed, it arrived in the Palace of Independence, opened in 1904, only to then be transferred to the cathedral which was erected in 1918).

   Alexandre Pétion had passed away in 1818. His successor Jean-Pierre Boyer, also a ›mulatto‹, had united the (mulatto) Republic of Haïti and the (black) Kingdom of Haïti in 1820 and thus ended the influence of the deceased Dessalines and Christophe. Under his command, Pétion was stylized as the Father of the Fatherland because »[o]f all the leaders since independence, Boyer was the most inclined to keep his government confined to a mulatto élite«.21

the 4 lads

   The picture of a unifying oath with Dessalines was thus not actually topical. This held true, in particular, because Boyer was not averse to compounding with France and the French repeatedly attempted to play the race card with respect to Haïti. Still after the fall of Napoleon, the politicians of the restoration contrived the plan of a race state which included the return to slavery for the blacks in Haïti, while the upper classes of the ›mulattoes‹ would be baited »as honorary whites by being given lettres des blancs either for ›the fairness of their complexion, their fortune, their education, or their public services‹«. The rest of the ›mulattoes‹ »were to be placed ›somewhat below the white caste«.22

   ›Le Serment des Ancêtres‹, by contrast, made a clear profession to a black republic. In relying on Dessalines, even long before the latter’s public rehabilitation, Guillaume Guillon-Lethière drew on the very same black revolutionary, who was said to have banned the white from the flag of the republic by removing the white stripe from the tricolour23 and who was ascribed »an abiding hatred of whites«.24 Furthermore, the Constitution of 1805 influenced by him, maintained that ›all Haïtians are black‹. This was, on the one hand, »a negative universalism« which rewrote identity by the exclusion of the former colonial masters’ racial self-definition. On the other hand, it was »an affirmation that blackness names not a skin color but a political project of resistance to slavery and colonial oppression«.25

the text

   The Constitution of 1805 was not only black, it was also the confidently formulated consequence of a revolution. Its tablets of stone are therefore sitting atop a podium erected by the revolutionaries. It is neither the gift of former colonial masters or slaveholders who now behave enlightened, nor is it the present of a caring and benevolent god. It rather is the self-produced profession to a freedom won by self-emancipation and the willingness to defend it.

   Lethière’s iconographic programme leaves no doubt about this message. On the one hand, it locates the scene at the time of the Old Covenant. On the other hand it assigns the God, identified as יהוה, a new role. He is no longer the author and donor of the tablets of law for his people, as who he is represented in the countless paintings, which depict these tablets as being handed from above – be it as a figure of a fatherly god (as in Julius Schnorr of Carolsfeld’s painting), be it as a god looking down from the clouds (as on the Florentine paradise door of Lorenzo Ghiberti), be it by the aura of a godly light (as in Benjamin West’s work).

the tablets

   Pétion and Dessalines are no Moses. They have taken their history into their own hands and conceptualized the constitution themselves. This becomes drastically clear, only shortly after the completion of Lethière’s painting, when an unknown graver illustrated the unavoidable recognition of Haïti by France. He unhesitatingly reproduced the European iconography of slave emancipation as an act of magnanimous granting, unashamedly as well as ridiculously drives to the knees of half-naked ›savages‹ the revolutionaries in power and transcends the message of deliverance on heavenly tablets of law surrounded by a white aureole.

the text

   This pictorial language was rescinded and emphatically altered by Lethière. These changes straightly find expression in the broken chains and jougs, lying at the feet of the revolutionaries. Expanding into the pictorial services of abolitionism, they are effective signs of inhumanity as well as subordination. Yet, John Gabriel Stedman, in his richly illustrated report about the insurgent blacks in Surinam, could not refrain from depicting, besides ethnopornographically pinioned female slaves and a ›Europe‹ paid court to by ›Africa‹ and ›America‹, armed maroons.

