A formally-trained French portraitist who found success in antebellum New Orleans, Jean-Joseph Vaudechamp was born in Rambervillers, in the old Vosges department of France near the German border. As a child, he was sent to live with his paternal aunt, Marie-Jean, whose husband, Jacques Delille, was a famous poet and translator of classical literature. It was through Delille that Vaudechamp was introduced to the celebrated Romantic painter Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson, in whose atelier he is said to have received his first instruction. He subsequently studied at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts before opening a studio in the French capital.

Vaudechamp first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1819. Representative canvases from this era have strong academic elements, such as the symbolic inclusion of plaster busts and his sitters’ static poses. The course of his career shifted when, in 1831, he recorded the likeness of William Charles Cole Claiborne II, son of the first American governor of the Louisiana Territory. In that portrait, Vaudechamp appropriates one of Girodet’s compositional formats, setting the figure high on the planar field and against an atmospheric seascape, whose waves are low on the horizon line, stirred by the winds of a stormy overcast sky. Despite the suggestion of an identity under siege, Claiborne was impressed and invited the artist to visit New Orleans. 

By 1832, Vaudechamp was in New Orleans and soon established a pattern of trans-Atlantic itinerancy that continued for many years. Winters were spent in the temperate Southern city where a steady clientele of elite citizens commissioned formal portraits that testified to their elevated social standing. Many of his patrons were wealthy members of the Creole community, who presumably responded to the artist’s French sensibilities. Works like Portrait of a Creole Lady in a Black Dress and Fur Stole reflect Girodet’s influence. Here, an elegantly attired woman, cloaked in silk and fur, gazes out—confidently or perhaps condescendingly—commanding attention while maintaining a sense of dignified distance.

While in New Orleans, Vaudechamp rented rooms on Royal Street to use as studio spaces, a practice he shared with fellow French artists Jacques Amans and Aimable Lansot. Vaudechamp’s portraits proved so popular that he reportedly earned some $30,000 during his time in Louisiana. Documentation of Vaudechamp’s American activity is difficult to trace beyond 1839, but records of his repeated representation in the Parisian Salon continue through 1848. Then, he largely faded from view, achieving a note of far greater importance in the South, than in his native land. Vaudechamp remains greatly admired, for his “ability to capture the likeness of his sitters is further enhanced by a sense of inner life not found in many portraits of the early nineteenth century in New Orleans.”