A third-generation houngan (vodou priest) and a self-taught artist, Hyppolite painted with brushes made of chicken feathers and furniture enamel.
Born in St Marc, Haiti, Hyppolite worked as a shoemaker's apprentice although he favored reproducing prints onto postcards, which he sold to US Marines. In the early 1900s he moved to Camaguey, Cuba, to harvest sugar plantations. Upon his return in 1920, Hyppolite struggled to earn a living as a house painter. His creativity flourished when he began painting furniture and doors. It was the vividly painted doors of a bar in Mont Rouis that led Peters to invite Hyppolite to launch a painting career at the Centre. Hyppolite agreed without hesitation. Ever faithful to his religion, he claimed that the loas (gods) foretold his destiny as a successful artist. He was merely waiting for the fulfillment of the prophecy.
Upon arrival in the capital, Hyppolite completed 16 paintings in one week. Hyppolite's two-dimensional paintings were rudimentary yet they were colorful and symbolic with their depictions of the loas. Hyppolite portrayed the African traditions that infuse the island. His art caught the attention of Cuban painter Wilfredo Lam and Andre Breton, founder of the French Surrealist movement, who were traveling through the Caribbean on a tour. Breton purchased 5 paintings and declared Hyppolite's work would revolutionize modern painting because "it needs a revolution."
Hyppolite achieved worldwide acclaim in 1947 when his work was featured at the international UNESCO exhibit in Paris. Hyppolite's idea of his preordained fate was coming true. Celebrities such as Truman Capote were praising his works, and his natural style of depicting the spiritual elements of vodou practices as well as Catholic saints such as St Francis and the Christ Child (cover) lauded him as Haiti's foremost painter.
St Francis and the Christ Child depicts the baby Jesus and the saint known for his benefaction of animals and nature. The pair is surrounded by birds and flowers in an explosion of lush color. At the bottom of the painting two raven-haired angels grasp branches while a pink dove perches beneath. The saint and Christ child are roughly drawn their limbs appear awkward and lanky. However, the foliage is crisp and bright as if Hyppolite considered more attention to detailing the elements of nature. The figures are portrayed with dark skin, as Hyppolite must have envisioned them as himself and his fellow Haitians.
Hyppolite may have identified himself with the saint and thus represented him in a primitive manner. St Francis called for a simple life of poverty and humility. Hyppolite voluntarily moved into the Trou de Cochon slums despite his worldwide success and income.
Haitians identify St Francis with Ogoun Balandjo, their god of healing. In the early 1800s, the French colonists tried to force African slaves to convert to Catholicism. In turn, the slaves disguised their loas as the Catholic saints who most resembled their own gods.
Syncretism permitted the slaves to keep their own faith and practices. Vodou is now an integral part of Haitian culture and Hyppolite's images reflect this deep-rooted practice.
In the last year of the artist's life, he painted a darker side of vodou. He was no longer actively practicing as a houngan, although his home was filled with animistic altars and magical paraphernalia. He claimed, "I asked the spirits' permission to suspend my work . . . because of my painting. . . . I've always been a priest, just like my father and grandfather, but now I'm more an artist than a priest."
According to Selden Rodman (Where Art Is Joy: Haitian Art: The First Forty Years. New York, NY: Rules de Latour; 1988), it was perhaps this sudden division of his life between the priest who occasionally painted and the painter who occasionally conducted rites that gave his art its uneven quality. "In [his] most compelling pictures, everything is subordinated to the image of the loa that has seized him." Hyppolite's work was often rough yet always rich and joyous.
He died in the summer of 1948 of what was reported to be a heart attack.