Lois Mailou Jones (1905-1998) was an American painter, designer, and educator whose virtuosity across a wide variety of styles and subjects, as well as her enduring perseverance in the face of systemic racial and gender inequality, have earned her increasing recognition as one of the twentieth century’s most influential American fine artists.
Born in Boston in 1905 to parents of African American descent, Lois Mailou Jones showed an affinity for drawing at a young age, an inclination which her parents encouraged early on; her mother, a beautician and designer of headwear, and father, a building superintendent who became Suffolk University Law School’s first black graduate following nine years of part-time study, provided her with crayons, colored pencils, and paper with which to explore her precocious talent. From the ages of four through seventeen, Jones and her family spent their summers on Martha’s Vineyard, where her grandmother had the foresight to purchase land and build a cottage from her earnings as a housekeeper for a wealthy Vineyard family. (Jones’ parents would themselves eventually purchase a cottage there with their own hard-won savings.) The natural beauty and color of the island would forever influence Jones’ creative instincts; it was there, she admitted in a 1983 interview with the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, that her “life in art really began,” going on to say that she cherished her yearly escape “from the smoke and tar of Boston to the ocean, daisies, and buttercups of Martha’s Vineyard.” Her earliest formal paintings were composed during these summer sojourns, and though eventually her painting forays would take her all over the island, those first watercolors were depictions of the boats in the harbor at Menemsha, a fishing village renowned for its sunsets. (Menemsha would be the first place she would head on her annual summer visits to the island later in life.) When Jones was seventeen, Mrs. Henry A. Ritter — a prominent local patron of the arts and neighbor of Jones’ on the island — mounted a public display of Jones’ early seascapes and landscapes in the garden of her architecturally significant Federal-period residence (later to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places), an event construed by many followers of Jones' career as her first solo exhibition. But perhaps the most important consequence of Jones’ early time spent on the island was the advice dispensed by two prominent African American artists of the period with whom she had cultivated friendships: the sculptor Meta Warrick Fuller, who studied with Rodin in Paris and whose work helped precipitate the Harlem Renaissance, and the classical composer Harry Burleigh, a pupil of Antonin Dvorak at the National Conservatory of Music who is now regarded as one of America’s most important early 20th century songwriters.
Jones’ formal education in art began in 1919 with her receiving a scholarship to attend Boston’s High School of Practical Arts; concurrently, she was awarded a scholarship to participate in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts' evening and weekend Vocational Drawing Program. Her classroom creations brought her to the attention of noted designer Grace Ripley, who took her on as an apprentice. Ripley’s studio designed costumes for several prominent Boston area dance companies, and it was while in Ripley's employ that Jones was introduced to masks of African origin, an art form that would prove to have a critical impact upon her work (perhaps most profoundly expressed in 1938's Les Fetiches, now part of the permanent collection of the National Museum of American Art). Upon graduation from high school in 1923, Jones was selected to receive the coveted Susan Minot Lane Scholarship in Design, which she used to attend the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where she graduated with Honors in 1927, along the way earning the Nathaniel Thayer Prize in Design and taking courses in Portraiture and Drawing from Life. During her final year at the Museum School she enrolled in evening classes at the Boston Normal Art School (now the Massachusetts College of Art), obtaining a teaching certificate to accompany her degree in Design. Her instructors during this period included Alice Morse and Henry Hunt Clark (Design), as well as Philip L. Hale and Anson K. Cross (Drawing). Subsequent to the completion of her undergraduate studies, Jones accepted a scholarship offer tendered by Ludwig Frank, an internationally renowned designer of textiles, to pursue graduate work at the Designers Art School of Boston, where Frank was a professor. (Additionally, she completed a summer school program in Painting at Harvard University.) Under Frank’s guidance, Jones began to draw from an international range of aesthetic influences in crafting her work, creating pattern designs and designs for cretonnes that were sold all over the country; however, finding it increasingly difficult to reconcile the anonymous nature of textile design with her stated intent of producing work "of a caliber that would live after me,” Jones turned her attention to painting, an art form allowing her to inscribe her signature on every one of her creations.
Jones’ initial contact with the world of teaching came in 1927 when she approached the director of her alma mater — the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts — to inquire about any available positions. Upon being told that no opportunities existed, but that perhaps she should go down South and “help her people,” Jones was shocked. “Here I was,” she would later recount, “a young Boston lady who had been exposed to Radcliffe and Simmons and Harvard and Tufts and all of the big schools, being told to go down South to ‘help my people.’ . . . Frankly, it was something I really didn’t anticipate.” During this time period, a forum was held on Sundays at a community center in Boston where young black college students and graduates could listen to lectures given by prominent African American scholars; following one such event, Jones approached the speaker — the noted educator Charlotte Hawkins Brown — about the possibility of her establishing an art department at the Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, North Carolina, a pioneering preparatory school for black students of which Brown was the founder and director. Despite feeling that Jones might be a bit young for the job, Brown hired her, and Jones proceeded to build a department whose demonstrable success despite limited resources was such that, two years later, James Vernon Herring, the head of the Art Department at Howard University in Washington, D.C., immediately hired her upon viewing an exhibition of her students’ work. Jones remained at Howard University for her entire academic career, 47 years in all, eventually attaining the position of Full Professor of Design and Painting, in which capacity she furthered the development of many of the era’s most successful African American artists, including Elizabeth Catlett, David Driskell, and Starmanda Bullock.
