In the heart of the Garden District, hidden behind a brick and iron fence bordered with holly trees, Henry and Jane Casselli’s home is a quiet oasis of distinctive beauty. The alchemy of simple architecture rooted in historic precedents, a minimalist edit of timeworn furniture, and restrained landscaping accented by the subtle melody of a trickling fountain produces an inviting European charm.
But it’s the gifted Cassellis and their respective art that are the soul of the place. The residence is home to an impressive collection of work by Henry Casselli, one of the country’s top watercolorists, and is often filled with the sounds of Jane Casselli playing or teaching students at the baby grand piano.
The baby grand sits beside a large abstract by Henry Casselli, the two as complementary as their creators. He loves hearing her play; she relishes the moments when she gets to see one of her husband’s new pieces.
The history of the house precedes the Cassellis, but talented hands have always been part of its provenance.
The well-known local firm of Authur Q. Davis and John C. Williams Architects designed the structure, which draws on French and A. Hays Town influences. Originally, it was a three-car garage with an attached apartment, built for clients who owned the adjacent house and connected the two properties.
After the owners called Henry Casselli to say he should see the apartment, he rented it as his studio and home. He eventually purchased the property, and he and Jane worked closely with contractor Michael Carbine, of M Carbine Restorations, in 2008 to convert and enlarge the house and add a separate studio. Landscaper Michael McClung landscaped the outdoor areas.
The expanded house now includes more than 3,000 square feet of space — with living and dining areas, galley kitchen, half bath and master suite downstairs and two bedrooms and baths upstairs — while Henry Casselli has the luxury of a separate studio, where he works daily.
“Henry and I were part of every decision that was made with ‘the Michaels,’” said Jane Casselli, referring to contractor and landscaper. She credits her husband with having an innate sense of arrangement.
That innate sense is the natural outgrowth of a career that took root in childhood and has produced a body of work that includes the official presidential portrait of Ronald Reagan that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. His works also are found in such collections as the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress.
Henry Casselli grew up in the racially diverse 7th Ward, and at age 18 was awarded a scholarship by the New Orleans Art Association that enabled him to study at the McCrady School of Fine and Applied Arts.
As a young man, he served as a combat artist in the Marine Corps, producing emotive drawings that capture the anguish experienced by fellow Marines and, later, was invited by NASA to create sketches and paintings of astronauts training for the first space shuttle flight and of John Glenn’s return to space.
Yet the surroundings and people of his native New Orleans are his favorite subjects.
Jane Casselli, also a New Orleans native, studied piano from an early age, graduated from Loyola University New Orleans with a degree in piano pedagogy and obtained her masters in piano performance from North Texas State University.
The Cassellis met when Jane was teaching piano at Loyola Music Prep, where one of Henry’s two daughters was studying. Eventually, their lives, families and households merged. Not surprisingly, Henry Casselli describes the house that’s evolved around them as “a record of our lives, the people we meet and our experiences — so many stories.”
Inside and out, the residence is reminiscent of a Creole cottage in the French Quarter. House and studio, both a faded shade of sandy-pink stucco and painted brick, face one another with a courtyard, bordered with boxwood, holly trees and potted flowers and fruit trees, in between.
The intentional absence of window coverings and rugs in the downstairs living area allows the smooth luster of herringbone brick floors and the organic grain of exposed wooden beams supporting the dining room’s cathedral ceiling to be highlighted by natural light.
Henry Casselli has an appreciation for Shaker simplicity, and the pared-down sensibility that the couple maintains at home underscores the beauty of its individual contents.
The rustic, painted patina of a Pennsylvania armoire, the gilt edge of a frame, and the lines of a delicate antique chair are appreciable. Henry Casselli designed both the unembellished farm table behind the sofa and the elegantly austere dining table, the latter made by the Renaissance Shop.
“If we can’t find it, we have it made,” he said.
For the two artists who finish each other’s sentences, decorating a house taps into what Jane Casselli calls “a creative spot.” His “chip and peel” and her “Chippendale” aesthetics are both geared toward the same degree of relaxation at home, and the unassuming marriage of their styles is the perfect foil to the powerful artwork on the walls.
“What we do in our home is what we aim for with our life — simplicity,” said Henry Casselli.
Eighty percent of his works are watercolor, but he uses a variety of mediums including oil, pastel, pencil drawings and sculpture, and there are examples of every kind. A pastel study of ballerinas, one of many inspired by the ballet classes that his daughters took as children, quietly commands attention against the flat, white surface of the brick fireplace.
In the same room, a poignantly nuanced portrait of a young girl and a gestural painting of Muhammad Ali hang near an abstract sculpture of a fallen, wounded man with a fragmented limb — all imbued with the authenticity for which the artist is known.
In the kitchen, a Casselli drawing of Picasso, with whom Henry shares a birthday, is paired with a drawing by Picasso himself. Large and small works, including intimate, reverent depictions of mother and child for which Jane Casselli often modeled, and small abstracts are part of the collection as well.
The influences of Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent and others are evident. In fact, Casselli says all art shapes his artistic journey. Recently, the work of Robert Motherwell, along with the suggestion by one of Casselli’s daughters that he create large-scale abstracts, inspired him to create the loosely painted canvas above the piano.
“No matter how realistic a piece is, it’s built on an abstract form,” said the artist, who usually begins a painting with an idea or phrase that he calls a “word sketch.”
Husband and wife give one another gifts of art for birthdays and special occasions. On one birthday, Henry Casselli bestowed Jane Casselli with a drawing of her with her son; she learned Debussy’s “Gardens in the Rain” and played it for him on one of his birthdays.
In the mornings, he heads for the studio, discouraging interruption by posting humorous, often cryptic messages designed to keep people away (“beware of uncircumcised frogs”) on the studio door. She teaches piano lessons in the house.
But at the end of the day, whether hosting family, which includes their respective children and grandchildren, entertaining close friends or spending time alone, art in the Casselli household is a source of joy meant to be shared.
“My favorite two words,” Jane Casselli said, “are when he says to me ‘come see.’”