Race, paternity, identity and $704,000 – the story of Louisiana’s ‘most intriguing painting’ | Arts


The problem with this story is that you really can’t be sure of anything. The famous 19th-century artist was long thought to be a free black man who had a successful career in New Orleans during the slavery era. However, according to one scholar, he may not have been of African descent.

And the artist’s masterpiece, a painting of two well-dressed Crescent City men (one white and one black), to explain the racial mix within the outpost wartime family. It has been considered for a long time. But the story behind the artwork isn’t 100 percent clear.

In November 2021, the Historic New Orleans Collection purchased artwork for $ 704,000 at auction. It will be open to the public on Tuesday (June 7th) at the French Quarter Museum, 533 Royal St. It was an amazing amount of Louisiana artwork.

Marnie Robinson, art director at Neil Auction, a company that sold double portraits to the historic New Orleans collection, said he was paid the most for portraits in Bayeux at the time.

Of course, she said it was also “the most intriguing painting in Louisiana’s history.”

A 1845 pastel painting by the artist Jules Lion, commonly known as “”, in a still pose and a candid gaze of two men.Asher Moses Nathan and Son,’may suggest that the artwork is based on daguerreotype photographs.

Who was Jules Lion?

The stylish scarlet signature shows that it was painted by New Orleans artist Jules Lion, who made a living as a portrait and lithographer in Queen City in the south before the civil war. He was also the first photographer in New Orleans.

In 1839, French inventor Louis Daguerre announced the miraculous process of capturing images from life on a palm-sized polished metal plate using what is called a camera. Foresighted artists learned Daguerre’s techniques and scrambled to start creating new photographs for the general consumer.

The 33-year-old lion was an early adopter. By 1843, or earlier, he had exhibited his photographs in New Orleans. But like almost everything else in this story, his picture is a mystery. Early photographers did not always sign the Daguerreotype, so it is difficult to say for sure if a photo of a lion still exists.

Ironically, he was known for creating accurate images of his 19th-century New Orleans companions, but the appearance of the lion himself remains a mystery.

“It seems strange that the height of the lion and the interested artist did not leave a self-portrait, but if there is a self-portrait, I don’t know about it,” said Jason, chief curator of the historic New Orleans collection. Weese says.

Free people of color

What made Lion’s contribution to Crescent City’s culture particularly striking was that he was a free-colored man, according to the city’s directory entry in the 1850s (the bygone pioneer of the bygone phone book). did.

At that time, most of the Africans in New Orleans were enslaved, but some were not. “Free people of color” were still subject to institutional racism, but they were able to own property, do business, and enjoy other legal freedoms.

The lion’s presumed racial identity particularly resonated with the inside story of the double portrait he created in the mid-1800s. We call it a painting, but it was actually a full-color drawing made of chalk-like crayons called pastel. This is the same medium that Degas often used.

The lion painting depicts what looks like a young black man gently hugging an older white gentleman. Their contact looks affectionate, but stays and is dignified. The young man flashes a ruby ​​ring, showing wealth. His tie is fashionably slanted, suggesting a flashy lifestyle. The older man breaks a vague smile and probably means pride. Father’s pride? Maybe so.

131 years later

The lion died of pneumonia in 1866 at the age of 56 or 60. The mercury vapor used to create the Daguerreotype may have accelerated his death.

Over the decades, rare double portraits have moved from private collections to private collections. In the 1940s, it was owned by writer Lyle Saxon, a well-known New Orleans customs and folklore journalist.

Fast forward to Gerald Ford’s time, when pastel paintings appeared in an exhibition titled “Selection of African-American Art in the 19th Century” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the deceased Lion was scattered throughout the art scene. increase. New York City Museum.

A double interracial portrait of the lion appears on the cover of Met’s catalog, and curator Regenia Perry identified the two men in the artwork. The older gentleman was Ashur Moses Nathan, a Jewish immigrant from Amsterdam to New Orleans. The young man was Nathan’s adopted son, Achille, who was probably his biological son by a black woman.

