1813. It was the year that Trinidad got her first civil governor, Sir Ralph Woodford. The world was full of significant men, never mind that they were all still in their diapers: Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Richard Wagner, Abraham Lincoln and Napoleon III, for example. Fürst Bismarck had yet to be born two years later, to be followed closely by Tolstoi and Rockefeller. The probably most important invention of the year was the bicycle, that is, if we disregard Leonardo da Vinci's sketches of it 350 years earlier; those had never been actually built.
In this setting, Michel Jean Cazabon was born in the Naparimas. His parents were French; coloured, well-off people who had come from the French islands to receive land grants in Trinidad under the Cedula of Population. Michel grew up with his mother and siblings in San Fernando, since his parents separated one year after he was born. In their household, as in most others in those days in Trinidad, people spoke exclusively French and Patois.
Michel grew up in an independent and outdoorish manner. The habit of rambling around in the country side was something which he would keep up throughout his lifetime, and even make a living off it.
Trinidad had been a British colony for only 16 years, and in order to converse with the officials bits and pieces of English sufficed. Like other parents, the Cazabons were looking ahead and planning a future for their son. And the future in Trinidad looked mighty British to them. Hence, they sent off 15-year old Michel Jean to St. Edmund's College in England, to learn English and the ways of a British subject in the colonies. Typically, they probably wanted Cazabon jnr. to become a doctor or a priest, respectability being the order of the day, especially for coloured people. However, already from his years in Hertfordshire, there is evidence that he had little inclination for the academics and a growing love for the countryside and for art: his bills for "mending of trousers" and "stationery" were quite high, as Geoffrey MacLean reports in his book on Cazabon.
After four years in England, Michel returned to Trinidad at the age of 19. Of the following seven years, only two paintings remain of him. In 1837, Michel and his mother move to Port of Spain. Later that year, he is sent to Paris for his further education. The Cazabons snr. manage to send him enough money to live in good "arrondissements" in France's capital.
Becoming a young bohemian in Paris, he probably took art classes at the Académie des Beaux Arts (without being officially enrolled). Other sources say that he studied with Paul de la Roche, who was then a famous painter in Paris. However, as the years went by, his parents might have become more and more reassured that their prodigal son was on the right way, or at least they boasted with his proficiency and his exhibitions in the metropole to cover the "scandal" of having produced an artist. He exhibited at the Salon du Louvre and even went to study in Italy for a year in 1841 - 1842; Italy was then still regarded as the Mecca of artists. His paintings sold for hundreds, even more than 1,000 francs.
What made him so successful? His style was that of a romantic landscape painter, with a close eye on the detail, on light and shadow, on textures and on the spontaneity of people in the scenes he depicted. His preferred medium was watercolour, which had become en vogue in the second half of the 19th century in Europe.
Michel Jean got married in France to Louise Rosalie Trolard and had two daughters and one son, who was mentally handicapped. When his mother died in 1848, he came back to Trinidad to live in Port of Spain. His wife continued to live in Paris with their first daughter and son, and didn't join him in Port of Spain until 1852, after the birth of their second daughter (Michel obviously having returned to Paris in the meantime).
In Port of Spain, Sir James Lamont and William Burnley, both wealthy planters, commission works by Cazabon. He also produces a collection of lithographs, which he subsequently publishes in Paris in 1851. His second folio, called "Album of Trinidad", was published in 1857.
Cazabon established himself in Trinidad by advertising himself, as MacLean records, first as an artist who "paints landscapes and sites", and then as a "drawing master". He also offered teaching to private pupils or classes at quite a stiff price: $5.00 or $3.00 per month, respectively. In addition to teaching and painting commissioned works, Cazabon also draws for the Illustrated London News.
When looking at Cazabon's works (and if you haven't done so as yet, please go and visit the Cazabon collection at the Victoria Institute!), one can picture the excursions that he and his students had to go on in order to get to the sites he depicts. No mountaintop to high, no weather to rainy or no sea to rough: even at a mature age Cazabon must have had many more pairs of trousers that needed to be mended. He is probably best known for his tranquil, lush and tropical landscapes from all over Trinidad and from down the islands. But he also travels to Grenada, Martinique and Demerara to paint, and in 1862 publishes his "Album of Demerara".
Michel and Louise lived in grand style. They loved and were used to the good life-entertaining, travelling, serving champagne. During their life in Trinidad, which was then mainly a planter society and generally not very artistically-minded, their resources dwindled, however. In 1862, they decided to move to St. Pierre in Martinique, which had by then earned itself as "Petit Paris des Antilles". Maybe the coloured artist hoped to lead a more gentle life in a French colony than in a British. But St. Pierre too proved to be provincial for the now 50-year old Michel, and he was again and again drawn to Trinidad, where he painted scenes of his favourite spots: Macqueripe, Belmont, Laventille and the north coast. With one of his daughters married to a Martiniquan, he and the rest of his family moved back to Port of Spain in 1870. Michel continued to paint and grow old here. In 1885, his wife died. He followed her into the grave three years later.
In his home country, his significance as a painter was only really appreciated almost a century later. Many of his works were destroyed in the volcano eruption in Martinique in 1902, in which also his daughter perished. Fortunately, he had been so prolific, that in the first half of the 20th century people had Cazabons hanging in their houses as a matter of course, not attaching any special value to them. They were given away as wedding presents, or even thrown away if something more modern was to be put up.
But many of his works have survived, and are now on par with other artistic works of his time, with the added value for us that they depict - us, our lives, and our country, more than a century ago.