The Unknown Sitter

By Ethan W. Lasser
March 15, 2018
2017.229 Julien Hudson’s Portrait of a Young Woman in White (1840) was recently acquired by the Harvard Art Museums. Hudson, one of the earliest documented painters of African descent in the United States, depicts a sitter whose identity is today unknown.

Just before the winter recess, the Harvard Art Museums acquired a remarkable portrait by Louisiana painter Julien Hudson. The son of British merchant John Thomas Hudson and Desirée Marcos, the daughter of a freed slave, Hudson is the second-earliest documented painter of African descent in the United States, and was a leading artist in antebellum New Orleans. His small body of work is comprised of portraits of individuals from the thriving community of gens de couleur libres, or free people of color, who inhabited the city in the years before the Civil War.

Hudson painted the Harvard portrait, which depicts a young woman, in 1840. Like many of his sitters, she appears to be multiracial and is posed in front of low-lying, marshy terrain that locates the scene in the American Southeast. Most striking is the wealth of details in the painting: the sitter’s finely rendered lace gloves, patterned dress, pearl earrings, and miniature pendant necklace distinguish Hudson as a painter of the fashionable and intricate. Indeed, he took the young woman’s likeness shortly after returning from his second trip to Paris; the style of the dress and its various textures bring to mind aspects of the high-style French portraiture popular in the early 19th century.

At present, Hudson’s portrait poses more questions than answers. Who exactly is this young woman, and what occasion—what life change or major event—prompted Hudson to commemorate her in this way? What is her background, and what sort of future unfolded for her in the years after this work was made, as New Orleans marched into the Civil War?

Equally mysterious is the portrait’s provenance. We know that it was acquired by a prominent Kansas City collector in the 1920s, but the circumstances behind its northward move are unknown. Did the sitter’s family leave New Orleans, or was the portrait shipped north early in its history? At what point was the sitter’s identity sundered from the work, and how does its history reflect broader patterns in American migration?

With further research and analysis, we hope to answer these questions and to bring, if not a name, at least a context back to Hudson’s striking work. For now, visitors are invited to view the portrait in the museums’ University Study Gallery on Level 3.

 

Ethan W. Lasser is the Theodore E. Stebbins Jr. Curator of American Art and head of the Division of European and American Art.