Richard Evans, Portraits of the Caribbean’s first Black king and prince


Richard Evans, Portraits of Henry Christophe, King of Haiti, c. 1816, oil on canvas, 34¼” x 25½” (Alfred Nemours Collection of Haitian History, University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus.)

Richard Evans, Henry Christophe, King of Haiti, c. 1816, oil on canvas, 34¼” x 25½” (Alfred Nemours Collection of Haitian History, University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus)

In 1816, English painter Richard Evans sailed eastward toward the young Kingdom of Haiti, at the request of its ruler Henry Christophe. There, Evans became an art teacher and produced two of the most enduring images of post-revolutionary Haiti: portraits of the Caribbean’s first Black king and prince.

The portraits 

The king commissioned Evans to paint the only official portraits of himself and his heir, Jacques-Victor (shown below). Both are full length yet quite distinct, capturing in fine detail the individual personalities and their respective positions. Christophe appears as a gallant, middle-aged man with graying hair in an interior space. He is dressed in a dark green coat carrying the star of the Order of Saint-Henry, light breeches, and leather boots. His right hand holds his cane and bicorne (two-cornered) hat, and his left rests in the pocket of his coat giving him an almost casual air. To his immediate right sits a crown accompanied by a cascading red cloth that bears the crest of the Kingdom of Haiti. These are the only details that inform the viewer that he is a monarch, for the king is represented in military uniform. Behind him is an expansive opening that shows a landscape dominated by a sublime sky with a view of Cap-Henri (now, Cap Haïtien).

Richard Evans, Royal Prince Jacques-Victor-Henri Christophe. (c. 1816, oil on canvas, 34¼” x 25½”. Alfred Nemours Collection of Haitian History, University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus.)

Richard Evans, Royal Prince Jacques-Victor-Henri Christophe, c. 1816, oil on canvas, 34¼” x 25½” (Alfred Nemours Collection of Haitian History, University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus)

Jacques-Victor’s portrait meanwhile sets the prince outdoors. He’s dressed similarly to his father. He carries his glove and riding crop in his right hand as he leans confidently on a horse, whose small dimensions make the then 12-year-old boy seem huge in comparison. The background is defined by a moody sky, luscious vegetation, and a mountainous landscape visible between the legs of the horse. Banana leaves and palm trees indicate the tropical geography. In the lower left corner, there’s an unidentified young Black man, who might be a page boy to Jacques-Victor. It has also been proposed that this figure may be a portrait of Christophe’s illegitimate son, Prince Armande-Eugène. [1] 

Richard Evans, Portraits of Henry Christophe, King of Haiti, c. 1816, oil on canvas, 34¼” x 25½” (Alfred Nemours Collection of Haitian History, University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus.)

Richard Evans, Henry Christophe, King of Haiti (detail), c. 1816, oil on canvas, 34¼” x 25½” ( Alfred Nemours Collection of Haitian History, University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus; photo: Jennifer Solivan Robles)

The subjects 

The king’s representation as a military man should come as no surprise for it was how he made a name for himself during and after the Haitian Revolution. Christophe was born in Grenada in 1767 and arrived in Saint-Domingue as a teenager. By his early twenties he was conscripted into the colonial artillery, beginning his military career in the island. [2] 

He rose to prominence during the revolution, joining the circle of revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture and becoming one of his lieutenants. The revolution had an immense international impact, shocking European and colonial governments. One of its leading ambitions was the abolition of slavery and indeed, the pressures of the revolution were instrumental in the French Republic’s decision to abolish slavery in all its territories in 1794. It ended in 1804 with the proclamation of a new republic renamed Haiti. By then Christophe had become an influential military leader, alongside Jean Jacques Dessaline and Alexandre Sabès Pétion. Political instability marked the first years of the nation, culminating in the assassination of Dessaline in 1806 and the division of the country between Pétion and Christophe, the former establishing a republic in the south, and the latter his kingdom in the north.

Christophe established an hereditary monarchy and declared himself King Henry I in 1811. A bit of an anglophile, he made plans to set Protestantism and English as the official religion and language of his kingdom and created strong bonds with British abolitionists. [3] These political moves did not stem solely from personal interest. He understood the importance of an international relationship with a European power after the establishment of his government and needed to secure support against the French. Christophe named Jacques-Victor as his heir, his oldest son with wife Marie-Louise Coidavid. The prince spent his teenage years being educated in his father’s court.

