There is an unusually big, bright painting that hangs almost anonymously in the Arts and Humanities Division on the City Park Campus at Delgado Community College. No one would think of it as a more or less direct link with the College’s founder, Isaac Delgado. The label that has been scotch taped to the wall next to the painting says clearly enough that it is by Hunt Slonem, a very famous New York artist, as if that were all one needed to know.
As it turns out, Hunt Slonem – whose paintings are in collections at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Governor’s Mansion in Baton Rouge, to name only a few – has been living in the plantation house that used to be owned by Isaac Delgado. In 1999, the Times-Picayune began an article on the subject like this: “It probably will come as news to most New Orleanians that the city’s investment portfolio includes a 1,200-acre sugar cane farm just east of Jeanerette in St. Mary’s Parish” (8/24/1999). What is even more surprising is that since 1931, “the city has owned and received income from” Delgado’s sugar farm via the Delgado Albania Plantation Commission, because Isaac Delgado himself willed the plantation to the city to support the trade school and art museum he established.
It was in 1891, with the plantation and sugar house in a terrible state, that Isaac and his uncle Samuel Delgado engaged Alex Allain to take charge of the situation. The site had been damaged by fire and needed to be restored. The Allain family, which has deep historic roots in Louisiana, continues to lease 900 acres of the plantation from the city to this day, and they have been on site for more than a century. Brett Allain, who speaks of his family’s historic relations with the Delgados as if he himself had been there in the late 1800s, told me by telephone recently that his great grandfather, Alex, was buddies with Isaac, and that I would find his picture in the Civil War Museum on Camp Street in downtown New Orleans.
Alex Allain certainly did not let the Delgados down. Not only was Louisiana “the chief source of supply of sugars for consumption in the United States,” according to one reporter in the journal The Louisiana Planter and Sugar Manufacturer in 1905, but “for forty years [the Delgado firm] has been one of the most important factors in the Louisiana sugar trade” (Vol. XXXIV, No. 20, p. 312). A few years earlier in the same journal, Alex Allain’s work on the plantation for Isaac Delgado was admired as “a marvel of up-to-dateness and cleanliness,” and “one of the finest sugar estates in Louisiana” (1902, Vol. XXX, No. 19, p. 303).
Hunt Slonem, originally from the north, graduated from Tulane University in 1973. He developed feelings for the area during his studies and began to visit regularly afterwards, making “many trips to exhibit his artwork in local galleries” (Times-Picayune 9/15/2007), including an exhibit in the Delgado Gallery on the City Park Campus from October 5 – November 3, 1989, before ultimately purchasing the Delgado Albania Plantation house, incidentally, around 2004. The house was sold separately from the rest of the plantation, which is still a sugar farm. Slonem’s exhibit in the Delgado Gallery was the first show on campus to be financed by private funding with a grant from Shell Offshore Inc. (Times-Picayune 11/6/1989), including a beautiful poster for the exhibit which contains on its backside detailed information about the artist. Professor Lisette Copping, who is among the fine arts faculty at Delgado today, remembers helping to install the exhibit. Slonem sent tons of paintings, she recalled in conversation with me about the event, which was photographed by another faculty member, Deborah Kohler.
Slonem says he loves the house, that it’s one of his favorite places on the planet. Although the place needed a lot of work when he first got it, kind of like Delgado’s situation one hundred years earlier, Slonem ultimately had everything repaired and refurnished, thanks in part to funds he received for letting the house appear in such films as All the King’s Men (2006) and In the Electric Mist (2009). A spokesperson from his New Orleans gallery, Martine Chaisson Gallery, told me by telephone that he sells Hunt Slonem paintings starting at $3,750 (they are priced by size), oversees the sale of some of his work to the Jindal family, and that, yes, Hunt is quite the character, always dressed in brightly colored suits with a parrot on his shoulder.