DeWitt Clinton Peters, a name highly referred to in the art community for the widespread recognition of Haitian Art went to Haiti to teach high school English as an alternative to military service during World War II in 1943. Peters, a talented watercolorist from California with a passion for painting was surprised to find no art gallery or any place where one could exhibit paintings. He had a dream of opening an institution that would convince talented Haitians that art was not only a respectable occupation but also a better way of making a living than sweeping a yard or driving a taxi.
Le Center d'Art, a building donated to Peters by the Haitian government and still in existence today was opened in 1944 by Peters after he resigned from his teaching position. He intended the center to serve as a combination art school and art gallery; where Haitians could receive academic instruction in both drawing and oil techniques. Surprisingly, the founders of the Art Center discovered a wealth of talent that would affect the history of the art movement in Haiti. Dewitt opened the Centre d'Art of Port-au-Prince, Haiti in May 1944, with the assistance of several prominent artists and art connoisseurs, including Georges Remponeau, Maurice Borno, Gerald Bloncourt, Albert Mangones, Lucien Price, Philippe Thoby-Marcelin and others.
In search of local art, Hector Hyppolite, mysterious Voodoo priest, who painted using chicken feathers and leftover house paint, was one of the first painters to be discovered by Peters. Realizing the potential in local primitive art, he started to seek out other local talents. Artists from the most varied and unlikely backgrounds started to emerge. PhilomeObin; a clerk, Peter's house boy, Castera Bazile; a taxi driver, Rigaud Benoit; the Art Center's yard boy, Sisson Blanchard; a bookkeeper, Toussaint Auguste; PetionSavain, Wilson Bigaud, Robert Saint-Brice; a factory worker named Jasmin Joseph, and others. These men known as the first generation of artist were self-taught, and were hungry and motivated enough to pursue the dream of becoming an artist. Their paintings were full of passion and imagination. They were able to translate their environment, religious observances on canvas and cardboard.
Selden Rodman, became co-director of the Centre in 1947, convinced Peters that the artists were ready to move from the small pictures to immovable walls of public buildings. Rodman then organized and supervised the work on the murals of the Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Port-au-Prince. Finished in 1951, these murals attracted world attention and also launched a number of primitive artists who soon became internationally known, with collectors from all over the world seeking their work.
What may have appeared anecdotal in the beginning had over time crystallized into two major themes for these artists without training, they basically told the history of Haiti and their daily lives.
Following in DeWitt Peters and Selden Rodman footsteps in 1965, Francine Murat, still a young employee at Le Centre d’Art, took over and perpetuated the founder’s vision. She worked to make the spirit of the Center come to life and continued to carry on with activities despite great financial difficulties until its collapse in January 2010.Le Centre d’art was destroyed by an earthquake on January 12, 2010. Many of the artworks were badly damaged, destroyed and needed restoration.
Today Haiti is well represented by self-taught and trained artists and the visual arts are flourishing like nowhere else in the Caribbean. The founding of the Centre d'Art in 1944 with DeWitt Peters and its directors has played a major role in the Haitian Renaissance.