Paul Ninas, often described as the "Dean of Modern Art" in New Orleans, lived and worked in the city from 1932 until his death in 1964.
Paul Ninas, often described as the “Dean of Modern Art” in New Orleans, lived and worked in the city from 1932 until his death in 1964. A teacher, painter, and wanderer drawn to the next horizon, Ninas’s career as an artist began like that of so many of the great painters who later influenced his work. As a young man, he studied engineering, only to be seduced by a new world of art emerging in Europe and the United States just after World War I.
Born May 7, 1903, in Leeton, Missouri, Ninas spent his early life as something of a Huck Finn. The first seventeen years of his life were divided between Missouri and California. After high school, Ninas enrolled at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, where his father taught engineering. Family lore has Ninas attempting to run off to sea a couple of times and hopping a freight train for the coast. In 1921, at age eighteen, Ninas and a buddy dressed in army fatigues and hitchhiked across the United States. During the 15,000-mile, five-month trek, the two young adventurers reportedly broke into a tomb, stole a skull, visited Mark Twain’s home in Hannibal, Missouri, and rowed a leaky skiff down the Mississippi River to New Orleans.
Later that same year, Ninas traveled to Istanbul, Turkey, to study civil engineering in the city where his father had been schooled. In his off time and summer months, Ninas roamed through Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Arabia, North Africa, and Germany. Within a year, he abandoned his engineering studies for the brush. With the imagery of North Africa and the Near East filling his imagination, Ninas was inspired to study art. In 1922 he moved to Austria and enrolled at the University of Vienna’s Academie der Bilden den Kunst, and later the Vienna Royal Academy, where he received a master’s degree in fine arts in 1925. The following year, after briefly studying art in Florence, Italy, Ninas headed for the bohemian Montparnasse neighborhood in Paris, France, where American expatriates such as Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Isadora Duncan, and others among the so-called “Lost Generation” were embracing the new intellectualism and iconoclastic art of post-World War I Europe. In 1926 and 1927, Ninas continued his art studies at the Beaux Arts Academy and with Andre L’Hote, a Fauvist and later Cubist painter who is better known for his teaching and art criticism than for his artwork.
Ninas made friends with the American expatriates, especially Isadora Duncan, the great diva of modern dance, who took a fancy to the young artist. Within a few months after arriving in Paris, Duncan persuaded her brother, who owned a gallery on the Boulevard Ste. Germain, to have a showing of the watercolors Ninas had painted during his travels to Vienna, Italy, and North Africa. The French press gave Ninas good reviews, and, even more important to a struggling young artist, he sold all his paintings.
Wanderlust Arrives on Plantation
After a few years in Paris, Ninas grew restless and returned to North Africa, touring Algeria and the fabled city of Timbuktu, perhaps in search of the imagery that had so inspired Matisse on his visits to the Saharan outpost. Another account claims Ninas fled Paris rather hastily after breaking off a love affair with Kiki, the legendary artist model known as the “Queen of Montparnasse” and longtime Parisian girlfriend of American surrealist photographer Man Ray. Though North Africa gave Ninas safe haven, he found little of Matisse’s inspiration there. While there, however, Ninas read Lafacadio Hearn’s memoir, Two Years in the French West Indies. The young artist, then selling his paintings through a New York gallery, wasted little time in traveling to the Caribbean where, in 1930, he bought a coconut and lime plantation on the island of Dominica. Ninas liked to tell people he obtained the money to buy the plantation by selling a boatload of vanilla plants to a man who wanted to start a vanilla plantation. He also had just sold several paintings in New York.
Ninas spent the next two years on his plantation, living the simple, exotic, and romantic life of an artist in the tropics. He and the head of the Dominican government, Thomas “King Jolly” John, became friends. When the Prince of Wales paid the little island kingdom a visit, Ninas offered King Jolly a secondhand suit and top hat to wear for the state visit.
In his Dominica years, Ninas’s work was heavily influenced by both Matisse and Gauguin’s paintings of the Tahitian landscape and people. Like Gauguin, Ninas seemed more interested in simplifying form and color to create his own interpretation of the Dominican landscape. In later years, similarities between Ninas and Gauguin were not lost on his students in New Orleans, who dubbed Ninas as “New Orleans’ answer to Gauguin.”
In 1932, Ninas’ life took another abrupt turn. His father, who had retired to Nashville, Arkansas, died. On a trip there to settle his father’s estate, Ninas met his old friend Mac Darling. Fully intending to return to Dominica, Ninas made himself at home in Nashville while tidying up his father’s affairs. On a lark, Ninas, Darling, and Darling’s wife Betty visited New Orleans. Smitten with the city, Ninas sold his Dominica plantation and took up residence in New Orleans.
New Orleans Residency
In New Orleans, Ninas found a relatively conservative art community. The famous 1913 Armory Show in New York that introduced European Modernism to American artists, primarily in the northeastern states, had little influence in the South and New Orleans. While Modernist artists in Europe and the Northeast were redefining the very meaning of art, New Orleans artists were either experimenting in the Regionalist style, later made popular during the Great Depression, or continuing to glorify the misty local landscape as artists had done for a generation before them.
Yet in New Orleans, Ninas — and his peculiarly European style — found a sympathetic audience, especially among writers, artists and other French Quarter bohemians. He was particularly drawn to the young avant-garde artists at the Arts and Crafts Club of New Orleans founded in 1921 by a small group of young socialite women.
