“Ashur Moses Nathan and Son” by Jules Lion
Legendary Louisiana Portrait
Featured in The Louisiana Purchase Auction™ on November 20 – Lot 210
Jules Lion (French/American, 1806-1866, active New Orleans, 1837-1866), “Ashur Moses Nathan and Son”, c. 1845, pastel on heavy paper board, signed “Lion” lower left, sight 35 in. x 28 in., glazed in a period cove-molded giltwood frame.
Provenance: Discovered in Mississippi and jointly owned by Francois Mignon (1899-1980) and Lyle Saxon (1891-1946), c. late 1930s; Francois Mignon, Natchitoches, LA, 1946; Ora Garland Williams (1910-1985), Natchitoches, LA, 1980; her daughter Ann Williams Brittain (1935-2003) and Jack Brittain Sr. (1928-2016), Natchitoches, LA, 1985; thence by descent to their children, 2010
Exhibited: “Selections of Nineteenth-Century Afro-American Art,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, June 19 – August 1, 1976 and illustrated on cover of accompanying catalogue; “Currents of Change: Art and Life Along the Mississippi River,” Minneapolis Institute of Arts, May 27 – October 10, 2004 and illustrated in accompanying catalogue, p. 72; “Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century”, Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillip’s Academy, Andover, MA, Jan. 14 – March 26, 2006 and illustrated in accompanying catalogue p. 85; “Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century”, Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, DE, April 21 – June 17, 2006; “Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century”, Long Beach Museum of Art, Long Beach, CA, Aug. 25 – November 26, 2006
Illustrated: Wilson, Judith. “Optical Illusions: Images of Miscegenation in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century American Art.” American Art. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Smithsonian American Art Museum 5.3 (Summer 1991): p. 92; African American Review. Saint Louis: Saint Louis University 41.1 (Spring 2007): cover illustration; Greenwald, Erin, ed., In Search of Julien Hudson: Free Artist of Color in Pre-Civil War New Orleans New Orleans: The Historic New Orleans Collection, 2010, p. 84; Picard, Sara M., “Racing Jules Lion.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association Lafayette: Louisiana Historical Association 58.1 (Winter 2017): p. 6; Gould, P., Seale, R., et al. Natchitoches and Louisiana’s Timeless Cane River Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002, p. 81; Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art. Next Generation: Southern Black Aesthetic Winston-Salem: Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, 1990, p. 27
Neal Auction would like to thank Wendy Castenell, Ph.D. for writing the following note.
Note: The portrait, which has become known as “Ashur Moses Nathan and Son” is familiar to all who are interested in Louisiana portraiture or the history and legacy of African American art. The elusive portrait has been tucked away in private collections in Natchitoches, Louisiana, since its discovery by Louisiana authors Lyle Saxon and François Mignon in the 1930s in the attic of a private home of an unidentified resident in Mississippi. According to an interview with Mignon in the July 23, 1976 issue of The New Orleans Times-Picayune, the pair were made aware of the painting’s existence and location by a well-known New Orleans gallery owner who remained anonymous in the article. The portrait was jointly owned by Saxon and Mignon until Mignon’s death. In his will dated July 30, 1980, Mignon bequeathed the portrait to Mrs. Ora G. Williams, who in turn, left it to Jack and Ann Brittain in her will from April of 1985.
The pastel portrait by Jules Lion from c. 1845 depicts a middle-aged white man locked in an embrace with a mixed race younger man. The two sitters dominate the picture plane, drawing viewers’ attention to the details of their features, expressions, fashionable dress, and most importantly, their intimate pose. The older white man at the right, wears an elegant black jacket, waistcoat, and cravat. He gazes directly at the viewer with a serious expression. However, there is warmth in his eyes and a slight uptick at the corners of his mouth that prevents him from appearing severe. His graying hair is thinning, and his face displays sagging and some wrinkles that make him appear to be at the middle of life. His skin is slightly flushed, with a ruddiness in his cheeks and across the bridge of his nose.