Left: Citadelle Laferrière aerial view, 19th century, Haiti (photo: SPC Gibran Torres, United States Army); right: Sans-Souci Palace Haiti, built by Henri Christophe, 1810–1813, Haiti (photo: Iconem, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Left: Citadelle Laferrière, built by Christophe, 19th century, Haiti (photo: SPC Gibran Torres, United States Army); right: Sans-Souci Palace Haiti, built by Henri Christophe, 1810–1813, Haiti (photo: Iconem, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Christophe’s rule was characterized by grand socioeconomic ambitions and he used a despotic hand to achieve them. He utilized his power over laborers to ensure the workforce necessary for his agricultural and architectural policies, forcing many back onto plantations and harsh working conditions. These policies were unpopular among Haitians, however the money generated helped the economy by providing for exports and funded the construction of the fortress Citadelle Laferrière and Christophe’s lavish palace of Sans-Souci in Milot. [4] He also sought to provide social opportunity for his people through his educational reforms. 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. [5]

The artist and his commission 

Christophe collaborated and consulted with his advisers (including English abolitionists William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson), on many of his policies to develop Haiti. Wilberforce was an important reference in the development and practice of the educational reforms, and he promoted the idea of recruiting British teachers and missionaries. [6] This is how Richard Evans arrived in the Caribbean—he was one of seven teachers sent by Wilberforce and Clarkson to work in Haiti’s new schools and assist with Prince Jacques-Victor’s education. [7]

History remembers Evans as a portraitist and copyist of Italian masterpieces. He worked in the studio of acclaimed painter Sir Thomas Lawrence and exhibited at the Royal Academy before crossing the Atlantic. He stayed in Haiti until 1818, but unfortunately most of his life and work there is undocumented. The only details known are a few references in letters exchanged between Christophe, Wilberforce, and Clarkson. The king himself confirmed the painter was getting settled in Sans Souci and described him as “the teacher of drawing and painting.” [8] 

Richard Evans, Royal Prince Jacques-Victor-Henri Christophe. (c. 1816, oil on canvas, 34¼” x 25½”. Alfred Nemours Collection of Haitian History, University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus.)

Richard Evans, Royal Prince Jacques-Victor-Henri Christophe, c. 1816, oil on canvas, 34¼” x 25½” (Alfred Nemours Collection of Haitian History, University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus; photo: Jennifer Solivan Robles)

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Colonel Tarleton, 1782, oil on canvas, 236 x 145.5 cm (The National Gallery)

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Colonel Tarleton, 1782, oil on canvas, 236 x 145.5 cm (The National Gallery)

The king’s commission showcases Evans’ abilities as a portraitist. Christophe and Jacques-Victor’s semblances are accomplished, the king is regal even in simple military dress and his preoccupied expression befits a man in his position. Meanwhile, his son’s relaxed, fresh face and expressive eyes exude the boyish confidence of a teenager. The compositions reference contemporary English taste in portraiture and the work of painters like Thomas Lawrence, Joshua Reynolds, and William Beechey—especially their royal and military portraits, like Reynolds’ 1782 portrait of Colonel Tarleton and Beechey’s portrait of George III.

José Gil de Castro, Portrait of Bolívar in Bogotá, 1830 (Museo Nacional de Arqueologia, Antropoligia, e Historia del Perú, Ministerio de Cultura del Perú)

José Gil de Castro, Portrait of Bolívar in Bogotá, 1830 (Museo Nacional de Arqueologia, Antropoligia, e Historia del Perú, Ministerio de Cultura del Perú)

Three sets of these portraits were made—one kept in the king’s palace, another as gifts from Christophe to Wilberforce in England, and the third set was sent to Emperor Alexander I of Russia. [9] What were Christophe’s intentions in having multiple sets made? To begin, Christophe desired to visualize his rule through a known visual language that borrowed from English taste—in further rejection of the French. It was not uncommon for newly independent American countries to use Europe as reference in visualizing their political power in the 19th century. While they rejected their colonial relationship, revolutionary leaders often turned to the political and visual strategies they knew, as can also be appreciated in José Gil de Castro’s Portrait of Bolívar in Bogotá from 1830. 

The two other sets functioned as tools for the support of Christophe’s government and abolition. Wilberforce’s set was a personal present; he and Christophe had established a warm friendship through their letters. This set would also allow Christophe to present his official image in England (the portrait was exhibited in London during the Royal Academy’s exhibition of 1818).  Clarkson helped establish communication between the Russian tsar and the Haitian king to garner further international and political support for both Haiti and for abolition. Wilberforce and Clarkson admired Christophe and were invested in the success of his government. The enslaved population played a key role in the revolution, igniting and leading the revolts since the start of it. This detail worried many heads of state in Europe and the U.S.—politically and economically influential slaveholders feared similar situations in their regions Wilberforce and Clarkson were aware of this, and they considered that a prosperous Black nation would confront racist views and add pressure to contemporary discussions on abolition. Both portraits countered the stereotypes of violent enslaved people that rose in the wake of the Haitian Revolution in anti-abolitionists circles. Wilberforce saw Christophe as “a Sovereign who is endeavoring to civilize and Christianize his people [. . .] Christophe is not himself a rebel.” [10] Evan’s painting seems to capture this vision of the king as well. 

