Perspectives: Jim Blanchard
At the crossroads of old-school technique and modern research, history rebuilds itself
JULY 23, 2020
Upon first glance, the city of Thibodaux, Louisiana, may not seem like a destination for the height of period architecture, but for artist and historian Jim Blanchard, who grew up along Bayou Lafourche, it was the seat of inspiration for his unique career as an architectural archival artist. Whether detailing the exact measurements of the ironwork on the Henry S. Buckner Mansion on New Orleans’ Jackson Avenue or the precise mileage of maps depicting the Louisiana of eras past, Blanchard’s works are as much historical documents as they are works of art, each meticulously painted watercolor a testament to the rare contemporary combination of old school technique and modern examination—something he had almost no choice but to teach himself.
“I went to study art at Nicholls State University in the early 70s, but back then it was all about modernity and splashed paint, and no one was able to teach me the basics of classical technique,” said Blanchard. “So I went to work with my grandfather in the oil brokerage business, where I worked on titles for properties and learned to draft maps from my great uncles.”
The job provided a hands-on crash course in the historical significance of lineage. Blanchard spent his time in courthouses and libraries, researching data in hopes of finding important details on families, deeds, lands, and how placements and properties can change over the course of two hundred years.
“It’s an education that’s hard to get any other way,” he said.
And it shows. When the Ogden Museum of Southern Art hosted A Precise Vision, a 2018 exhibition of his work, Blanchard said he was stunned by the attention it received from people of all ages and demographics—perhaps, he wondered, because contemporary audiences rarely get the chance to admire traditionally crafted paintings produced in the modern age.
“When people see my work, it’s not uncommon for them to assume it was painted hundreds of years ago,” said Blanchard.
Indeed, Blanchard’s work has often been compared to that of French artist and cartographer Marie Adrien Persac, who in the mid-1800s also painted South Louisiana plantation houses and landscapes after marrying the daughter of a farmer in Baton Rouge. But the difference between the two painters’ work is evident, the natural inclinations of each artist impossible to erase no matter the amount of exact measurements and rigorous research live in each stroke.
“I hunt for details anywhere I can,” said Blanchard. “Old photographs are great, because they have their own dimensions I can research, like different iron patterns. I can look that up and scale the rest of the building’s proportions from there. I also look into a lot of building contracts that describe the height of the ceilings, or the widths of the rooms, so you get a lot of detail from that.”
Blanchard said that he will sometimes research for years before putting pen to paper. “I’ve always wanted to paint the old state house in Donaldsonville, for example, but there’s no image of it other than a couple of small, inconsistent drawings,” he said. “Recently, some friends of mine located a contract which seems to include some measurement numbers regarding the house, but it’s in French, so they’re translating it for me. People have been looking for this information for decades, so that’s exciting.”
The records of history, after all, can change so much via the avenues of time, depending on who writes something down, and how much fictionalizing is involved, and who writes that down, and so on. What we’re left with today is often a mere fragment of truth, if we’re lucky.
Even so, with clout as a collector of historical artifacts, and as designer for buildings and restorations on projects like the Ashland and Bocage plantation houses, as well as holding positions as the historian for Houmas House and Gardens and curator of the recently-opened Great River Road Museum, Blanchard—who takes such meticulous care as to frequently scale his drawings with the help of a central human figure meant to be six feet tall—can’t escape the thrill of imagination.
“People wanted to create an illusion of themselves through these grand structures,” he said. “And I hope people can look at my work today and wonder: who really lived here? What was life like back then? It adds to the story. And I hope it might inspire others to search for more history, and learn something new.”