Description: Achille Peretti (Italian/New Orleans, 1857-1923), "Interior at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church", 1899, oil on canvas, signed and dated lower right, "Artists' Association of New Orleans" exhibition label with artist and title en verso, 38 in. x 28 1/2 in., period frame. Note: St. John the Baptist Churchs golden steeple has long been an architectural landmark in New Orleans. Built in the late 1860s and early 1870s, the churchs formal dedication was January 7, 1872. The original structure still stands today. Although the floor plan has not been altered, the interior has undergone several campaigns of restorations. The current lot provides a fascinating view into the original design of the interior. The renowned stained glass, which is now featured in the side windows of the church, had not yet been installed in every window. The stained glass was donated over a course of almost a century the first donation occurring in 1874 and the last in 1962. In 1963, the church underwent a more extensive renovation and restoration. Unfortunately, the ornate altar featured in this painting was damaged beyond repair by termites and was replaced. In 2002, a renovation took place that saw to the repainting of the interior and the gilding of the column capitals and other details throughout the church. The figures portrayed in the church give the viewer a sense of the Catholic community in the late 19th century. The women depicted are, based on their clothing, fashionable ladies of means, adhering to the latest styles of dresses or blouses and skirts with high necks and long gigot sleeves. Hats with flowers, ribbons, or other decorations were extremely popular during this time period; ladies heads would have remained covered in a church during the late 1800s. The inclusion of an African-American woman in the painting indicates that St. John the Baptist Church had an interracial congregation in the 1890s, a circumstance that was more common during the antebellum period than in the later part of the century. Many slaves were baptized and attended the same churches as their owners. After the Civil War, African-American Catholics began forming their own communities. Orders such as the Sisters of the Holy Family, which had been founded in 1842 by Mother Henriette Delille, evangelized and converted both slaves and free persons of color before the war and expanded into full congregations after the war. St. Augustine Church was another community where interracial worship was common. Free black and white people rented approximately the same number of pews, raised funds, and sang in the choir together. Post-Civil War, as more black Catholic communities were formed and money from religious leaders such as Sister Katharine Drexel was donated to those communities, interracial Catholic congregations became less common. Although depictions of exteriors of the beautiful churches of New Orleans are quite common, views of the interior of a house of worship are relatively rare. Peretti, from the time he arrived in New Orleans in 1885 from his native Italy, had an interest in religious art. In addition to painting a number of varied subjects, he also worked decorating churches in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi at Our Lady of the Gulf and in New Orleans at numerous churches, including St. John the Baptist, St. Stephens, and St. Patricks. Through this fascinating look at a slice of life in the New Orleans Catholic community in the late 1800s, Peretti is able to provide some introspection into both the racial and religious history of the city. Ref.: Nolan, Bruce and Pastor Lori Renee. Black Catholicism: Religion and Slavery in Antebellum Louisiana. M.A. Thesis. Dallas: University of Dallas, 2003; Dobie, Ann B. Achille Peretti. KnowLA: Encyclopedia of Louisiana. Sept. 12, 2012. www.knowla.org/entry/1328. Accessed Oct. 21, 2016; History of the Church. St. John the Baptist Catholic Church. www.goldensteeple.com. Accessed Oct. 21, 2016.
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