Tuesday, April 23, 2024
HNOC Staff

“The past is vast, memory fragile, and records incomplete.” The Historic New Orleans Collection’s vision statement acknowledges that we don’t know everything about the past. Although our institution has amassed a large collection of over a million books, manuscripts, maps, photographs, objects, and artworks documenting the history of the region, there are still untold stories and different perspectives for us to uncover. 

A new exhibition, Unknown Sitters, highlights portraits of people who are unidentified in the historical record. These portraits of mystery stand in for lives not represented in history and ask us all to remember—and to imagine. The exhibition also offers opportunities for visitors to engage with the art of portraiture through different entry points: sitter, artist, writer, and curator. 

These sitters’ identities were lost or erased from history for a variety of reasons. When family estates were sold, beloved portraits were divorced from their historical narratives. Sometimes artists did not record the name of sitters, particularly when the sitter was a paid model. Portraits of children, the elderly, women, and people of color were more likely to lose their identities than those of white men. 

Despite the many unknowns, these works of art have much to share. The sitters’ clothing and surroundings, written inscriptions and signatures, and the artists’ biographies allow curators to craft basic narratives of the lives and times of the people depicted. 

“Portraits can seem so distant and inaccessible,” said Decorative Arts Curator Lydia Blackmore. “I hope visitors to this exhibition leave with some sense of intimacy with these historic artworks. I hope visitors tap into their creativity and are inspired to use their imagination when confronted with the material culture of the past.”

To augment the reflective storytelling of Unknown Sitters, HNOC’s annual Student Writing Contest invited students to pick up the pen where the curators left off, to imagine details beyond the historical evidence. Young scholars in elementary, middle, and high school submitted creative responses to a selection of the portraits, inventing names and stories for these unknown sitters. Responses came not just from Louisiana but from all 50 states. From over 1,000 submissions, curators selected one response to display with each of the selected portraits. These fictional accounts provide new ways to look at historic figures. 


Portrait of a man with a dark goatee and dark suit.

(HNOC, gift of Laura Simon Nelson, 1997.120.8)

The New Orleans Vampire

by Jayden Bergeron, 12th grade

Zachary High School, Zachary, LA

I let the woman’s limp body drop as I finish my meal. I do not know her name or her story. All I know is that she doesn’t belong here. I only take the lives of newcomers to the city. New Orleans is not for them. I feel no trace of anxiety as I leave the woman’s home and step onto the busy New Orleans street. The key is to walk with confidence. A guilty face reveals a guilty conscience, and that’s what gets you in trouble. Once home, I hurriedly retreat to my bedroom to change from my work clothes into my nicest suit. I cannot look disheveled for my annual birthday portrait. I complete a quick combover of my hair and finish adjusting my mustache just as I hear a knock at my door. Artist François Bernard stands on the other side, smiling as I open the door to greet him.

“Mr. Gerard Trudeau, I presume?” he asks with a smile.

“Yes, welcome!” I reply, almost feeling bad, knowing his fate.

Can you really blame me? A man has to eat.


A painted portrait showing a person with long, dark hair. They appear to be under the canopy of a tree and are surrounded by green luna moths.

(HNOC, gift of the estate of Dr. Jerah Johnson, 2018.0253.14)

The Lady That Is Just Not Fit

by Eloise Ritter, 6th grade

Willow School, New Orleans, LA

I am the moth. Pest-like and infuriating. I try to be pretty but don’t succeed. Too hairy with alien eyes. I want to be the best, but am easily defeated. Unlike the much-loved butterfly, I am just not in people’s sights. My colors too drab, wings too bulky. Still, I flap wildly. I am awake at night but love the light. 

I am the queen. As regal as one like me can be. Makeup bold and bright. Outlandish. Camouflaging what’s underneath. Orange and pink streaking my cheeks. Shocking eyes and lips. Mismatched with intention. I stand out. Bulging. But I am still stuck inside. I am different, but not in the way they believe. Transform from moth to butterfly. I am made up.


Interior scene showing a boy and girl at a piano and a boy standing near a multi-colored floral print tablecloth upon which sits a basket of fruit. Above him, a parrot stands in a ring, holding a grape in its talons.

(HNOC, 1993.56)

Lisa, Tomie, and Michael

by Quinn Powell, 3rd grade

Walker Elementary School, McKinney, TX

This is Lisa. She is the girl playing the piano. She is annoyed that her brother is turning the piano pages before she is ready. The young boy, Tomie, is sad that he cannot play outside if his siblings aren’t out with him. Tomie is also sad because Lisa won’t let him feed fruit to the parrot. The parrot’s name is Carrot and he is sleeping with his eyes open. Michael, the older boy, is really mischievous. That’s why he is turning the pages so fast! Later in the afternoon, at dinner, they have fruit salad for dinner and Tomie sneaks off to feed fruit to Carrot.


 A painted three-quarter length portrait of a young dark-haired girl shown in near-frontal view against a background that is dark at the left and lightened at the right.

(HNOC, 2008.0329.1)

A Spotless White Dress amidst a Stained World

by Libby Stassi, 10th grade

Academy of the Sacred Heart, New Orleans, LA


In my white dress, sewn with lace, 

My portrait is painted, I stand up straight.


Outside these walls, away from my spotless dress,

Souls are sold in chains and worked without rest.

Away from my blooming flowers and subtle smile,

Mothers kiss their babies, afraid they won’t see them for a while.

People are torn from their homes and loaded on ships,

But I just sit in silence, as my portrait is equipped.


Half of my nation cries out for justice and human dignity,

While the others worry about the income of their family.

Their voices echo, and change is brewing

But I just sit right here, foolishly smiling.


Men roam free, in pursuit of dreams,

But I am bound by societal means.

My mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother begged for a voice,

But I sit here, in my white dress, not making any noise.

My brother learns to read, write, hope, and love,

While my sister and I, zipping up our white dresses, allow our dreams to be shoved.


I wonder of daughters, yet to come,

Will they inherit this world undone?

I wonder about families that were torn apart,

Will they finally see freedom and a world with heart?

About the Historic New Orleans Collection 

Founded in 1966, the Historic New Orleans Collection is a museum, research center, and publisher dedicated to the stewardship of the history and culture of New Orleans and the Gulf South. Follow HNOC on Facebook and Instagram.