Published: December 6, 2011
Since its founding in 1718, New Orleans has owed much of its famed cultural mix and rich architectural distinction to people of African descent. Slave labor built and detailed many of its most exceptional structures, and designed and installed the intricate ironwork in the French Quarter.
Sizable and wealthy, with a bustling trade in cotton and other products, New Orleans offered opportunities for thousands of newcomers from the Caribbean, Europe and the US Eastern seaboard. It became the leading artistic city of the pre-Civil War South. As eminent art historian William G. Gerdts has observed, “The city’s French, Swiss and German heritage and its distance from other major urban centers gave its art a distinct character.”
One of the defining characteristics of the city was the emergence of a large, prosperous community of free residents of mixed racial ancestry. Many worked as artisans and craftspeople and ran commercial enterprises.
Some of the most talented were educated abroad, especially in France, where societal barriers were fewer. These painters, sculptors, musicians, writers and poets often returned to introduce the latest French cultural developments into their native city.
Soon after the end of the Spanish occupation in 1803, artists from Mexico, France and the North began to sojourn in New Orleans. They included such prominent Americans as John Wesley Jarvis, Henry Inman, John James Audubon and John Vanderlyn, who painted and mingled with compatriots from other countries.
One of the most intriguing, significant native artists to emerge from this cosmopolitan milieu was Julien Hudson (1811‱844), considered the first black artist to work in New Orleans and the second documented professional black artist in the country, after Joshua Johnson (or Johnston) (active, 1795‱824) of Baltimore. Like Johnson, details about Hudson’s life are murky, although nuggets of information emerge from time to time. Identified on questionable assumptions for years as a person of color, Hudson was not definitively identified as having mixed race ancestry until 1995.
All of which helps explain the inviting title of an exhibition, “In Search of Julien Hudson: Free Artist of Color in Pre-Civil War New Orleans , ” organized by the Historic New Orleans Collection and Worcester Art Museum, where it is on view through March 11. It has already visited the New Orleans institution and the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, S.C.
The curator, William Keyse Rudolph, is curator of American art and decorative arts at the Milwaukee Art Museum and former curator of American art at the Worcester Art Museum.
Only a small body of work survives from Hudson’s brief career. Of his output, no miniature paintings are known to have survived and only a half-dozen, mostly small-scale, portraits are reunited here for the first time. Some are recent discoveries. A display of a few additional paintings, possibly by Hudson, invites further study and research.
To place Hudson’s achievements in context, the exhibition also features nearly 30 works by the artist’s European and American teachers, colleagues and competitors, including examples by other free artists of color. Addressing questions of style, connoisseurship, patronage and identity, the exhibition illuminates a neglected aspect of American art and cultural history, and helps define Hudson’s place in the cultural history of New Orleans.
Hudson was the offspring of a white British father, who was a merchant, ironmonger and ship chandler, and a free, property-owning, mixed-race mother, granddaughter of a slave. The son grew up, was educated, and painted in New Orleans, home to the largest community of mixed-race people in the United States. But as the exhibition’s organizers note about Hudson, “As a free person of color, or gens de couleur libres, he occupied a complicated position within New Orleans’ social, economic and political hierarchy.”
At 13, Hudson was apprenticed to a tailor, a mixed-race free man, but two years later, began art training with Antonio Meucci, an itinerant Italian miniaturist and portrait painter. The Italian taught Hudson techniques for capturing likenesses on a small scale. Before long, with funds bequeathed by his grandmother, Hudson made a brief trip to Paris.
Back in New Orleans, the embryonic artist, aged 20, continued his studies under Francois (Franz) Fleischbein, a German-born, Paris-trained portraitist who knew theory but struggled with anatomy and other facets in his paintings. He encouraged Hudson to increase the scale of his work and provided models for initial oil portraits.
Hudson’s earliest extant painting, “Portrait of a Young Girl with a Rose,” 1834, executed about this time, is a charming but stilted likeness of a young, presumably white, girl modeled after Fleischbein’s compositions. Her hands are awkwardly rendered and her eyes are strange.
Fleischbein’s influence is evident in the three-quarter pose and wary look of a demure youngster dressed in black and white finery with a moth in his right hand in Hudson’s “Creole Boy with a Moth,” 1835. By contrast with the little girl with a rose, who is apparently white, this boy’s rosy, tinted complexion suggests mixed ancestry. This seems to verify that Hudson had both white and mixed-blood clients.
The fact that the latter painting was owned around the 1920s by the mythologized, wealthy African American Metoyer family at Melrose Plantation in Natchitoches (where folk artist Clementine Hunter later painted) suggests that the boy may be a Metoyer. That possibility, yet to be fully explored, may lead to previously unattributed likenesses of the Metoyers being identified as by Hudson.
Another early work, “Portrait of a Creole Gentleman,” 1835, depicts a wary but poised and well-dressed man posed against a neutral background. It is one of the first examples in American art of a portrait of a sitter of color painted by an artist of color. Another is Hudson’s “Portrait of a Black Man,” 1835, showing a strong, very dark figure, with a white goatee, wearing a black suit and tie and, most strikingly, a bright red turban wrapped in a gold and red cloth.
