Pierre Joseph Landry carved "Wheel of Life" in 1834, depicting the stages of man's life in high relief mounted on a circle of wood with remnants of wallpaper on a circular frame. The figure near the swaddled infant, lower right, is a puzzling inclusion. The figure representing middle age (top right) may be a self portrait. Learn more »
In 1785, Pierre Joseph Landry, the earliest known sculptor in Louisiana, immigrated to the United States from France at the age of fifteen. He became a successful sugar planter in Iberville Parish and served as a captain under Major General Andrew Jackson during the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815. It was after Landry was afflicted with a tubercular infection of the knee and confined to a wheelchair that he took up woodcarving. Using ordinary knives as tools, he created sculptures from such indigenous woods as beech, magnolia, elm, pear, and walnut. Landry’s works generally represent allegorical or narrative subjects and are skillfully rendered with naturalistic details. Although Landry’s extant body of works is limited, he is considered among the finest of America’s folk artists.
Landry was born on January 9, 1770, in the French village of Saint-Servan, on the western coast of Brittany. His father, Colonel Pierre Joseph Landry, was among the sugar industry pioneers whose success led to the establishment of a sugar district between Plaquemine and Bayou Goula on the west bank of the Mississippi River, below Baton Rouge. It is surmised that Colonel Landry relocated to Louisiana during the mounting political and social upheaval that preceded the French Revolution.
At the age of forty-five, the younger Landry took up arms in his family’s adopted homeland as British forces made New Orleans a target in the War of 1812. Captain Landry organized and led a company of infantry from Iberville Parish and joined General Jackson on theChalmette battlefield during the armed confrontation there in December 1814 and January 1815. Landry would eventually carve a sculpture of Jackson and King Louis Philippe of France saluting each other upon the gold payment of indemnity from France to the United States in 1836, a carving that Landry later presented to Jackson. This work is now in the collection of the Ladies’ Hermitage Association at Jackson’s home in Nashville, Tennessee. The two figures stand beneath an umbrella-like tree—an element present in three of his sculptures.
Seaman’s Allegory, carved in 1833 or 1834, commemorated the death of Napoleon, in 1821, on the island of St. Helena. Two figures are shown beneath two trees, their arc-like foliage supported by intertwined tree trunks; the space between them creates a silhouette of Napoleon. A man stands at left while a mourning female figure with a veiled face kneels at right under the boughs of a willow tree, which also symbolizes weeping and death. Behind her, a chest presumably represents a journey—in this life or the next. Bas-reliefs on the base show two men in a boat, with one man rowing toward the viewer. A fish leaps from the capped waves at left.
The Louisiana State Museum holds seven of Landry’s sculptures including his largest and best-known work, the Wheel of Life, which contains nine allegorical vignettes emblematic of man’s cycle of life from birth to the grave. Landry’s Allegory of Commerce shows a female figure seated on a cotton bale beneath a magnolia tree. She holds an overflowing cornucopia, an obvious reference to Louisiana’s bountiful produce. In 1982, the image was selected to appear on a commemorative medal issued by the French government.
Landry’s Holy Family portrays Mary and Joseph in typical pioneer garb—in particular, Joseph’s buckskin shirt. Another religious work, Parable, shows a man turning away from a preacher. Cain and Abel is a high-relief carving of Abel trying to flee from Cain, who wields a club and clutches Abel’s coattails. The vignette is set against two heads facing opposite directions.
Although typical of self-trained artists, Landry’s voyeuristic Self-Portrait of the Artist Observing an Indian Maiden at Her Bath, dating to the mid-1820s, shows him in mid-life. Measuring twelve inches in height, this hollowed self-portrait, carved in walnut, demonstrates Landry’s technical expertise: he knew to refrain from carving sculpture from a solid block of wood in order to avoid the resultant cracking or warping. Landry reportedly mounted mirrors around the room to allow him a three-dimensional view of his head. He portrays himself with the deep smile lines and flaccid jaw line appropriate for a man his age. While the work has a naive appearance, Landry’s likeness was credible to those who knew him. Aware of his approaching mortality, Landry documented his age, date, and identity with an inscription on the base: “Tête de P. J. Landry age de 63 ans fait par lui en 1833.”
In March 1843, Landry died at the age of seventy-three in Iberville Parish at St. Gabriel. He is buried there in the same cemetery as noted Louisiana architect Charles Dakin. Landry’s success is evident in his estate inventory, which held assets valued at more than $24,000. It included land, slaves, livestock, and more than 266 books on history, literature, and science; however, no artworks were listed in the inventory, not even his own sculptures.
Cite This Entry
Chicago Manual of Style
Bonner, Judith H. "Pierre Joseph Landry." In KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–. Article published September 12, 2012. http://www.knowla.org/entry/1290/&view=summary.
Bonner, Judith H. "Pierre Joseph Landry." KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana. Ed. David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 12 Sept 2012. Web. 21 Jan. 2017.
Would you like to learn more about this topic from books and other reading materials?
Poesch, Jessie J. The Art of the Old South: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, and the Products of Craftsmen, 1560–1860. New York: Knopf, 1987.