The younger man stands to his left, with his body pressed against the older sitter’s right side. The young man wraps his left arm around his companion’s shoulder, resting his hand on the older gentleman’s left shoulder. At the very bottom center of the composition, the two men clasp hands. The younger sitter is the taller of the two, and is also attired in a fashionable suit, with a black jacket and gray trousers. However, his garments are more impressive than the older man’s, as they include a blue and brown patterned waistcoat, a silk tie of the same shade of blue with a gold tie pin, a gold watch chain visible beneath his jacket, and a large ruby ring on the ring finger of his right hand. Like the older sitter, he too faces forward and meets the viewer’s gaze directly. His dark hair is shiny and arranged into a fashionable style, parted on the left and curling forward over each of his ears. His eyes, nose and mouth slightly larger than his companion’s, but there is nevertheless a resemblance in the shape of their features. While the younger man is also depicted with a slight blush in his cheeks, his flesh is a little darker and more olive toned than the sitter to his left.
An indistinct, but lush landscape is depicted in the background. There is a thick crop of shadowy trees directly behind the sitters’ heads, with the hazy blue tones of atmospheric perspective distancing the landscape from the sitters in the foreground, as it also serves to draw the viewer’s eye to the faces of the sitter. In the sky above, there are an abundance of pillowy white clouds with patches of pale blue sky peeking from behind in several places. The artist’s name is clearly signed in red along the bottom left side of the portrait. The large pastel is at 35 x 28 inches, and is in pristine condition, with only a few areas of visible restoration. Lion displays his virtuosity with the pastel medium, particularly with his differentiation of the different textures throughout the image—lifelike skin, the different textures of cloth in the sitters’ attire, the shiny jewelry, and the distant landscape background. This portrait stands out as the masterpiece of Lion’s oeuvre.
The portrait was featured in the 1976 show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Selections of Nineteenth-Century Afro-American Art, in which it appeared as the catalogue cover. Most recently, the portrait was in the 2006 travelling exhibition, Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century, curated by the art historian Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw. The exhibition travelled to the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover, MA, the Delaware Museum of Art in Wilmington, DE, and finally to the Long Beach Museum of Art in Long Beach, CA, and once again was included in the exhibition catalogue.
Besides the portrait’s rare exhibition, it has received substantial scholarly attention since the 1970s. As art historians have tried to make the field of American art increasingly more inclusive by recovering works by Black artists and centering Black sitters, the Lion portrait has been repeatedly included. For example, a discussion of the portrait was included in the catalogue for David Driskell’s groundbreaking 1976 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Two Centuries of Black American Art, despite the fact that the portrait itself was not included in the exhibition. Likewise, William Keyes Rudolph discussed the portrait in his exhibition catalogue for the 2010 show, In Search of Julien Hudson: Free Artists of Color in Pre-Civil War New Orleans at The Historic New Orleans Collection, even though the pastel was not in the show. Additionally, the portrait has been included in the publications of scholars such as Patricia Brady, Judith Wilson, and Sara M. Picard. The academic attention, combined with the portrait’s inclusion in a few major exhibitions and its otherwise inaccessibility, have elevated the work to legendary status.
The legendary status of the Lion portrait is further augmented by the presumed racial identities of the sitters as well as their relationship to each other, what is believed to be known about Lion’s biography, and finally, the purported identities of the portrait’s subjects. Although the historical evidence about the race of each sitter, Lion’s race, and the identities of the sitters here are uncertain, the same narratives continue to be repeated by scholars as they cite one another without reexamining the archival records. The reason that scholars have been comfortable to repeat the mythologies about Lion and the portrait’s subjects is because if they are true, the stories make an extraordinary painting even more astonishing. In the iconic words from John Ford’s 1962 film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
The reason the portrait has long fascinated so many scholars is because, as art historian Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw wrote in her 2006 exhibition catalogue Portraits of a People, it is an image “which speak[s] to the complexities of family relationships and racial identification in Louisiana of the 1830s and ‘40s.” Indeed, the intimate pose depicted by Lion, as the two men stand together with their hands clasped and arms around one another, along with their similar facial features, indicates a loving familial bond. Furthermore, Lion’s careful handling of the two sitters’ skin tones creates a presumption that the two men are in fact a white father and his mixed race son. While it is never safe to make assumptions about the racial identities of sitters in nineteenth-century Louisiana portraits, Lion went through great pains to deliberately give the young man a deeper skin tone. Considering Lion’s adept use of the pastel medium throughout the rest of the image, it is evident this was intentional. Therefore, if this does represent a father and his mixed race son, the remarkable portrait is the only known example that illustrates a white father openly acknowledging his mixed race son in nineteenth-century American art. Furthermore, the image challenges viewers’ ideas and assumptions about race in the antebellum South, especially in a place like Louisiana, where affiliations across racial and caste boundaries were particularly complex. The image’s popularity is due, in part, to the astonishing and open interracial relationship it highlights—one that was exceedingly uncommon in the United States in the 1840s and is not known to have been visualized elsewhere.