Hudson advertised his services in both English- and French-language newspapers, the usual practice for New Orleans artists of the day. His sales pitch, emphasizing his French experience was well-timed; it coincided with the transformation of Louisiana painting following the arrival in the early 1830s of French portraitist Jean-Joseph Vaudechamp (1790‱864). According to Gerdts, “In a crisp, elegant style, Vaudechamp created sharply delineated, solidly modeled, commanding likenesses.” With his high-style portraiture, exemplified by “Marie Althee Josephine D’Aquin de Puech and Ernest Auguste de Puech,” 1832, the Frenchman dominated the New Orleans art market for a decade.
Vaudechamp’s success prompted former colleagues from Paris to seek their fortunes in New Orleans. “Due in large part to their presence,” says Rudolph, New Orleans “transitioned from a city of miniaturists to a city of easel painters.”
When Vaudechamp departed, his Dutch-born, Paris-trained colleague Jacques Amans became the Crescent City’s leading portraitist, working in a forceful, monumental neoclassical manner. Amans’ casual, yet crisp, elegant and perceptive “Carl Kohn,” circa 1837, captures the confident manner of a member of an important New Orleans Jewish family.
Sharing studios and clients, this international community of portrait painters established a rich, high-quality standard of art that outstripped anything Hudson could create. He concluded that he needed to return to Paris, the source of their style, to upgrade his skills. Between 1835 and 1837 he trained in the City of Light under Abel de Pujol, a former pupil of neoclassical titan Jacques-Louis David.
A mature artist, Pujol was in great demand for private portrait commissions. In Rudolph’s words, Pujol’s superb double portrait “Nicholas Legrand and His Grandson, Joseph Adolphe de Pujol,” 1815, “is full of rich color, subdued, precise brushwork and the sense of two distinct personalities: the grandfather confident and composed; the child inquisitive and open.” Adds Rudolph, “It shows exactly what Hudson wanted to master.”
Upon his return, Hudson resumed his career with enhanced skills and ambition. The two surviving works from this period of his career, both dated 1839, “show both the possibilities and limits of the Parisian experience,” observes Rudolph.
Commissioned to do a posthumous portrait of “Jean Michel Fortier,” son of a local military figure, Hudson attempted his largest and most detailed likeness, with mixed results.
Measuring 30 by 35 inches, the canvas features a confidently painted, strong physiognomy that suggests an assertive personality, but the visage appears atop an invisible neck. The sitter holds rolled sheet music (with clearly visible notes), but his hand seems disembodied from his body. These shortcomings suggest that the artist’s efforts to elevate his art in Paris may have come too late, that he was unable to overcome his initial provincial training.
On the other hand, in his second painting of 1839, “Portrait of a Man, Called a Self-Portrait,” Hudson returned to a small format †8¾ by 7 inches †with more satisfying results. The long narrow face, sharp, prominent nose and large eyes of the sitter and his fancy duds, particularly his patterned vest, are confidently and comfortably rendered. The sitter looks like a thoughtful, alert, well-off and well-groomed gentleman †qualities the artist certainly wanted to convey. The conclusion that this is a self-portrait rests on somewhat shaky ground, but it is indisputably by Hudson and showcases his ability to evoke the subject’s persona, distinctive features and fashionable garb.
Little is known of Hudson’s life after 1840, except that he took on his only known pupil, a white New Orleanian, George David Coulon (1822‱904), who went on to become Louisiana’s leading landscape painter. Coulon’s early work, “Boy with a Rose,” circa 1842, reflects his teacher’s treatment of young sitters in a flat, closeup view of a somber youngster clutching a flower.
The circumstances surrounding Hudson’s death in 1844 at age 33 remain a mystery. No records or other public papers document his passing.
One theory is that, disillusioned about his lack of recognition and lagging career, he committed suicide, a “terrible disgrace in Catholic New Orleans,” as city expert Patricia Brady notes in the catalog. “Like most of the details of the artist’s life,” she adds, “this is mere supposition †sustained, whether justifiably or not, by the memories of subsequent generations.”
As attention to Southern art has surged in recent decades, with an increasing number of focused exhibitions and museums devoted to regional artwork, there has been renewed interest in Hudson and his possible oeuvre. With so few identified paintings surviving, Rudolph says that “Hudson has become a convenient name upon which to hang otherwise undocumented works †especially when they depict a sitter who seems to be recognizably of color.” Such efforts must, of course, be pursued with caution, knowledge of stylistic characteristics and close attention to factual clues †no easy task when so little is known about the artist and there are so few works extant from which to make comparisons.
So the search for more knowledge about America’s second identified artist of color †and his paintings †goes on, likely encouraged by interest aroused by this fascinating, revelatory exhibition. As curator Rudolph concludes, “The story of Hudson, like the story of race itself in our country, is a complicated one, much more nuanced than any simple opposition or combination of white versus black †and more compelling, for all that.”
The fully illustrated, 116-page exhibition catalog features perceptive essays by Rudolph and Brady that explore Hudson in the context of the art milieu of pre-Civil War New Orleans and the world of free people of color. Published by the Historic New Orleans Collection, it sells for $35, hardcover.
A six-part schedule of classes on Hudson and artists of color will begin on February 1. Lectures and guided tours will be conducted throughout the run of the exhibition. The Worcester Art Museum is at 55 Salisbury Street. For information, 508-799-4406 or www.worcesterart.org .
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