Cleda Curtis, left, and her portrait of Jean Pierre Girardeau, with volunteers from the Cape River Heritage Museum Charlotte and Bill Slinkard at the Cape Girardeau museum.
“Cleda, you gave Cape a face. We really appreciate it,” said Charlotte Slinkard, curator of the Cape River Heritage Museum, 538 Independence St. in Cape Girardeau.
Slinkard was thanking Cleda Curtis, a local artist behind the new painting of Cape Girardeau’s namesake figure: Jean Pierre Girardeau.
The series of events that led Slinkard’s path to cross with Curtis, who now lives in Oran, Missouri, began with confusion about the provenance of Slinkard, a Cape Girardeau native.
“People who knew I was from here always said ‘Girardeau’ was a ‘weird name’,” Slinkard recalled, adding that he never knew enough to educate them on the name.
In the footsteps of Jean Pierre
Then, about 10 years ago, Slinkard found herself in Washington, DC, meeting her husband. While they were in town, the couple decided to check out the United States Library of Congress.
“‘I’ll see if I can find anything about this man,'” Slinkard recalled, thinking of Jean Pierre Girardeau.
It wasn’t that simple. The history of the Girardeau family predates its namesake city and most of the expansion of Western America. However, Slinkard was surprised to face a complete lack of information. He remembered his despair of him on that stormy January afternoon, taking refuge in the Library of Congress.
“It was raining, it was snowing, it was snowing, the wind was blowing. We were really getting discouraged,” Slinkard recalled.
“Finally, a young woman, a young librarian who knew we were getting discouraged, came over and patted me on the shoulder. She said, ‘I think I found something.'”
So the Slinkards waited.
And he waited.
Just as the Slinkards were deciding to leave, the young librarian returned with the documents of a French officer, collected for the first time in Paris, which had been translated into English.
“So I sat down and, lo and behold, ‘Girardeau’ shows up. Not just him, but the father, two kids and all this information. This is just starting to turn the balls,” Slinkard recalled.
Slinkard said that “the father”, Jean Baptiste Girardeau, is falsely considered the namesake of Cape Girardeau. Slinkard claims it was his son, Jean Pierre Girardeau, whose legacy passed on his name. Slinkard described this debunking the myth as one of his easiest discoveries.
“Jean Baptiste died in 1730. The trading post first appears on maps in 1765. Several early writers have suggested it may have been the son (Jean Pierre), but don’t go any further,” Slinkard explained.
After the preliminary success, Charlotte and her husband continued their journey, traveling to New Orleans to look for other records.
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“We found that the father (Jean Baptiste) approached [Mississippi] River around 1720, and all of those records were in New Orleans, ”Slinkard said.
The Slinkards would travel to Ottawa, Canada and New Orleans, among other locations, gathering more and more information. Ironically, of all the documents discovered by the Slinkards, none ended up coming from Missouri.
Slinkard said he would like to make his sweaty information more accessible.
“I never intended to write a book, but now I’ve completed a manuscript quite well. I’m ready to look for a publisher,” Slinkard said, adding that she never intended to delve into how she did, or get things right. after all to which in the end it went.
“Thank goodness we traveled before COVID,” he added.
Subsequent blockages and social distancing offered Slinkard a perfect opportunity to write and gather the information he had gathered.
Cleda Curtis and her portrait of Jean Pierre Girardeau at the Cape River Heritage Museum in Cape Girardeau.
Give a face to the name
“Along the way, we thought it would be nice to have a portrait of this man (Jean Pierre Girardeau). Here in the wilderness, people didn’t have the portrait painted,” Slinkard said, referring to the region’s underdeveloped history.
Slinkard and her husband have both heard the name “Cleda Curtis” being considered “the best around” for portraits in Southeast Missouri.
According to Slinkard, Curtis’ representation of Jean Pierre is the first ever created. Even Louis Lorimier – the French Canadian credited with founding Cape Girardeau – has only been portrayed relatively recently and, like Girardeau, the likeness of him has been created primarily through conjecture.
