Signed and inscribed, lower center: Joseph / Ramanankamonjy / Madagascar / Petite fille / “aquarelle sur soie”
Private Collection, Paris
Private Collection, Florida
Sometimes one comes across an artist almost completely divorced from the mainstream of critical attention, but whose work reveals a quality and interest that demands appreciation. Such a figure is Joseph Ramanankamonjy, a painter locally revered in his native Madagascar, but virtually unknown outside of it.
The subjects of Ramanankamonjy’s works were exclusively drawn from his homeland—landscapes, dwellings, scenes of everyday life, and portrait drawings, of which the present works are particularly fine examples. But while he was educated in Madagascar—training with local artists, then attending the School of Fine Arts at Andafiavaratra Palace in the capital city of Antananarivo (Tananarive)—he exhibited frequently in France, first showing his work in Paris in 1928 and later in 1948, 1949, and 1959. In 1931 he was part of the Malagasy Delegation to the Exposition Coloniale Internationale held in the Bois de Vincennes in Paris. This massive exhibition, controversial in its day, attempted to extoll the beneficent aspects of colonialism, particularly among French possessions, of which Madagascar was one from 1897 until its independence in 1960.
By the time of the Colonial Exhibition, Ramanankamonjy had developed his signature mode of portraiture, painting intense images on small pieces of silk. One of these, now in the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, is dated 1930 (Fig. 1). It depicts a young Malagasy woman—her face, hair, and pendant earrings meticulously delineated—while the balance of her body is only summarily indicated. She is designated as a Hova, the free commoner caste of the Merina people, the largest ethnic group in Madagascar.
Our works are undated but clearly somewhat later in date given their more sophisticated modelling and focus on the subject. In Petite Fille Ramanankamonjy has introduced a more varied palette, rendering the tonalities of the girl’s face in a succession of fine brushstrokes ranging from yellows to browns to blues, while giving great attention to her hair, articulated with variations in grays. A detail photograph gives some indication of the remarkable technique employed by the artist (Fig. 2).
Un Enfant, executed in sanguine, dwells on the soft forms of the child’s face, revealed by lambent light from above. The young girl’s hair is depicted with equal care, with special emphasis given to the braids—proud hallmarks of Malagasy culture. There is a directness and honesty in the artist’s portraits—most of which are of children—which, while veering towards the sentimental, maintain the integrity and dignity of the sitters. A review of the artist’s 1949 exhibition at L’Agence des Colonies in Paris stressed the humanity and sympathy with which Ramanankamonjy approached his subjects, the finesse of his technique, and the uniqueness of his watercolor-on-silk medium (Fig. 3).
Besides exhibitions in France, Ramanankamonjy showed his work on the Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and Réunion. Otherwise he worked and exhibited exclusively in Madagascar (Fig. 4). He received numerous honors and awards in his homeland, becoming the first artist member of the Malagasy Academy, leading to his induction into the French Legion d’honneur, first as a Chevalier in 1950, then as Officier in 1960. He was the subject of retrospective exhibitions in Antanarivo, most recently in 2014, the thirtieth anniversary of his death. Nonetheless, other than locally, he remains largely an unknown figure.