Stedman’s pictures

   His sketch of the combat actions, accompanied by an illustration of racial relations, sees itself compelled to pass over the prevailing ideas of racial purity in order to arrive at an, at least pictorially, partly levelled balance of power. ›Mulattoes‹ are (at the same time as precarious allies or even potential opponents) placed in the centre of the opposing parties, with ›quarteroons‹ and ›mestizos‹ fighting alongside the ›whites‹.26

the text

   In Lethière’s work this schematism, which is ultimately designed for a victory of the ›white‹ party, is historically disproven. The former slaves have freed themselves in an armed struggle. The gens de couleur libre, who originally counted among their opponents, have allied with them. The testimonies of their subordination lay broken at their feet. In contrast stands the ›white’s‹ favourite portrayal of the wrongfully enslaved black, lying shackled and helpless on his knees, evoking his humanity, and pleading for his freedom. While the revolutionaries from Haïti confidently placed their boots on the signs of enslavement, the ideologically depicted slaves, even at the time of the American Civil War, are forced to their knees and were said to owe their emancipation only to the benevolence of the white abolitionists.27


   A drastic and wide-spread example of the white iconography of emancipation was supplied by Samuel Jennings ›Liberty Displaying the Arts and Sciences; or, The Genius of America Encouraging the Emancipation of the Blacks‹ of 1790/92.28 In this painting freedom is as white as can be. At the same time the painter asserts that his ›freedom‹ has nothing to do with slavery except for ending it and placing her white foot upon the broken chains – as if it had not been the bourgeois discourse of freedom which went with along with the development of modern racism and the legitimation of slavery.29 Moreover, the ›white‹ freedom purports to supply the slaves freed by her with the blessings of culture – as if the globe prominently placed in the left-hand corner of the painting (which not by chance predominantly showed the ›new‹ world) did not depict the maritime routes on which ships travelled, attended to the colonial plundering of the world by Europe and used in order to run the transatlantic slave trade;30 – and as if the books in their libraries were not full of the small print of the ›racial contract‹ with whose help the philosophers of the Enlightenment pretended to be able to treat non-white people as wards.31


   The former slaves were painted correspondingly grateful. They are lying on their knees and are waiting hopefully for the destiny intended for them by this ›freedom‹ – as if there had not been any slave revolts (like Bayano's revolt in Panama, the Quilombo dos Palmares in Brazil, the St. John slave insurrection in the West Indies, Cato's conspiracy in South Carolina Tacky's war in Jamaica or Cuffy's rebellion in Guyana).32

   Not least, the painter assigned a prominent place in the foreground of his painting to a bust. It wears the facial features of Henry Thornton, a successful banker, supporter of the proselytizing in Africa, member of the abolitionist movement and long-time chairman of the Sierra Leone company, who wanted to return free blacks to the former slave coast, not least with the aim »to promote the civilization of Africa«.33 He represented the future, which the ›freedom‹ had intended for the slaves who, in the background, are depicted enjoying their life. Behind their backs, the wind already billows the sails of those ships onto which they were soon to be loaded to be brought back to Africa (to drive forward its ›civilisation‹ and to avert the dangers of ›miscegenation‹ at home).

   Even while France, with the revolution of 1848, officially abolished slavery in its colonies, the iconic representation of this process drew a dishonest picture. In François-Auguste Biard’s painting of the same year, ›L’abolition de l’esclavage dans les colonises françaises‹, it is not the black revolutionists who have the podium, but the white representatives of the colonial state. Its agent receives precautionary backing by officers and sailors of the navy. His posture is imperious, his salute is not addressed to the freed slaves but to the flag of the former slavery state. With the sun in their backs, it seems as if the state’s emissaries and their flag, like the bringers of light, are shining onto the freed slaves.


   ... to be continued

1   Cf. ›Le serment des ancêtres‹, un chef-d’ouvre d’Haïti au Musée du Louvre. In: Communauté haïtienne de France. Dix ans d’histoire 1991-2001, ed. by Wiener Kerns Fleurimond. Paris: L’Harmattan 2003, pp. 203-205, p. 204.

2   Cf. David Patrick Geggus, Norman Fiering (eds.): The World of the Haitian Revolution. Bloomington: Indiana University Press 2009.

3   Cf. Susan Wood: Saving a Haitian National Icon: In: Oakland Journal, 19, 2010 (Rochester: Oakland University), pp. 35-50.