Slinkard speculated that Girardeau and Lorimier were, perhaps, not particularly important in their day. While they may have been respected locally, these founding figures would not necessarily have risen to the level where a portrait would have been made for them.
At least, not until Curtis accepted the mission. Fittingly, Curtis has roots in southeastern Missouri, where he has held seminars since 1984.
“Most of the artists in this area have studied with me at some point,” Curtis said in a practical way.
Curtis was clear that artistic talent is a “learned skill”.
“All artists have to learn. I teach the basic rules of painting, the basic knowledge artists have had for, you know, forever. I can explain in a day and a half all the basic principles and elements you need. know to become a good artist. But it will take you a lifetime to learn. You should paint, over and over, following the rules, just like playing a piano. It’s a learned skill, it’s technical, that’s what I teach. “
Curtis complained that recent theories on art have eliminated what she called “the basics”.
“All that knowledge has been thrown away by modern art. [Modern art] it was just like, ‘Paint. Whatever you do, if it’s an original idea, it’s art. So, you can throw some paint on a canvas, drive on it with a car. It’s an original idea, so it’s art, ‘”she said sarcastically.
Although Curtis didn’t start painting until the age of 25, he quickly realized he wanted to do portraits. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find a teacher.
Even in college-level art and sculpture classes, Curtis said, there were no instructions other than just telling students to create a work.
“Then you would have a critique and a grade. There was no painting education in any class I ever had at any of the universities I went to. But you wouldn’t buy your child a piano saying, ‘Go there and play, and when you hit one wrong note, I’ll tell you. ‘ [Leonardo] da Vinci said that painting without knowledge is like going to sea without a rudder and without a compass. So when you’re out there in the middle of the ocean, maybe you’ll get where you want to … but what are the possibilities? It is the same when you paint without knowing. It’s a learned skill, ”Curtis repeated, dramatically breaking between“ learned ”and“ skill ”to emphasize both words.
“Anyone who wants to paint, I can teach them. The rest is up to them and it takes a lot of time and practice. I’ve been painting for over 50 years and I’m still learning and there is no end.”
Curtis offered another local artist, Don Sahli, as an example of a painter who can instinctively transfer vision to canvas. But, Curtis was careful to note, those “instincts” only come in the wake of endless applications and practices.
Speaking of his most recent work, Curtis said he did not have the luxury of looking directly at Jean Pierre Girardeau, who has long since disappeared. But even without prior art or photography, Curtis explained, he still needed “something to work with.”
“I have to see what I paint. I can’t just get it out of my imagination,” he said.
A historical reenactment that Curtis witnessed at Fort de Chartres in Illinois grounded her. The bag with which Jean Pierre is painted, along with his clothing and wide sleeves, come directly from Curtis’s photographs and observations at Fort de Chartres.
“Then I just used a face that I thought was French,” Curtis said. “Maybe I shouldn’t tell you whose face I used,” Curtis said, pausing to think about it.
“There is a very important artist who painted a portrait of Thomas Jefferson from just a statue, and I liked his face.”
Curtis said he used that painting’s facial structure, but darkened his eyes and hair to create someone he thought looked French.
Curtis admitted that there was no guarantee that his portrait matched Jean Pierre’s likeness.
“Could have been a short, fat little man,” Curtis shrugged.
Human beings, he continued, tend to be visually oriented. Curtis reflected on “thousands of different paintings of Jesus”, each reflecting subtle or dramatic variations.
“It’s all in the vision of the person doing it,” Curtis said.
The value of Jean Pierre Girardeau’s painting, he said, is not determined by its accuracy, but rather by its ability to craft a piece of Cape Girardeau’s cultural heritage, making an otherwise invisible figure real.
“The viewer takes on the task of determining what the similarity represents. It is different for each person,” explained Curtis.
“People know that we are not passing it off as a portrait of (Jean Pierre), but as an artist’s concept of what he could have been. It is in no way a portrait of him.”