The trouble with this story is you can’t really be sure of anything. The famous 19th-century artist was long thought to be a free Black man, leading a successful career in slavery-era New Orleans. But according to one scholar, maybe he wasn’t of African descent at all.
And, the artist’s masterpiece, a painting of two well-dressed Crescent City men — one White and one Black — was long thought to illustrate the mixing of races within families in the antebellum period. But the artwork’s backstory is not 100% clear.
In November 2021, The Historic New Orleans Collection bought the artwork at auction for $704,000. It goes on public display at the French Quarter museum, 533 Royal St., on Tuesday, June 7. It was a stunning amount for any Louisiana-made artwork.
Marney Robinson, the director of fine art for Neal Auction, the company that sold the double portrait to The Historic New Orleans Collection, said that at the time, it was the most ever paid for a Bayou State portrait.
Of course, she said, it was also “the most intriguing painting in Louisiana history.”
Who was Jules Lion?
The stylish scarlet signature tells us the drawing was done by New Orleans artist Jules Lion, who made a living as a portraitist and lithographer in the Queen City of the South before the Civil War. He was also New Orleans’ very first photographer.
In 1839, French inventor Louis Daguerre unveiled a miraculous process for using something called a camera to capture images from life on palm-sized, polished metal plates. Forward-thinking artists scrambled to learn Daguerre’s technique and begin producing new-fangled photographs for public consumption.
Thirty-three-year-old Lion was an early adopter. By 1843, or maybe even earlier, he was exhibiting photos in New Orleans. Though, like practically everything else in this story, his photos of him are a mystery. Since early photographers didn’t always sign their daguerreotypes, it’s difficult to say with certainty if any of Lion’s photos still exist.
Ironically, although he was known for producing exacting images of his fellow 19th-century New Orleansians, Lion’s own appearance remains a mystery.
“It does seem strange that an artist of Lion’s stature and interests didn’t leave a self-portrait, but if one exists, we don’t know about it,” said Jason Wiese, chief curator of The Historic New Orleans Collection.
Free people of color
What made Lion’s contributions to Crescent City culture especially remarkable was that, according to city directory entries in the 1850s (the bygone precursor to the bygone telephone book), he was a free man of color.
Though most people of African descent in New Orleans were enslaved at the time, some were not. “Free people of color” were still subject to institutional racism, but they could own property, conduct business and enjoy some other legal liberties.
Lion’s presumed racial identity made the backstory of the double portrait he created in the mid-1800s especially resonant. Though we call it a painting, it was actually a full-color drawing produced with chalky crayons called pastels, the same medium Degas often used.
Lion’s drawing depicts what appears to be a young man gently embracing an older White gent. Their contact appears affectionate but staid and dignified. The younger man flashes a ruby ring, demonstrating wealth. His necktie is fashionably askew, suggesting a jaunty lifestyle. The older man cracks a vague smile, possibly signifying pride. Fatherly pride? Maybe so.
131 years later
Lion died in 1866, at age 56 or 60, of pneumonia. Who knows, maybe the mercury vapor used in the making of daguerreotypes hastened his demise from him.
Over the decades, the unusual double portrait passed from private collection to private collection. In the 1940s, it was owned by author Lyle Saxon, the famous chronicler of New Orleans customs and lore.
Fast forward to the Gerald Ford era, and we find the long-dead Mr. Lion making a splash on the national art scene, when his pastel painting of him appeared in an exhibit titled “Selections of 19th-Century Afro-American Art” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Lion’s interracial double portrait was featured on the cover of the Met catalog, in which curator Regenia Perry identified the two men in the artwork. The older gentleman was Ashur Moses Nathan, a Jewish immigrant to New Orleans from Amsterdam. The young man was Nathan’s adopted son Achile, who was probably actually his biological son ele by a Black woman.
Which made Lion’s artwork a rare example of a Southern White man formally presenting his mixed-race son. That’s what makes the HNOC’s newly acquired pastel painting so remarkable, said curator Wiese. “This is the thing that is usually not talked about, and here we have this open, proud acknowledgment,” he said.
But back in the 1970s, a couple of Times-Picayune newspaper art reporters were a bit incredulous about the identities of the two gentlemen in the artwork. In a story titled “Mystery Surrounds Louisiana Painting in Met Exhibit,” George Jordan and Alberta Collier didn’t exactly debunk the assertions of the Metropolitan Museum exhibit curator, but they called for some proof.
Speculation of romance
Wiese said that he doesn’t doubt that Perry had somehow learned the identity of the two sitters. But, so far anyway, he hasn’t seen any historical documentation to confirm it.
According to Perry’s long-ago research, Achile, the dashing young Black man in the painting, had the same last name as the artist, Lion. This led Perry to speculate that somewhere along the line, Achile’s mother had become Jules Lion’s wife. The romantic connection between the young man’s mother and the artist doubtlessly slowed the artwork some added sizzle back in the 1970s, but Wiese said there’s no evidence to support it. “We couldn’t find any relationship between Achile and the artist,” he said.
To add a touch more confusion to the matter, Jules Lion’s brother’s name was Achille (spelled slightly differently). But Achille Lion would have been considerably older than the sitter. The HNOC owns a lithograph by Jules Lion that may be a portrait of his brother Achille, but the identity of the sitter is not certain.
The new perspective
For 40 years after the groundbreaking Met exhibit, interest in Lion and his artwork steadily simmered. Then in 2017, an associate professor of art history at Rhode Island College named Sara Picard published a paper that caused the pot to boil over.
When Picard traced Lion’s family tree back to Paris, her research showed that Jules had been born in 1806 to Jewish parents from France and Bavaria. His name was originally Jacob Isaac, which was later changed. As Picard put it in her paper titled “Racing Jules Lion,” the artist “had no known African ancestry.” Instead, he was “a French immigrant with Jewish ancestry trying to make it in a burgeoning cosmopolitan port city and the French-speaking cultural capital of the South.”
In a telephone conversation, Picard said that the fact he was listed as a “free man of color” in directories from 1851 to 1856 was probably a mistake. Maybe, she said, since his domestic partner him at the time was a Black woman, someone presumed he was also Black. Picard said that other historic documents do not identify him as Black.
Picard, who is a Tulane University alum, said she certainly understood that it’s difficult “to digest” the sudden switch in Lion’s identity, but it doesn’t change the impact of the pastel. “Lion and the portrait still say so much about the history of race and racism,” she said.
One last paradox
Wendy Castenell, an assistant professor of art history at Washington and Lee University who specializes in African American arts and culture, said Picard “did an excellent job at pinpointing Lion’s identity with as much certainty as we’ll probably ever have.”
But, she said, there’s still a nagging paradox. In the stratified society of New Orleans in the mid-1800s, she said, “people were very sensitive of their racial designation.”
So why would Lion, if he was White, allow city directories to list him otherwise? “I don’t understand why Lion would have just left a public reference unchallenged,” Castenell said.
Setting Lion’s racial identity aside, Castenell, like Picard, still finds the painting a compelling illustration of the racial complexities in New Orleans.
“What else is this but an assertion of paternity and equality?” she said.
Lion’s double portrait will go on public display at The Historic New Orleans Collection, at 533 Royal St. on June 7. The THNOC has partnered with both the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience and Le Musée de fpc (free people of color) to foster discussion of the artwork. Visit the THNOC website for more information.
Correction: The date the painting goes on public display was incorrect. It can be seen starting on Tuesday, June 7.
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