4   Cf. Lena Bopp: Le Clézio in Paris. Kunst oder Handwerk, das ist hier die Frage. In: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 7.12.2011.

5   Cf. Newsletter Service Culturel Ambassade Haiti.

6   Cf. Haïti - France : Résultats satisfaisants pour la première journée de négociations bilatérales.

7   Natalie Jolivert: Le Serment des Ancêtres, there also the following; for her thesis in architecture see Le Manoir Alexandra.

8   Anne-Marie Petitjean: L’ekphrasis comme tentative de restitution d’un tableau du Louvre.

9   Darcy Grimaldo Gringsby: Revolutionary Sons, White Fathers, and Creole Difference. Guillaume Guillon-Lethière’s Oath of the Ancestors (1822). In: Yale French Studies, 101, 2001, pp. 201-226, p. 213; for the following see ibid., passim.

10   For the following information see Helen Weston: The Oath of the Ancestors by Lethière ›le mulâtre‹. Celebrating the Black/Mulatto Alliance in Haïti’s Struggle for Independence. In: An Economy of Colour. Visual Culture and the Atlantic World, 1660 - 1830, ed. by Geoff Quilley, Kay Dian Kriz. Manchester [et al.]: Manchester University Press 2003, pp. 176-195, esp. pp. 184 f.

11   Cf. Sylvain Laveissière: L’Atelier d’Isabey. Un Panthéon de l’amitié. In: Boilly: un grand peintre français de la Révolution à la Restauration, (catalogue), ed. by Annie Scottez-De Wambrechies. Lille: Musée des Beaux-Arts 1988, pp. 52-63.

12   Cf. Ewa Lajer-Burcharth: Necklines. The Art of Jacques-Louis David after the Terror. New Haven [et al.]: Yale University Press 1999, pp. 213 f.

13   The interpretation by Darcy Grimaldo Gringsby: Revolutionary Sons, White Fathers, and Creole Difference, p. 221 is, in this context, rather breakneck than daring: »This is a picture not just of a father and a son but also of revolutionary brothers. The problem is the difficulty in imagining from where and from whom Dessalines could come. God does not appear to be his father. The diagonal edge where black and white clouds meet at the picture’s very center descends from God the Father towards Pétion, not towards Dessalines«.

14   Nathaniel Samuel Murrell: Afro-Caribbean Religions. An Introduction to Their Historical, Cultural, and Sacred Traditions. Philadelphia: Temple University Press 2010, p. 63.

15   Quoted from Carolyn E. Fick: The Making of Haiti. The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press 1990, p. 93; see also ibid., pp. 264 ff. The resistance also had an impact on the catholic church, whose influence was drastically constrained by the revolution. In many churches vodou priests practiced, and after Dessalines’ Constitution of 1805 »an open schism [occurred which] caused the Vatican to refuse to allow any of its priests to enter Haiti« (Nathaniel Samuel Murrell: Afro-Caribbean Religion, p. 65).

16   Cf. Harry Kelsey: Sir John Hawkins. Queen Elizabeth’s Slave Trader. New Haven [et al.]: Yale University Press 2003, p. 55 and passim.

17   Cf. Mark M. Smith: Time, Religion, Rebellion. In: id. (ed.), Stono. Documenting and Interpreting a Southern Slave Revolt. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press 2005, pp. 108-123 (the following quote is from ibid., p. 113); see also Mary Ann Clark: Then We’ll Sing a New Song. African Influences on America’s Religious Landscape. Lanham [et al.]: Rowman and Littlefield 2012, pp. 47 ff. and John K. Thornton: The Kongolese Saint Anthony. Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1684 - 1706. Cambridge [et al.]: Cambridge University Press 1998.

18   Cf. Karen McCarthy Brown: Mama Lola. A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Exp. ed. Berkeley [et al.]: University of California Press 2001, pp. 225 ff. and 246 ff.

19   Edward J. Blum, Paul Harvey: The Color of Christ. The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press 2012, p. 29.

