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In Search of Julien Hudson: Free Artist of Color in Pre–Civil War New Orleans

In 2011 The Historic New Orleans Collection, in collaboration with the Worcester Art Museum and Gibbes Museum of Art, presented to the public an exhibition on the life and works of Julien Hudson, the second earliest known portraitist of African heritage to have worked in the United States before the Civil War. The exhibition, titled In Search of Julien Hudson: Free Artist of Color in Pre–Civil War New Orleans, was the most thorough examination to date of Julien Hudson and his world.

Portrait of a Man, Called a Self-Portrait by Julien Hudson, 1839,
oil on canvas, courtesy of the Collections of Louisiana State Museum

Julien Hudson was born January 9, 1811, in New Orleans. The son of Desirée Marcos, a property-owning free woman of color, and John Thomas Hudson, an English merchant, ironmonger, and ship chandler, Hudson took up his career in painting after a brief stint as a tailor’s apprentice in the mid-1820s. He trained first in New Orleans with itinerant miniaturist Antonio Meucci and later in Paris with well-known artist Alexandre Abel de Pujol. Little is known about Hudson’s personal life, outside of scattered details found in a handful of public documents and a pair of early-twentieth-century reminiscences by former student George Coulon and prominent Creole of color Rodolphe Desdunes.

Hudson’s story is alluring, frustrating, and poignant. An artist who died young (at age 33 in 1844) and left a fragmentary body of work, he offers a path into a unique historical moment in a city that has always provided ample fodder for commentary, invention, fantasy, and fascination. His artistic reputation rests upon a handful of secure paintings and a group of attributed works. Only one work can be more or less traced from the easel to its current location. Another passed through the hands of one of Louisiana’s most important early art collectors. And one—and possibly two others—may have intersected with one of the most powerful free families of color in the state. Nothing can definitively be proven about these works or their histories, ensuring that the aura of mystery surrounding them—and their maker—will undoubtedly persist.

In Search of Julien Hudson: Free Artist of Color in Pre–Civil War New Orleans was be accompanied by a full-color exhibition catalogue featuring essays by art historian William Keyse Rudolph and historian Patricia Brady.

On exhibition:

The Collection                                   Gibbes Museum of Art                        Worcester Art Museum
New Orleans, Louisiana                Charleston, South Carolina                Worcester, Massachusetts
January 20–May 15, 2011          July 22–October 16, 2011                  December 10, 2011–March 11, 2012

Initial research support for this project was provided by a grant from the Terra Foundation for American Art. In Search of Julien Hudson is supported by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts and an award from the National Endowment for the Arts as part of American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius.


Programming Details

9th Les Comédiens Français Lecture

Poesie et musique: The Tradition of the New Orleans Free People of Color”
Tuesday, March 15, 2011, 6:30 p.m.
The Historic New Orleans Collection, 533 Royal St.
Free and open to the public. Reservations: (504) 523-4662 or wrc@hnoc.org

Dana Kress, professor of French at Centenary College of Louisiana and honorary consul of France for North Louisiana, will present an evening of readings of translated French poetry accompanied by piano interludes performed by Jean-Baptiste Monnot, young-artist-in-residence at St. Louis Cathedral.

The theater group Les Comédiens Français was organized in 1934 to promote, foster, and perpetuate French language and culture in Louisiana. After presenting more than 50 years of stage productions in French, the group became inactive and established an annual lecture series on French culture—particularly the performing arts—at The Historic New Orleans Collection.
This program has been made possible by the National Endowment for the Arts as part of American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius.

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