Jean Michael Cazabon was born of French parentage in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad on September 20, 1813 on Corynth Estate, North Naparima, on the outskirts of San Fernando. He was the youngest of 4 children. His parents, owners of a sugar plantation, were “free coloured” immigrants from Martinique, who came to Trinidad following the Cedula of population of 1783. He was sent at age 9, to be educated at St. Edmund’s College, Ware, Hertfordshire, England.
In 1826, at the age of thirteen, Cazabon went to school at St. Edmund’s College in Ware, England, returning to Trinidad in 1830. In about 1837 he sailed for Paris to study medicine. He gave up these studies and started off as an Art student under Paul de la Roche a leading painter in Paris. His parent’s wealth supported his pursuits and those of his family for many years to come in an enviable life-style and only later in life did he find it necessary to earn a living from his paintings.
It is seen that he followed the familiar pattern for students at that time, travelling extensively in France and Italy painting the landscape. His work was shown at the Salon du Louvre in 1839 and everiy year from 1843 to 1847. His philosophy and style follow closely that of the contemporary French landscape artists. In 1843 he married a French woman, Rosalie Trolard. His first daughter was born in Paris in 1844, followed by the birth of his only son. In 1845 he visited Trinidad, returning to Paris in 1851 to publish a series of eighteen lithographs, “Views of Trinidad, 1851”. After the birth of his second daughter in Paris in 1852, he returned with his family to Trinidad.
Cazabon soon became popular as a society painter, not only with his paintings of Trinidad scenery, but also with his portraits of the planters and merchants of Port of Spain and their families. He taught art, and provided illustrations of local events for English newspapers. He was included in the circle of friends of the governors, including Lord Harris, recording many of his social functions and excursions. In 1857 he published a second series of eighteen lithographs of local scenes, “Album of Trinidad”. In 1860 he published, with the photographer Hartmann, a series of sixteen lithographs titled “Album of Demerara”, and in that same year contributed one of the scenes in “Album Martiniquais”, published by Hartmann and the lithographer, Eugene Ciceri.
In 1862, Cazabon moved with his family to Saint Pierre in Martinique. He hoped that Saint Pierre, described then as the Paris of the New World, would offer a metropolitan spirit that Trinidad lacked, and provide a greater appreciation for his art. Finding much the same attitudes prevailing, he returned to Trinidad about 1870 and attempted to pick up the threads of his former life. Never to regain his social standing, he began to drink to dull his disillusionment. Hawking his paintings around Port of Spain, he became known only as a drunken, though gentle, old eccentric. In 1888 whilst working at his easel, he died of a heart attack, and the following day he was unceremoniously buried in Lapeyrouse Cemetery.
Cazabon preferred to describe himself as a ‘landscape painter’, but in Trinidad, away from the metropolitan influences and stimuli, he embraced the everyday, often mundane, forms of artistic expression – teacher, illustrator, portrait painter. His paintings therefore, leave us with a clear picture of the many aspects of life m Tnnidad through much of the nineteenth century.
Cazabon’s greatness was not in developing a new style of painting but recording life and events with a virtuoso’s magic touch. His importance not only as a West Indian artist, but also as an historian, has for too long been ignored.
In England and France his work is much admired and he won awards and medals at exhibitions. In 1851 and 1857 two books of his engravings of Trinidad landscapes were produced in Paris. He was the first Trinidad artist whose style influenced artists for many score years after his death. He was an assiduous worker. A few of his paintings and prints are to be found in the National Museum and Art Gallery and in private collections in Trinidad and abroad.