Building on the efforts of the Harlem Renaissance to create sympathetic representations of the Black American experience, Jones primarily used the early portion of her career as a painter to compose portraits of African Americans in the tradition of academic realism, though her connection with one of the most important cultural movements of the 20th century was arguably best reflected in 1932’s The Ascent of Ethiopia, her earliest foray into modernism and now considered to be one of her seminal works, mixing imagery from the past and present to compose a narrative of struggle, liberation, and finally, hope. By 1937 Jones was ready to take her first sabbatical from teaching, and, influenced by the advice she had received on Martha’s Vineyard from Meta Warrick Fuller and Harry Burleigh, decided to go to Paris, where, as Fuller and Burleigh maintained, she would be freed from the shackles placed upon her by the artistic establishment in America, which was not yet ready to accept black artists as equals. Using fellowship money she had received from the General Education Board philanthropic endowment, Jones enrolled in the famed Academie Julian in Paris. There, studying under the award-winning painter of landscapes Pierre-Eugene Montezin, and tutored by legendary post-impressionist French painter Emile Bernard and the expatriate African American artist Albert Alexander Smith (the first black artist admitted for study at the National Academy of Design), Jones entered a thriving and diverse community of artists, writers, and dancers who appreciated quality above everything else, undistracted by race. “France gave me my first feeling of absolute freedom,” Jones would write in the catalogue of one of her later shows. (She would return to France frequently over the next twenty years.) Creating more than forty works during her sabbatical, Jones’ street scenes, pastoral landscapes, and still-lifes — painted in both impressionist and post-impressionist styles and, in the view of many, evocative of Cezanne and Monet — appeared in such prominent venues as the Galerie de Paris and Galerie de Charpentier, and were selected for display at the Salon des Artistes Francais. She became the only black female painter of the 1930s and 1940s to achieve recognition in Europe, and the earliest whose subjects reached beyond portraiture. Her time in Europe culminated with the production of her cubist masterwork, the aforementioned Les Fetiches, a stylistically evolutionary leap presaging the incorporation of African-based imagery as a central component of her work.
Upon returning to the United States in 1938, Jones was given her first major solo exhibition at the Vose Galleries in Boston. The show was critically well received, with several of her works reproduced in local newspapers. But the recognition was short-lived, owing to the prohibition placed upon African American participation in the major exhibitions, including those held at both the Corcoran Gallery and Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Only the Harmon Foundation, whose philanthropic mission was to promote the careers of African American artists, allowed her to submit her work. Determined to be judged solely by the quality of her efforts, as she was in France, Jones circumvented the institutional bias by having her close friend, the French artist Celine Tabary, deliver her paintings personally under the guise of being Jones herself. Employing this method, Jones’ 1941 impressionist landscape, Indian Shops, Gay Head — painted “en plein air” on Martha’s Vineyard — won the Robert Woods Bliss Award for Landscape at the 1941 Annual Exhibition of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Receiving her award in the mail, Jones didn’t reveal herself fully until two years later. “I felt it best to hold my niche,” Jones would later explain, “win several awards, and then appear — all to be sure I’d be accepted.” Submitting her work through the mail was another alternative Jones used in her efforts to be considered for the major exhibitions; both the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the National Academy of Design accepted her work for display after receiving it in this fashion. On one occasion, a juried exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution awarded her first prize in the watercolor category, only to rescind the award upon being informed of her race. Dealing with such tight strictures of racism after the freedom of Paris, Jones was motivated by the words of Alain Locke, the first African American Rhodes Scholar and acknowledged “Dean” of the Harlem Renaissance, who encouraged her soon after her return to the States not only to deal with her African cultural heritage — as she had with Les Fetiches — but also with the social and racial injustices still endemic in American society. Referencing this period of her life as her “Locke Period,” Jones would produce in the early 1940s several works dealing with contemporary African American themes, most notably Mob Victim (1944), a portrait — now housed in the Phillips Collection — in which a black man who is about to be lynched looks pensively toward the sky, calmly awaiting his fate. The work has been critically appraised as a subtle but powerful attempt to advance the cause of the dignity of African Americans, as have two other portraits from this period, both from 1943: Jennie (now in the permanent collection of Howard University) and Lillian Evanti (a representation of the famous African-American opera diva, now on permanent display in the National Portrait Gallery). These three paintings were regarded by Jones as emblematic of her strongest work.