Lion’s racial identity has also recently been challenged. Lion was born in Paris, where he was academically trained and exhibited in the Paris Salon before following the examples of his many colleagues by immigrating to New Orleans where there was a thriving market for patronizing French immigré portraitists. Once in the city, he worked as a prominent lithographer, painter, art teacher, and he was credited with introducing the daguerreotype (the first economical photographic method to be used commercially in the nineteenth century) to the city in 1843. In her essay, “Racing Jules Lion,” Sara M. Picard explains that Jules Lion appeared with the designation of “f.m.c.,” or “free man of color,” in the New Orleans city directories from 1851 to 1856, but that all other documents of his life make no mention of his race, which indicates that he was believed to be white. Additionally, she argues that throughout his entire body of work, he only depicted two people of color, including the portrait here. The conclusion she reaches from her reexamination of the extant documents of Lion’s life and career suggest that he was a French immigrant to Louisiana of Jewish heritage. Although parts of Picard’s argument, like the fact that his predominantly white patrons indicates that he himself was white, have been challenged, her reassessment does make a significant point—namely, the necessity for new scholarship and a reexamination of the archival records on important works of art such as this portrait. Positing that Lion was Jewish and not a free man of color, does not diminish the cultural value of this portrait, or its significance within the African American art canon. Rather, it gives more complexity and nuance to the history of race and race relations in the nineteenth-century, in the same way as the portrait’s composition.
Finally, recent scholarship has questioned the sitters’ identities as well. Since the portraits appeared in the 1976 exhibition catalogue produced by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the portrait has been known as Ashur Moses Nathan and Son. In the catalogue, Regenia A. Perry firmly identifies the portraits’ sitters. Additionally, she weaves an intriguing story about the sitters and their relationship to Jules Lion himself. Ashur Moses Nathan was a Jewish man born in Amsterdam, who immigrated to Louisiana and became a successful dry goods merchant in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. His wife died in 1852, leaving no children from the union. Although Nathan had a nephew to whom he could have bequeathed his estate, instead he chose to petition the state of Louisiana to adopt the mixed race, Achille Leon (the records from the Louisiana state legislature’s special act spell his name “Achille Leon,” not Achile Lion.” Louisiana names frequently appeared without consistency throughout archival records, so it is possible that his name was also spelled “Achile Lion” in other documents). His request was granted on March 12, 1859 by a special act of the state legislature. Following the adoption, Nathan went on to draft a will in 1862 that left most of his estate to Achille Leon, as well as $8,000 to Anna Lion (presumably Achille’s sister). The lengths Nathan went through to officially adopt Achille, and to ensure that he could safely pass his estate onto him and his sister after his death, is a strong indication that Achille and Anna were his biological, extramarital mixed race children. Moreover, Nathan’s actions in securing the succession of his property to those mixed race children rather than his white nephew, indicates a close paternal relationship. However, Regenia Perry further argues that Achille Lion is not only Nathan’s biological son, but also Jules Lion’s stepson, the issue of Jules Lion’s unidentified mixed race wife and Nathan prior to her marriage. Perry’s evidence for this is an entry in the 1844 notarial archive that lists Jules Lion as having a son named Achile in his home. Perry writes, “that there were two Achile Lions in New Orleans in the 1840s seems improbable.” Yet, in a francophone city like New Orleans, neither the name “Achile” or “Lion” were uncommon.
