Finding Freedom Through Art: The Story of Eugène Warburg

Louisiana News

WGNO

NEW ORLEANS, La (WGNO) Daily, we walk by the historic works of men and women in New Orleans.

Around 1825, a creole baby boy was born enslaved in New Orleans. His father was also his owner; a german merchant and real estate inspector. His mother’s family migrated to Cuba from Haiti, after the Haitian Revolution and was brought to New Orleans. The baby was named Eugene Warburg and would grow up to become a very noteworthy artist in the city.

Jari Honora is a Visitor Services Assistant with The Historic New Orleans Collection and well-versed in Louisiana creole history and the history of free people of color and says “Eugene Warburg really came to prominence in 1852, when he designed a piece that was based on Roman mythology. It was a piece about the god Ganymede presenting a cup of nectar to the god Jupiter. This was very ambitious a subject for a man that was not 30 years old.”

One of the most iconic structures that stands today in New Orleans is The Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, King of France. In 1851, the cathedral was undergoing an expansion and Eugene submitted a design to redo the flooring.

“This Historic New Orleans Collection owns the proposal that Eugene Warburg sent to the restoration committee of the Saint Louis Cathedral. It shows a sketch of the black and white design of the tile floor. That same floor on the center aisle that worshipers walk on, was designed by a man that was once enslaved, Eugene Warburg,” says Jari Honora.

Daniel Warburg was Eugene’s brother and also quite the artist. Eugene and Daniel’s artist studio at what was once 89 St. Peter Street. Their second studio was off of Basin Street; where they were most of their careers.

In time, Eugene was on a ship headed to Europe to refine his artistic prowess. A letter was sent for him to have a place to stay in Paris, France. Soon, the Duchess of Sutherland commissioned Eugene to do a series of sculptures based on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and her later work, Dred: The Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp.

By 1859, Eugene was in Rome. He was suffering from what might have been a respiratory illness like the flu. He passed away in his 30’s. Although Eugene did not have children of his own, his brother Daniel did have children and some of Daniel’s descendants live in New Orleans to this day.

Jari Honora says, “what I like about Eugene Warburg’s story, is his unyielding search for freedom. He had the freedom to pursue his art form. Like so many, his works were hampered by racial conditions at that time and he had to leave New Orleans to make his mark. There are thumbprints left by people of color all over the world.”

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