Jules Lion was born in Paris and exhibited at the Paris Salon before emigrating to the United States in 1837. He eventually opened a daguerreotype studio in New Orleans in 1840 one year after the invention of the process. On March 14, 1840, the New Orleans Bee published a notice about an exhibition of Lion’s daguerreotypes at the St. Charles Museum, the first documented photography exhibition in Louisiana.
Lion’s racial heritage is a subject of discussion for scholars. Because several editions of a New Orleans city directory in the 1850s include the letters “f.m.c.” (“free man of color”) next to his name, Lion has been cited as the first African-American photographer. However, the lack of any race designator on legal documents and other records throughout his life suggests that the directories may be inaccurate, and French census records point to his having been the son of German Jewish parents.
While Lion also painted, his main focus was a series of lithographed portraits of prominent Louisianans and people connected to Louisiana history, including John James Audubon and Andrew Jackson. Lion taught art at the Louisiana College and, late in his life, created lithographed Confederate sheet music covers.