Throughout the 1930s, Ninas remained active in city’s art community. He taught at the New Orleans Art School and Dillard University, gave private lessons and workshops, and held art classes for children at the Kingsley House in the Irish Channel. He enjoyed teaching children and found their lack of inhibitions refreshing. In 1933 Ninas married fellow artist Jane Smith. The couple shared a studio and for a while became friendly rivals. Two years later, Smith met famed photographer Walker Evans while he was on an assignment in New Orleans. In 1939, after a scandalous relationship, Smith left Ninas for Evans. A year later they married.
Despite problems in his personal life, Ninas remained very active during the 1930s and 1940s. Until the mid-1930s, he continued his Caribbean paintings while making the transition to South Louisiana subjects. His lyrical paintings and drawings of street and market scenes, gas stations, ice cream parlors, local industries, wharves, and everyday life in the city and countryside are time-tested classics. Perhaps Ninas’s best known painting from this era is his Cezanne-esque Salt Mines, Avery Island (circa 1934) with its sharp, angular roof lines and suggestive Cubism.
Joining many of his peers, Ninas worked briefly for the Federal Art Project under the Works Progress Administration (WPA), initiated as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Ninas completed two murals, one at the Maybin School in New Orleans and the other in the post office in Henderson, Texas. Neither has survived. His WPA work, however, led to several important private commissions, including a four-panel mural at the Sazerac Bar in 1938 at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, and, in 1945, three large panels for the Delta Line, a ocean-going passenger steamship based in New Orleans.
Despite the Great Depression, Ninas’ success continued. In 1938 he was a Louisiana delegate to the Third National Exhibition of American Art in New York. In 1939, he was one of several Louisiana artists selected to show their work at the Chicago World’s Fair. Of seven oils submitted, his Women from a Distant Parish got the most attention. His images of exaggeratedly plump female nudes are heavily influenced by Picasso’s work in the late 1910s and early ‘20s.
That same year, Ninas and a group of young New Orleans artists formed A New Southern Group to publicize their work, not as traditional Southern landscape painters but as products of the New South. Its members, mostly friends from the Arts and Crafts Club of New Orleans, included Conrad Albrizio, Enrique Alférez, Xavier Gonzales, John McCrady, Caroline Durieux, Angela Gregory, Don Brown, Duca Ferguson, Marion Sims Souchon, and, later, Will Henry Stevens.
Post-World War II
World War II came along followed by an upswing in Ninas’s personal life. In 1942, he married Grace Chavanne, a young Newcomb College graduate whom he had met at the Arts and Crafts Club. Shortly after the wedding, Ninas was drafted into the US Army where he learned aerial photography and advanced darkroom techniques. Ninas wasted little time applying this newfound medium to his art. During his spare time in the darkroom, he experimented with geometric forms by printing crumpled or bits of torn scraps on photographic paper. He then painted over and around the images, creating multi-level planes much in the Cubist style of Picasso and the Surrealist Joan Miró. He continued this signature process for the rest of his career.
Ninas was discharged in 1944 and the following year Grace gave birth to their daughter, Paula. In the post-war years, Ninas’s career picked up where it had left off. In 1945 the New Orleans Art League featured his work in the league’s annual membership show at the Delgado Museum of Art. Two years later, his painting Nights in the Suburb received honorable mention at the Fifty-Eighth Annual American Exhibition at the Chicago Art Institute. The following year, Ninas stirred up the local art community with a show at the Arts and Crafts Club of New Orleans, featuring a new series of “driftwood” paintings that resembled Salvador Dali’s surreal landscapes. Ninas enjoyed creating these stark landscapes by working into paintings bits of driftwood he found while walking along the banks of the Mississippi River.
Whether in driftwood or crumpled photographic paper, Ninas constantly sought new methods of expression. In the late 1940s, he turned to painting on ceramic and hand-blocked fabrics. This led to association with Covington, Louisiana, artist Miriam Garic Barranger. Together, they formed the short-lived Red Bluff Crafts at Barranger’s home on the Bogue Falaya River north of Covington.
Ninas returned to New Orleans in 1952 after teaching at the University of Texas in Austin from 1949 to 1952. The following year, the Delgado Museum of Art mounted a major exhibition of his work. In 1954, he and Grace divorced. In 1958 Ninas executed a second mural at the Kingsley House in New Orleans and WDSU television commissioned him to do three paintings of various aspects of New Orleans popular culture such as Mardi Gras and jazz bands playing in a French Quarter patio cafe. The paintings were later used as advertisements in the New Yorker magazine.
Although abstraction became more and more evident in Ninas work during the 1950s, he completely rejected the new wave of Abstract Expressionism then popular in New York art circles. Ninas appeared content with the work he produced in the early 1960s. In a 1961 letter, he said he had just completed two large “abstractions”: “I don’t know if I will ever again do a complete painting, although these I consider about the best I have done. Previous to this I was on a Realist kick, but the abstractions are better.” Biographer Waterfield suspects Ninas was referring to his Watching Halley’s Comet, which Waterfield proclaims as “a colorized relative” to Picasso’s famous painting Guernica (1937).
Ninas died January 1, 1964, leaving behind more than seven hundred paintings and drawings – and considerable debate. His work is now in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Louisiana State Museum, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, and the Morris Museum in Morristown, New Jersey.