20   Carlo Célius: Neoclassicism and the Haitian Revolution. In: The World of the Haitian Revolution, ed. by David Patrick Geggus, Norman Fiering. Bloomington: Indiana University Press 2009, pp. 352-392, p. 379.

21   Helen Weston: The Oath of the Ancestors by Lethière ›le mulâtre‹, pp. 186 f.

22   David Nicholls: Haiti. Race, Slavery and Independence (1804-1825). In: Slavery and Other Forms of Unfree Labour, ed. by Léonie Archer. London [et al.]: Routledge 1988, pp. 225-238, p. 228.

23   Cf. Michael R. Hall: Historical Dictionary of Haiti. Lanham [et al.]: Rowman and Littlefield 2012, p. 131, s.v. ›National Flag‹.

24   Jeremy D. Popkin: A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution. Malden [et al.]: Wiley-Blackwell 2012, p. 125. In a more recent discussion Philippe R. Girard: Caribbean Genocide. Racial War in Haiti, 1802-4, in: Patterns of Prejudice, 39, 2005, 2, pp. 138-161, takes Dessalines’s appeal »to kill every Frenchman who soils the land of freedom with his sacrilegious presence« (p. 139) as a call to mass killing and writes: »When the genocide was over, Haiti’s white population was virtually non-existent« (p. 140).

25   Doris L. Garraway: ›Légitime Défense‹. Universalism and Nationalism in the Discourse of the Haitian Revolution. In: Tree of Liberty. Cultural Legacies of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World, ed. by id. University of Virginia Press 2008, pp. 61-88, p. 82 – article 14 of the Constitution of 1805 read: »les Haïtiens ne seront désormais connus que sous la dénomination génériques de Noirs«.

26   The depiction of the combat action and racial relations can be found, inter alia, in John Gabriel Stedman: Narrative of a Five Year’s Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam [etc.]. 2nd ed., vol 2. London: Johnson and Payne 1813, between the pages 102 and 103. The first edition of the text, whose revision caused heated arguments between the publisher and the author, was published in 1796. A critical edition with elaborate comments is Stedman’s Surinam. Life in an Eighteenth-Century Slave Society, ed. by Richard Price, Sally Price. Baltimore [et al.]: Johns Hopkins University Press 1992.

27   And yet black soldiers had already been fighting in the ranks of American revolutionaries of the war of independence and were intensively engaged in the Civil War – cf. Benjamin Quarles: The Negro in the American Revolution. With a New Foreword by Thad W. Tate and a New Introduction by Gary B. Nash. Chapel Hill [et al.]: University of North Carolina Press 1996; Black Soldiers in Blue. African American Troops in the Civil War Era, ed. by John David Smith. Chapel Hill [et al.]: University of North Carolina Press 2002; Freedom’s Soldiers. The Black Military Experience in the Civil War, ed. by Ira Berlin, Joseph P. Reidy, Leslie S. Rowland. Cambridge [et al.] Cambridge University Press 1998.

28   Cf. R. C. Smith: Liberty Displaying the Arts and Sciences. A Philadelphia Allegory by Samuel Jennings. In: Winterthur Portfolio, 2, 1965, pp. 84-105.

29   Cf. Gudrun Hentges: Schattenseiten der Aufklärung. Die Darstellung von Juden und ›Wilden‹ in philosophischen Schriften des 18. und 19. Jahrhunderts. Schwalbach: Wochenschau Verlag 1999; Louis Sala-Molins: Dark Side of the Light. Slavery and the French Enlightenment. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 2006.

30   Cf. David Brion Davis: Inhuman Bondage. The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. Oxford [et al.]: Oxford University Press 2006.

31   Cf. Charles W. Mills: The Racial Contract. Ithaca [et al.]: Cornell University Press 1997.

32   See i.a. Kenneth Morgan: Slavery and the British Empire. From Africa to America. Oxford [et al.]: Oxford University Press 2007,
pp. 127 ff.

33   Quoted in Stephen J. Braidwood: Black Poor and White Philanthropists. London's Blacks and the Foundation of the Sierra Leone Settlement 1789-1798. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press 1994, p. 245.

maintained by S.Affeldt