New Orleans always has been complicated. Even parts of its history that once seemed straightforward often spiral off in odd directions under close examination. Josef de Salazar y Mendoza's portraits of local socialites and grandees of all stripes reflect Spain's cultural values during the latter 18th century, when New Orleans was a Spanish colony, but the Ogden Museum of Southern Art's biographical text panels reveal all sorts of quirks and surprises. Although his painting style was classically Spanish, Salazar was born in Merida, Mexico, and his sitters were a diverse lot. Colonial Attorney General Antonio Mendez was actually from Havana, Cuba, the Spanish Caribbean capital that governed New Orleans like a distant suburb. In his portrait, he appears to be interacting with his quietly animated children as his intently focused features suggest someone used to facing unpredictable events with a stoic, if wary, resolve.
Some of the figures on view provide us with faces to go with familiar local street names. Salazar's portrait of philanthropist Don Andres Almonester reveals an imposing figure whose misspelled name (Almonaster) now graces a local avenue, and Joseph Montegut's intriguing family portrait reveals the prominent doctor who was the namesake of a Marigny street. William Kenner looks every inch the proper Anglo-American planter that he was, but his wife, Mary Minor Kenner, conveys a European aura appropriate to the daughter of Louisiana's last Spanish governor. Ultimately, it was New Orleans' international and often exotic citizenry that made it more interesting for portrait painters than any other city in America, and nowhere is that more evident than in Salazar's portrait of Marianne Celeste Dragon (pictured), a Creole woman of French and Greek ancestry whose aristocratic demeanor epitomized the social and economic standing of this city's large and prosperous mixed race community. Swathed in fashionable blue silk and pearls, she lives on as a kind of Louisiana Mona Lisa — mysterious not for her coyness but because she appears so completely at ease with who she is in a place and time unlike any other. Through Sept. 2. Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., (504) 539-9650; www.ogdenmuseum.org