By Doug MacCash, the Times-Picayune
NOMA presents “Leah Chase: Paintings by Gustave BlacheIII,” an exhibition in honor of Leah Chase’s upcoming 90th birthday. This exhibition will be on view in the Louisiana Galleries from April 24rd until September 9th. An opening party will inaugurate the Leah Chase Art Purchase Fund on April 23rd.
An intimate, candid painting of chef Leah Chase absorbed in slicing yellow squash in the kitchen as she prepares for the lunch rush at Dooky Chase restaurant has been added to the collection of iconic American images in the National Portrait Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The tiny painting, smaller than a leaf of notebook paper, is the work of artist Gustave Blache III, 34, who grew up in Gentilly and eastern New Orleans and now lives in Brooklyn.
Blache’s portrait of Chase began in the restaurant kitchen and now will be displayed in the nation’s premier museum complex, under the same roof as universally known presidential portraits ranging from George Washington by Gilbert Stuart to Barack Obama’s street-art-style portrait by Shepard Fairey. In the museum, the New Orleans chef will stand shoulder to shoulder with the great explorers, inventors, and industrialists who shaped the country.
It’s not Chase’s only appearance in there: Photos of President Obama’s visit to Dooky Chase hang in the foyer, bespeaking the cultural significance of the landmark eatery named for Leah’s husband and partner, Edgar “Dooky” Chase II.
The portrait of Chase is part of a suite of 20 small-scale paintings that Blache created depicting back-of-house activities at the renowned 71-year-old Orleans Avenue restaurant, which is known for its authentic Creole cuisine, its historic role as a meeting place during the civil rights era and Chase’s extensive collection of African-American art.
“I wanted to do the behind-the-scenes part of the restaurant,” Blache said. “What’s the story people don’t see? What happens when a delivery comes? Doing prep work?”
It’s a humble depiction. Chase is wearing her characteristic baseball cap. A colander of cabbage awaits chopping. Steam rises from boiling pots in the background.
Blache’s cool, spare style hovers somewhere between Edgar Degas and Wayne Thiebaud. Asked whether she thought the rendering was accurate, Chase, 89, said the young artist had gotten it right.
“I told him, ‘You could have made me look like Halle Berry or Lena Horne, but you made it look like me,’ ” she said.
In one scene, Chase rinses cherry tomatoes at a sink. In another she consults an inventory list. In yet another, she pours oysters from a container.
The painting’s unlikely journey to Washington began in 2009, when New Orleans-born art dealer Eugene C. Daymude stopped for lunch at Dooky Chase, only to find the restaurant closed for a private party. Chase graciously seated him anyway, and sometime during his meal it struck him that the sight of Chase preparing classic Creole dishes was the perfect subject matter for his friend and client, Blache.
Like a latter-day Jean-François Millet, Blache seeks to depict the dignity and grace of everyday labor. He calls his concept “visual journalism.” In past painting series, he has captured blind craftsmen manufacturing mops and curtain cleaners at work on drapery. He agreed that the celebrated but little-seen kitchen of Dooky Chase, overseen by the dynamic Mrs. Chase, was an ideal subject.
Chase agreed to the project, though she wasn’t sure how things would turn out. “I didn’t know what he could do,” she said. “I didn’t know how good he really was.”
Over the next two years, Blache made several trips to Chase’s domain, sketching, snapping photos for reference and immersing himself in the atmosphere.
“The kitchen is a bit cramped,” Blache recalls. “I was very aware of not trying to impede her. You do not want to be the person in her way.”
Chase said that there was little chance the artist would distract her from her culinary duties.
“When he got in my way, I told him get out of the way,” Chase said.
Blache studied at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, then went on to The School of Visual Arts in Savannah, Ga., and, finally, the School of Visual Arts in New York, where he received a master of fine arts degree.
Early in his college career, he painted life-sized figures on huge canvases, but to save money and time he began doing oil sketches on small Masonite panels. The immediacy and small scale seemed to match the intimate tone he sought in his paintings, so he stuck with the format.
“It forces you to get up close and really investigate and examine the painting,” he said.
Blache’s brand of realism earned him spots in several gallery exhibits in New York and New Orleans. In 2004 he moved back to the Crescent City with his wife, but Hurricane Katrina forced him to evacuate. While away, he was offered a job with a prestigious painting restorer in New York. So it was off to Brooklyn.
His Dooky Chase series, in part, reconnects him with his New Orleans roots. His mother, Monica Blache, pointed out that her son can trace his personal history directly to Dooky Chase restaurant. His maternal grandparents’ first date was there.
Success swiftly followed the completion of the series in October 2011. Several of the paintings were exhibited at a one-night showing at Le Musée de f.p.c. (free people of color) house museum on Esplanade Avenue, which led to an offer from the New Orleans Museum of Art to exhibit the entire suite from April 24 to Sept. 9, 2012. Edgar Chase is a current NOMA board member and Leah is a lifetime member. Meanwhile, Daymude contacted a curator at the National Gallery, who agreed to consider one of Blache’s portraits of Chase for the national collection.
“We are always looking for portraits of nationally prominent figures,” National Portrait Gallery chief curator Brandon Fortune said.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to have a painting accepted by the prestigious institution. A panel of 15 curators, historians and the museum director reviewed Blache’s “Cutting Squash” before giving it the nod in December.
But there was one more hurdle. The painting had been purchased by a New Orleans collector, who kindly agreed to swap for another painting from the series, allowing Blache to donate “Cutting Squash” to the country’s collection.
“It is a very interesting image of a woman at work, doing a very simple task, cutting squash,” Fortune said. “But in some ways it transcends the everyday and becomes something of national significance.”
Fortune said that the painting will not go on display immediately in the National Portrait Gallery; it will be shipped back to the Crescent City in April to be included in the NOMAexhibit. After that, “I’m confident that we will work to put the Leah Chase portrait up within a reasonable time period after the painting returns from New Orleans,” she said.
Considering the honor of entering the National Portrait Gallery, Chase said it goes to prove “you don’t have to be a general or the greatest person in the world to be put on canvas.”
Blache sees the National Gallery acquisition as an honor for him and his hometown as well.
“You know it’s a huge accomplishment, for New Orleans,” he said. “It hits home for all of us to have one of our representatives there. The richest to the poorest person who has eaten at Dooky Chase can share in the honor.”