This made the lion’s artwork a rare example of a southern white man officially introducing his mixed-race son. That’s why HNOC’s newly acquired pastel paintings stand out so much, curator Wiese said. “This is something that isn’t usually spoken, and here we have this open and proud acknowledgment,” he said.

But in the 1970s, a couple of Times Picayune newspaper art reporters couldn’t believe the identities of the two gentlemen in the artwork. George Jordan and Alberta Collier did not accurately condemn the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition curator’s allegations in a story titled “Mystery Surrounds Louisiana Paintings in Meeting Exhibitions,” but they do have some evidence. I asked for.

Romance speculation

Wise said there was no doubt that Perry had somehow learned the identities of the two sitters. But anyway, so far he hasn’t seen any historical documents to confirm it.

According to Perry’s old study, Achille, a dashing young black man in the painting, had the same name as the artist Lion. This led Perry to speculate that somewhere Achille’s mother became Jules Lion’s wife. The romantic connection between the young man’s mother and the artist undoubtedly gave the artwork some additional enthusiasm in the 1970s, but Wise said there was no evidence to support it. “No relationship was found between Achile and the artist,” he said.

To add a little more confusion to the problem, Jules Lion’s brother’s name was Achille (slightly different spelling). However, the Achille Lion would have been considerably older than the sitter. HNOC owns a Jules Lion lithograph. This could be a portrait of his younger brother Achille, but the identity of the sitter is uncertain.

Achille Lion, Jules Lion

Lithograph portrait by 19th century artist Jules Lion, according to the label of the historic New Orleans collection “Perhaps on behalf of Achille Lion, a dentist who practiced in New Orleans. The document is not definitive, but Achille may have been a brother of Jules Lion.” 1970.11.22

New perspective

Forty years after the groundbreaking Met exhibition, interest in Lion and his artwork has steadily increased. Then, in 2017, Sarapicard, an associate professor of art history at the University of Rhode Island, published a dissertation that boiled the pot.

Jules was born to Jewish parents in France and Bavarian in 1806, according to her research, when Picard traced the lion’s pedigree back to Paris. His name was originally Jacob Isaac, but was later changed. As Picard wrote it in a dissertation entitled “Racing Jules Lion,” the artist “did not know the ancestors of Africa.” Instead, he was “a French immigrant with a Jewish ancestry trying to make it in a fast-growing international port city and a French-speaking cultural capital in the south.”

In a telephone conversation, Picard said the fact that he was listed as a “color-free man” in the directory from 1851 to 1856 was probably wrong. Perhaps his cohabitation partner at the time was a black woman, so someone thought he was also black. Picard said no other historical document identified him as a black man.

Picard, alum at the University of Tulane, said he certainly understands that it is difficult to “digest” a sudden change in lion’s identity, but the effects of pastel remain unchanged. “Lions and portraits still tell a lot about the history of race and racism,” she said.

The last paradox

Wendy Castenel, an assistant professor of art history at the University of Washington and Lee, who specializes in African-American art and culture, said Picard “has a better job in identifying the lion’s identity than ever before. I did. “

But she said, there is still a persistent paradox. In the stratified society of New Orleans in the mid-1800s, she said, “People were very sensitive to their racial designation.”

So why would you allow the lion to be listed in the city’s directory, even if it’s white? “I don’t understand why Lion didn’t challenge the public reference,” Castenell said.

Aside from the racial identity of the lion, like Picard, Castenel still finds this painting a compelling illustration of the racial complexity of New Orleans.

“What’s this other than the claim of paternity and equality?” She said.

The double portrait of the lion will be unveiled on June 7th at The Historic New Orleans Collection on 533 Royal St. THNOC was trained in partnership with both the Southern Jewish Experience Museum and Le Musée de fpc (Free People of Color). Artwork discussion. For more information, please visit the THNOC website.

Correction: The date the painting was published was incorrect. You can see it from Tuesday, June 7th.

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