George Cruikshank, The New Union Club, published July 19, 1819, hand-colored etching on paper, 28 x 46 cm (The Art Institute of Chicago)

Racist caricature in which Black figures are grotesquely represented as violent and unruly. George Cruikshank, The New Union Club, published July 19, 1819, hand-colored etching on paper, 28 x 46 cm (The Art Institute of Chicago)

Wilberforce and Clarkson understood the power of these images of Black kingship and nobility that contradicted the racist caricatures of the time. Christophe’s portrait in the Royal Academy was in complete opposition to anti-abolitionist caricatures like The new Union-Club from 1819, where Black figures are grotesquely represented as violent and unruly. Wilberforce himself is caricatured in a child’s chair presiding over the crowd, also composed of other abolitionists and even a member of King Henry’s court, Prince Saunders.  

Richard Evans, Portraits of Henry Christophe, King of Haiti, and Royal Prince Jacques-Victor-Henri Christophe. (c. 1816, oil on canvas, 34¼” x 25½” (Alfred Nemours Collection of Haitian History, University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus)

Richard Evans, Portraits of Henry Christophe, King of Haiti, and Royal Prince Jacques-Victor-Henri Christophe (c. 1816, oil on canvas, 34¼” x 25½” (Alfred Nemours Collection of Haitian History, University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus)

The Kingdom of Haiti would end in 1820 when dissatisfaction among its people brought down Henry Christophe’s rule. He committed suicide after not being able to control the revolts against him and Jacques-Victor was killed shortly after. The palace of Sans-Souci was looted and later abandoned. Haiti would be reunified as a republic under Jean-Pierre Boyer, a revolutionary leader who would remain president until 1843. Wilberforce despaired at his friend’s end and Clarkson aided the king’s wife and daughters when they were exiled to England. These portraits remain important images of post-revolutionary Haiti and Christophe’s reign, encapsulating the complexities of his ambitions and the path he sought for his country on an international stage as the Americas’ first Black nation.

Notes:

[1] Solivan Robles, “A Black King in the Caribbean,” p. 836.

[2] Gauvin Alexander Bailey, The Palace of Sans-Souci in Milot, Haiti (Berlin: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 2017), p. 21.

[3] Humberto García Muñiz, et al. “La colección Alfred Nemours de historia haitiana, una fuente olvidada, en el bicentenario de la independencia de Haití, ” Caribbean Studies 32, no. 2 (San Juan: Universidad de Puerto Rico, July–December 2004), p. 206.

[4] Jennifer Yvonne Conerly, “’Your Majesty’s Friend’: Foreign Alliances in the Reign of Henri Christophe,” MA diss., (University of New Orleans, 2013), p. 18.

[5]  Conerly, “’Your Majesty’s Friend’,” pp. 11–12.

[6]  Conerly, “’Your Majesty’s Friend’,” pp. 12–13.

[7] Jennifer Solivan Robles, “A Black King in the Caribbean: William Wilberforce’s Image of Henri Cristophe and his Court,” in Solving Social Issues through Multicultural Experiences: 20th Conference Monograph Series (Scarborough: NAAAS & Affiliates, 2012), p. 826.

[8] Cited in Solivan Robles, “A Black King in the Caribbean,” p. 826.

[9] Solivan Robles, “A Black King in the Caribbean,” p. 823.

[10] Cited in Solivan Robles, “A Black King in the Caribbean,” p. 838.


Additional resources

Gérald Alexis, “The Caribbean at the Hour of Haiti,” Caribbean: Art at the Crossroads of the World (New York: El Museo del Barrio, 2012): pp. 107–123.

Gauvin Alexander Bailey, The Palace of Sans-Souci in Milot, Haiti (Berlin: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 2017).

Jennifer Yvonne Conerly, “’Your Majesty’s Friend’: Foreign Alliances in the Reign of Henri Christophe,” MA diss., (University of New Orleans, 2013).

L. H. Cust and Melvyn Cutten, “Evans, Richard (1783?–1871), portrait painter and copyist,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007).

Humberto García Muñiz, Aura Díaz López, Axel Santana, and Doralis Pérez Soto, “La colección Alfred Nemours de historia haitiana, una fuente olvidada, en el bicentenario de la independencia de Haití,” Caribbean Studies 32, no. 2 (San Juan: Universidad de Puerto Rico, July–December 2004): pp. 181–241. 

Jennifer Solivan Robles, “A Black King in the Caribbean: William Wilberforce’s Image of Henri Cristophe and his Court,” in Solving Social Issues through Multicultural Experiences: 20th Conference Monograph Series (Scarborough: NAAAS & Affiliates, 2012), pp. 820–845.

Cite this page as: Dr. Tamara Díaz Calcaño, "Richard Evans, Portraits of the Caribbean’s first Black king and prince," in Smarthistory, May 12, 2022, accessed November 28, 2022, https://smarthistory.org/richard-evans-portraits-caribbean-first-black-king-and-prince/.