The detailed ink and wash drawing, 8½ x 11½in (22 x 29cm), is a preparatory sketch for an engraving published by Pierre Jean in 1802 at the height of Louverture’s fame and a year before he died in a French prison.
Born into slavery on the Bréda plantation in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), Louverture was the son of parents taken from Benin.
He became a prominent member among the slaves on the plantation, becoming responsible for cattle and horses, and apparently developed a close relationship with the estate’s owners.
In the 1770s he was freed. He leased a coffee plantation from his brother-in-law in Petit Cormier, buying two slaves (at least one of whom he freed) and leasing others to work it. He joined the Haitian revolution when it launched in 1791. Initially he fought for Spain against French colonialists but in 1794 following a British invasion he joined the French army, rising up the ranks to Division General, and worked for the abolition of slavery.
Eventually he became the leading and essentially autonomous leader of the island, proclaiming himself Governor General for life in an 1801 constitution.
Napoléon Bonaparte, then First Consul, fearing a declaration of independence, had Louverture and his associates deposed and deported to France in 1802, where he died the following year. One of Louverture’s lieutenants declared Haiti independent in 1804.
In the drawing, Louverture is depicted well-dressed on a rearing horse like any European military leader of the day, though it is probably not a true likeness. None of the European depictions of the Haitian leader are thought to have been from life and few of them agree.
Abolition of slavery
The picture was ripe to join a major institution. Louverture is an important figure in Haitian, French and black history. The uprisings he led resulted in the abolition of slavery in Haiti and he was the first black general of the French republic. Something of a mysterious personality, he seems to have mixed easily with different classes and societies.
Offered from a US private collection for a price in the region of £12,000, the drawing was purchased with the Harry G Sperling Fund. Two versions of the engraving based on the drawing were already in the Met’s collection, but the authorship was unknown.
However, an inscription to the picture’s verso (‘par Desrais’) has revealed it to be the work of Claude Louis Desrais (1746-1816), a French artist and illustrator.