Committed to her own education and development in addition to that of her students, Jones earned a degree in Art Education from Howard University in 1945, graduating Magna Cum Laude. Earlier, in 1934, she had spent the summer in New York City at Columbia University, completing a program in Cultural Masks. While at Columbia she met and befriended the noted Haitian artist Louis Vergniaud Pierre-Noel; they corresponded regularly for nearly twenty years before marrying in the south of France in 1953. Shortly thereafter, Jones executed a series of landscapes commissioned by the then President of Haiti, Paul Magloire, to be exhibited at the Pan-American Union in Washington, D.C., during Magloire’s official visit to the United States as the guest of U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower; the exhibit, entitled Oeuvres des Lois Mailou Jones Pierre-Noel, earned Jones Haiti’s highest honor, The Chevalier of the National Order of Honor and Merit. In 1955, she unveiled portraits of the Haitian president and his wife commissioned by President Eisenhower. Reinvigorated by her many subsequent visits to Haiti, Jones captured the country’s people, landscape, and cultural milieu in a richly colored and highly expressionistic style, which grew increasingly abstract and geometrically rooted with the infusion of African design elements into her work following academically-sponsored field studies to Africa in the late 1960s and early 1970s. These mature efforts (examples of which are 1971’s Moon Mosque and 1972's Ubi Girl From Tai Region), which synthesize a wide cross-section of 20th century artistic techniques into a distinctive style of her own creation, have over the passage of time become her most publicly recognizable works.
Following solo exhibitions of her work in the 1960s at the Galerie International in New York City (1961), the Galerie Soulanges in Paris (1966), and Cornell University (1967), several major venues mounted either solo retrospectives of Jones’ career or included her in highly selective group shows, beginning in 1970 with a solo exhibition at the Howard University Gallery of Art entitled Lois Mailou Jones: Forty Years of Painting: 1932-1972. In 1973, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, whose art school Jones had attended and from which her application for employment was denied, made her the first African American artist in the museum’s history to be accorded a solo show, in the form of a major retrospective titled Reflective Moments (attended by over 27,000 people). In 1976 Jones was chosen to be one of Six Distinguished Women Artists honored in a group show at the Brooklyn Museum, and in 1979 the historically significant Philips Collection in Washington, D.C., mounted a solo exhibition of her work. In 1990, with the help of Jones herself, the Meridian International Center in Washington, D.C., created a retrospective solo exhibition The World of Lois Mailou Jones, that toured across the country for several years, the first exhibition of her work to garner national attention. In 1994, the Corcoran Gallery of Art opened its retrospective, The Life and Art of Lois Mailou Jones, with a public apology for past racial discrimination, and in 1997, the year before she died, Jones’ paintings were featured in a group exhibition entitled Explorations in the City of Light: African Americans in Paris 1945-1965, which appeared in several museums throughout the country, shedding light on the story of the African American artists for whom Paris was a mecca during the twenty year period following the Second World War. Posthumously, in 2006, Jones’ alma mater, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, mounted Lois Mailou Jones: The Early Works: Paintings and Patterns 1927-1937. In 2009, the Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, North Carolina, initiated the traveling retrospective, Lois Mailou Jones: A Life in Vibrant Color. Most recently, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum assembled The Life and Work of Lois Mailou Jones, a 2015 tribute to the artist on the island where her career first began.
In addition to winning the Corcoran Gallery’s Robert Woods Bliss Award for Landscape Painting in 1941, Jones was the recipient of numerous other prestigious awards and prizes, including: the Atlanta University Award for Watercolor Painting (Old House Near Frederick, Virginia, 1942); the John Hope Prize for Landscape (Ville d'Houdain, Pas-de-Calais, 1949); the Corcoran Gallery of Art Oil Painting Award (Coin de La Place Maubert, 1953); the Luban Watercolor Award (Barques de Fecheurs, Haiti, 1958); the National Museum of Art Award (Fishing Smacks, Menemsha, Massachusettts, 1960); the Franz Bader Award for Oil Painting (Peasants on Parade, 1962); the Presidential Award for Outstanding Achievements in the Visual Arts (presented by President Jimmy Carter, 1980); Honorary Doctorate (Suffolk University Law School, 1981); the National Coalition of 100 Black Women/Metropolitan Museum of Art Candace Award for “Black Role Models of Uncommon Distinction” (1982); Honorary Doctorate (Massachusetts Institute of Art, 1983); and the selection by President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton of her 1993 watercolor, Breezy Day at Gay Head, for display at the White House in Washington, D.C. Currently, examples of Jones' work are represented in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Portrait Gallery, the Brooklyn Museum, the Phillips Collection, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., the Howard University Art Gallery, and other significant public and private collections.
In 1998, Lois Mailou Jones passed away at her home in Washington, D.C., at the age of 92. Having lived long enough to witness her acceptance by the American art establishment, she told an interviewer in 1989 that “Nice things are happening . . . but late.” Though she was dedicated to portraying African American culture with accuracy and dignity at a time when that concept was a radical one, she had always wanted to be recognized as a talented artist in her own right: not only as an African American artist, but as an American one. She believed that African American art would always constitute an important part of the American artistic legacy, and her goal was for it to someday be viewed that way. “I don’t want to be separated from my colleagues,” she explained. “There is a connection, and art can help to strengthen that connection.” But she accepted her role as a trailblazer, recognizing its importance, and fully understanding what was required of her. “I couldn’t allow myself to be bitter,” she once said. “That would have destroyed everything.”
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