Julien Hudson: A History and a Mystery at the Worcester Art Museum

Julien Hudson died in his native city of New Orleans, in 1844, at age 33, under a cloud. After roughly ten years of a professional career as a portraitist, he seemingly had little to show for his efforts.

He may, in all probability, have taken his own life, out of despair—which cannot be proven, although the suspicious lack of archival records concerning his death and burial place—as well as historical anecdote—raise red flags.

He certainly would not have dreamed that today we would herald him as the first documented native-born Louisiana artist, that he would be enshrined as one of the earliest—probably the second-earliest—professional American artists of African descent; or that his modest, yet provocative surviving body of work would be the subject of its first-ever retrospective, organized by and on view at the Worcester Art Museum until May 27, 2012.

In developing this exhibition of Hudson’s work in my former role as Curator of American Art at the Worcester Art Museum, with my colleague and co-author Patricia Brady, Research Associate at Loyola University in New Orleans, I followed a trail of art and biography that led to several dead ends, but at the time same, contained unexpected revelations.

In other words, the mystery of Julien Hudson’s fragmentary career revealed an alternative art history that many people in New England do not know: the fascinating story of free artists of color working in New Orleans before the Civil War. Hudson’s story, along with those of his colleagues and occasional competitors Prosper Florville Foy, Jules Lion, and Eugene Warburg, revealed a busy community of mixed-race artists, all born into freedom, who made their living in what was one of the wealthiest cities in the United States—and a major center for art patronage.

The works by artists of color like Hudson and his colleagues complicate the traditional narrative of race in the fine arts—where people of color are subjects, not makers, of art—and often are not represented in the fullness of their identities. Furthermore, the complex relationships among these entrepreneurial artists and their usually (but not exclusively) white patrons, teachers and colleagues suggests a world which had a certain fluidity in terms of access to instruction and patronage. All of these issues both deepen and disturb our assumptions about how art worked in the nineteenth century, particularly in the South.

Visitors to the exhibition will see the six surviving works by Hudson—one of which was discovered only several months ago, in a New England collection, in time for its inclusion at the Worcester presentation. His charming, slightly stiff and stylized representations of his sitters, largely on a small scale, shows the cosmopolitan influence of his several European art teachers, who had been attracted by the sugar-rich economy of 19th Century New Orleans. We include works by these artists, who are also little-known outside of the South. Their own stories of transatlantic crossings between Continental Europe and America are also a thread that runs through the exhibition, reminding us that globalism in American art is not a 21st-century phenomenon.

In addition, a range of portrayals of sitters of color, stretching from the earliest surviving Louisiana painting of the Spanish Colonial period, right up to the rise of photography in the middle of the century, document the continuing ability of this free class of people to control and shape their representations.

The signature image of the show is a painting that has mesmerized generations of visitors, since its “rediscovery” early in the 20th Century. The Portrait of a Man (1839, Louisiana State Museum) is a masterpiece in little, revealing a captivating young man with distinctive features. Once labeled a self-portrait, although the documentation for this attribution cannot be substantiated, this story of how this image became a stand-in for the artist himself is also a story of how artistic reputations get written in art history, and suggest the powerful claims that portraits have generations of viewers.

On behalf of my colleagues at the Worcester Art Museum and The Historic New Orleans Collection, who co-organized the exhibition and contributed many extraordinary works to the checklist, I invite you to enter the world of Julien Hudson and his colleagues; and to question your own assumptions about art, race, identity and cultural legacies.

To view a selection of the paintings on view at the exhibit with detailed descriptions, please view the previous post. A gallery of those images can also be viewed as a slide-show feature with this post (see the galleries section of the blog). The Worcester Art Museum received a project grant from Mass Humanities for lectures accompanying the Julien Hudson Exhibit.

Author: William Keyse Rudolph

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