Thursday, June 1, 2017

Covington Artist Famed for Stage Scenery

Robert de Lapouyade of Covington was the last of the great Louisiana Scene Painters, according to an article by David Ritchey in the 1973 edition of the official journal of the Louisiana Historical Association.

Robert de Lapouyade

Born in Covington on July 5, 1877, de Lapouyade learned the art of painting at an early age, with the encouragement of his mother, herself an artist. According to historic records, he had little formal schooling, and his first job consisted of painting tombstones.

As his talents grew, his expertise in painting earned him an apprenticeship with Eugene and Clarke Cox, scene painters with the New Orleans theater circuit. He was trained by Harry Dressel, another established scene painter, and it was Dressel to whom de Lapouyade credited his success, according to Ritchey's research.

Dressel introduced de Lapouyade to a number of New Orleans theater producers, among them the actress Mrs. F.S. Chanfrau (the Varieties Theater), John McCullough, George Fawcett Rowe, Frank Chanfrau and Mary Anderson. 

Dressel died in 1903, and de Lapouyade was his natural replacement. Between 1903 and 1919, de Lapouyade enjoyed the reputation as the area's leading scene painter. When electric stage lighting became available around 1908, Lapouyade used it to good effect for lighting the background and other scenery on stage. 

As his widely-recognized talents developed, De Lapouyade became a key figure in New Orleans theaters. "He was one of the last of his profession in America," the Louisiana History article stated, noting that his career ranged from 1902 to 1927. His art appeared as background scenes in a large number of productions staged at the Grand Opera House in New Orleans, as well as the Winter Garden Theater and the French Opera House.

He was described as a "creative man possessing a feeling for the theatrical in art and for his audience."

Before 1910 he built and painted his scenery in the theaters in which they were to be used, but that year he opened his own studio and moved his scenery painting projects into a building at 1417 Bayou St. John (Moss Street). In this structure he was able to paint huge backdrops, up to 25 feet tall, Ritchey noted. 

In a 1914 Times-Picayune article, de Lapouyade outlined his process of designing and producing his painted scenes. First he would read the play or opera, then he would consult with the director (who often had little to offer), and then he made sketches and color schemes. He drew much inspiration from the buildings, streets, courtyards, and churches of the New Orleans scenery around him.

From the sketches, he built a model, cutting out the two-dimensional scenes from heavy water color paper. He would paint the model, and then later transfer the entire design to the actual backdrops. It was a process that involved designing and building stage furniture from scratch.

His philosophy of stage scenery painting went as follows: "Scene painting is like modern farming. Intensified work gives the best results. The quaintness must be superquaint. The color must be ultra, to show up with the lights on."

His son Robert de Lapouyade Jr. would help him paint the scenery, but they did hire extra painters and carpenters as needed. 

One of his most celebrated accomplishments was the 1912 production of Madame Butterfly at the French Opera House. The audience "praised the scene painter's realistic flower gardens, the rustic bridge and the painted backdrop of the harbor."

As 1920 brought in more vaudeville and motion pictures, the need for elaborate scenery for legitimate theatrical productions began to decline and his services were less in demand. He began to supplement his trade by designing window decorations for Maison Blanche Department Store and floats for Mardi Gras parades.

In addition, the trend in the production of live plays moved from highly intricate realistic painted backgrounds to more representative art styles "which did not attempt to produce an illusion of reality," according to the Louisiana History account.

De Lapouyade's "last recorded job as a scene painter for the legitimate stage was in a new community theater, Le Petit Theater du Vieux Carre." He designed background scenery for six one-act plays during the 1919-1920 theatrical season. 

Later, he painted stage decorations for the 1927 Juvenile Revue vaudeville production at the Saenger Theater, but after that the need for stage scenery painting declined even more. His efforts to find work with the Louisiana Academy of Motion Picture Arts located in Mandeville are documented in a letter, but unfortunately did not result in any projects. 

See also: Herbert Jahncke, Mardi Gras Float Designer