Despite the conjectures made by the author of the Met’s Selections of Nineteenth-Century Afro-American Art exhibition catalogue, the truth is that the portrait itself visually corroborates the account of Nathan and his son Achile. Nathan’s concerted efforts to adopt the young man and to secure his inheritance are echoed in the loving embrace of the sitters in the Lion’s portrait. Furthermore, the story woven in the Met’s catalogue is deeply compelling, underlining the convoluted mixtures and relationships across racial boundaries that happened throughout Louisiana’s history. In her essay, “Optical Illusions: Images of Miscegenation in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century American Art,” Judith Wilson neatly summarizes the effect this story has on the portrait’s interpretation when she writes, “the image would have served not only as a stepfather’s record of his stepson’s true paternity, but also as a biracial artist’s symbolic reference to his own mixed ancestry as well as to a crucial aspect of his wife’s past.”
In the end, however, there is no known archival evidence to substantiate the attribution that the sitters depicted in this portrait are Ashur Moses Nathan and Achille Leon. In fact, in her 1976 article, Alberta Collier, an art critic for The Times Picayune asked the anonymous art dealer if he knew the portrait to depict Nathan and his son, to which he replied that “he had never had any information as to the sitters.” Collier concludes her article by saying, “This does not, in itself, mean that the sitters are not Achile and Nathan. It indicates, however, that much more research is needed before they can positively be identified as the principals involved in the Louisiana legislative act of March 12, 1859.” This is the salient point—this unique and intriguing portrait has captivated viewers for decades because of the essential questions it raises about race and interracial mixing in Louisiana history, but also in the nation’s history. The pastel is compelling because of the myriad ways it dismantles neat assumptions about the strict American racial binary, as well as the role inhabited by people of African descent in nineteenth-century America. Despite the fact that the artist was probably Jewish and not a free man of color, and that the sitters cannot be firmly identified as Ashur Moses Nathan and his son, Achille, the captivating visual record of interracial familial ties the portrait depicts will compel the next generation of researchers to return to the documentary evidence and continue to work at solving the mystery of this portrait, thereby further enhancing the complex story of African American art.
Ref.: “An Act to Authorize Ashur M. Nathan to Adopt Achille Leon,” Laws for the Government for the District of Louisiana Passed by the Government and Judges of the Indiana Territory, Baton Rouge, LA, March 12, 1859; Brady, Patricia, “A Mixed Palette: Free Artists of Color in Antebellum New Orleans,” International Review of African American Art 12, no. 3 (1995): 5-57; Collier, Alberta, “Mystery Surrounds Louisiana Painting in Met Exhibit,” Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA), July, 23, 1976; Driskell, David, Two Centuries of Black American Art, Los Angeles: Knopf, 1976; Greenwald, Erin, ed. In Search of Julien Hudson: Free Artist of Color in Pre-Civil War New Orleans, New Orleans: The Historic New Orleans Collection, 2010; “Last Will and Testament of François Mignon,” Natchitoches, LA, July 30, 1980; “Last Will and Testament of Ora G. Williams,” Natchitoches, LA, April 9, 1985; Perry, Regenia A., Selections of Nineteenth-Century Afro-American Art, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1976; Picard, Sara M. “Racing Jules Lion,” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 58, no. 1 (2017): 5-37; Shaw, Gwendolyn DuBois, Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006; Wilson, Judith, “Optical Illusions: Images of Miscegenation in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century American Art,” American Art 5, no. 1 (1991): 88-107.
Dr. Wendy Castenell is an Assistant Professor of African American Art in the Department of Art and Art History at The University of Alabama. Her research interests include representations of race and ethnicity in American visual culture, portraiture, photography, early cinema, and turn-of-the-century spectacles. Her first book, “Creole Identity in the Art of the American South: Louisiana from the Colonial Era to Reconstruction,” will be published in the spring of 2022 by Routledge/Taylor & Francis.
The Legend of a Louisiana Portrait – “Ashur Moses Nathan and Son” by Jules Lion
Presented by Wendy Castenell, Ph.D., The University of Alabama
November 11, 2021 6:00 p.m.