MUSEUM OF ART AND ARCHAEOLOGY, UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI-COLUMBIA Devil's Island Paintings
Though once scattered throughout the buildings of various departments across the campus of the University of Missouri-Columbia, twenty-four paintings of scenes from Devil's Island have been reunited and given a permanent home within the collection of the Museum of Art and Archaeology.
The islands of St. Joseph and Royale were reserved for the less dangerous criminals, while the violent and political prisoners were confined to Devil's Island. This island's name was derived from the large, noisy blackbirds that inhabited it, referred to as oiseaux diables, or devil birds. Prisoners on the island were forced to work off their sentences in harsh conditions. Backbreaking activities in the scorching sun, malaria carrying mosquitoes, and malnourishment led many convicts to attempt escape, although most attempts were futile. The surrounding waters were infested with sharks and piranhas that had acquired a taste for human blood.
Since its closing in 1946, Devil's Island has become a place of interest for tourists and the subject of several movies, songs, plays, and books, which tell the stories of life in the penal colony. In 1970, an ex-Devil's Island convict named Henri Charriere wrote the bestseller Papillon, which was later made into a film. Papillon recounts the author's experiences on the island, as well as his encounters with Army captain Alfred Dreyfus, who was unjustly found guilty of treason and sent to Devil's Island.
Francis Lagrange, the artist who painted the University's twenty-four Devil's Island paintings, inhabited the prison on Isle Royale for twenty years under charges of art forgery and currency counterfeiting. After several attempted escapes, he was eventually assigned to solitary confinement on the mainland prison of St. Laurent. It was here that he bribed a guard to smuggle in canvas, paintbrushes, and small cans of house paints, so that he could make visual records of his life in the penal colony. The crude nature of the paintings can be explained by the lack of proper materials and the poor working conditions.
In 1961, Lagrange wrote an autobiography, Flag on Devil's Island, which recounted his experiences in the penal colony. This book has served as a source for much of the biographical information on this website.
A man who had also once been a prisoner on Devil's Island purchased several of the Museum's paintings directly from Lagrange in the 1940's and 50's. This buyer became a restaurant owner and hung the canvases in his establishment in Cayenne, the largest town in French Guiana. A Chicago public relations representative who had visited this restaurant described them to Bailey K. Howard (the mastermind behind the World Book Encyclopedia), who became intrigued by his associate's description. Howard sent his photographer friend, Carmen Reporto, to Devil's Island in September 1960 to examine and evaluate the paintings, and possibly make a purchase.
In a 1982 article in The Quill, entitled "Escape From Devil's Island," Reporto tells the story of the acquisition of Lagrange's paintings. The photographer first traveled to Devil's Island, found the paintings, negotiated a price with their owner, and purchased the art works. It was only when he inquired about packing the paintings for shipment to the United States that he encountered a major obstacle to his mission. The French government strictly prohibited the exportation of photographs or drawings depicting the life of prisoners on Devil's Island. Only by bribing several customs agents and exporters could Reporto eventually smuggle the works out of the country.
While on the Island, Reporto had the opportunity to meet Lagrange and was taken to his studio. There, he bought sixteen more paintings and talked with Lagrange, who told him the story of his life. When informed that a wealthy American businessman had purchased his paintings, the artist became excited at the prospect of finding fame after many years of anonymity.
Upon their delivery to Chicago, Howard fell in love with the simple, yet engaging style of the paintings and their fascinating depictions of life at the notorious penal colony. In 1963, he gave the paintings to his alma mater, the University of Missouri-Columbia. At the time, the University did not have a suitable place to exhibit them, and after being temporarily displayed in several buildings, the works eventually ended up in storage. Over time the paintings suffered deterioration because of the poor quality of the materials Lagrange had used in their creation. They had a brief moment of attention when several were reproduced in a made-for-TV documentary on Devil's Island, but the artworks then faded into obscurity once again. In 2004, the Museum of Art and Archaeology took custody of the collection of paintings, and they are now being given proper care and attention. This digitized collection finally makes them available to a worldwide audience.
24 paintings, all the work of Francis Lagrange, a prisoner on the island, depict life within the penal colony, which consisted of a group of three small islands off the coast of French Guiana. While the colony as a whole is often referred to as "Devil's Island", this name actually applies to only one of the Salvation Islands (Isles du Salut) off the coast of the mainland. These islands, situated in shark-infested waters, include Isle Royale, Isle St. Joseph, and Isle du Diable, or Devil's Island (the smallest of the three). The penal colony on these islands was first opened by the Emperor Napoleon III and used by France from 1852 to 1946 to hold exiled prisoners.
Rights and Reproductions
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