Lois Mailou Jones and Outwitting Jim Crow
by Schuyler Price -- art lover, writer and curator of @SheLovesBlackArt
“I was just full of the desire to be an artist and I don’t think anything could have stopped me.” –Lois Mailou Jones
Lois Mailou Jones decided early in her career that she would become a famous artist. It was a radical decision for a Black American girl born in 1905. Lois was encouraged by her upwardly mobile parents to pursue art, and she received scholarships to the High School of Practical Arts and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Lois began her career in textiles, selling bold African-inspired designs. But she soon switched to fine art when she realized that with textiles she would remain anonymous.
“I realized… that my name was never published with the designs. As I wanted my name to go down in history I realized that I would need to be a painter. And so it was that I immediately turned to painting.”
Although she graduated with honors from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, she was denied a teaching position because of her race. Lois was a born and bred Bostonian, but she was advised to go south and “help her people.”
Still undecided what next to do, Lois met Charlotte Hawkins Brown, president of The Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, North Carolina, who was giving a speech in Boston. In 1928, Lois joined the faculty at Palmer and immediately formed and chaired its first art department. Rural Sedalia, however, was not Lois’s cup of tea. A recurring theme in Lois’ biography is her willingness to cut a new path where none existed for her as a Black woman artist.
Lois had also applied for a position at Howard University in 1928 but was rejected because they had already hired James Porter. Undeterred, she invited James Herring, head of Howard’s art department, to visit her class at Palmer. Herring was so impressed he not only offered Lois a job but also helped her break her contract with Palmer. She would teach at Howard for nearly five decades.
I fell in love with a painting described as an updated self-portrait, but I believe the painting predates her official 1940 self-portrait. The painting is significant because it serves as an early marker of Lois’s willingness to create space for herself within the art world. Unfortunately, I could not substantiate my theory.
I consulted Rebecca Keegan VanDiver, assistant professor of African American Art at Vanderbilt University and author of Designing a New Tradition: Lois Mailou Jones and the Aesthetics of Blackness. VanDiver says the painting appears to be a self-portrait from the 1930s. For the purposes of this discussion, I am assuming the work is indeed a self-portrait from that period.
Artists creating self-portraits was nothing new, but a young Black woman creating a self-portrait between 1930 and 1940 was a brazen power move. The self-portrait is an exercise in braggadocio. It’s an announcement that you’re an important artist who people need to know.
For thousands of years, artists have used self-portraiture to shape their public images and to promote their careers. A popular Renaissance saying went, “every artist paints himself”–the presumption, of course, was the artist is male. Male artists like Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Picasso paint themselves again and again, and in doing so impressed their images and reputations into our collective psyche. Although women through the ages have also produced self-portraits, the most recognizable is Frida Kahlo.
In the 1930s and 40s, Black Americans did not have a robust history of self-portraiture. Unsurprisingly, the best known self-portraits of the period were by men–Archibald Motley (1933), Malvin Gray Johnson (1934) and William H. Johnson (1935-38). Lois Mailou Jones used her self-portraiture to position herself as a Black woman within the American art canon.
What I love about the early self-portrait is that it exudes confidence. Her coiffed hair and her peasant blouse give me Carmen Jones vibes. Beyond her beauty, however, what I find mesmerizing is the defiance in her eyes. Lois is looking directly at the viewer. She conveys that ‘I’m not about the bullshit’ look that so many Black American women are known to give. Lois is ambitious, and she wasn’t going to let anyone or anything derail her dreams.
What if this undated self-portrait was a response to her male colleagues at Howard who called her art amateurish? Lois may have realized her work wouldn’t be centered, even by her Black male peers. This 1930s self-portrait would have been her first attempt to reshape the tradition by centering herself.
In 1931, the Harmon Foundation selected Lois to exhibit her work alongside Hale Woodruff and the sculptor Nancy Prophet. Though Lois also participated in exhibits in Washington, D.C., the Black men at Howard’s art department considered Lois to be a lightweight. Their contention then became the rationale for denying her salary raises and promotions during her long tenure. The strife led to Lois applying for outside funding that allowed her to take a sabbatical in Paris from 1937 to 1938.
In Paris, Lois was “shackle-free” for the first time. Able to live and work as she pleased without being fettered by racial segregation, she took classes at the Academic Julien. In only nine months she painted 40 works. Lois said of this time, “the color of my skin didn’t matter in Paris and that was one of the main reasons why I think I was encouraged and began to really think I was talented.”
Lois was supposed to meet Henry Ossawa Tanner in Paris, but the elderly artist died before she arrived. Fellow Howard professor and Martinique-born intellectual Louis Achille was enlisted to help Lois get settled in the French capital. Through Achille, Lois met his cousins Jeanne (Jane) Nardal and Paulette Nardal. The Nardal sisters are leaders of the pro-Negritude movement.
In the early 1930s, Black people born in France and its colonies began articulating a Black identity rooted in the African continent and divorced from European culture and colonialism. The Nardal sisters’s Sunday salon brought together Black artists and intellectuals from France, the Caribbean and the United States. Among regular Salon attendees were the ‘Three Fathers’ of the Negritude Movement, poet Aime Cesaire, Leopold Sedar Senghor (who became the first president of Senegal), and Leon-Gontran Damas.
During this same period, European artists like Picasso, Matisse and Henry Moore were creating works influenced by what many at the time considered “primitive” African art and sculpture. Moore has been quoted as saying that African sculpture was dominated by “sex and religion.” Lois, echoing Black American and French-speaking Black artists, asserted that if anyone had the right to use African art, it should be her. During her first four months in Paris, Lois produced one of her most widely-exhibited paintings “Les Fetiches” (1937). It is a small scale painting of five overlapping African masks rendered in a cubist style.
Lois did not speak French when she arrived in Paris in 1937. By using this title rather than the simpler option of “Les Masques Africains,” Lois seemed to amplify the accusation that the French fetishized African art as mysterious creations coming from the “Dark Continent.” It should also be noted that Jeanne Nardal in her writings asserted that the French fetishized Black Americas vis a vis Black entertainers like Josephine Baker.
While some scholars have written that Lois reclaimed her African heritage in Paris, this conclusion holds little water. Lois had incorporated Kuba cloth elements in her textile designs years earlier. She also created “Ascent of Ethiopia” in 1932. The strongest evidence of Lois’ pre-Paris interest in African culture was her 1935 work with Asadata Dafora, a celebrated choreographer, drummer, composer and performance artist from Sierra Leon.
Lois played a critical role in the New York production of Dafora’s dance opera, Kykunor (Witch Woman), designing the dancer’s headdresses and assisting with the costuming. She essentially created the ceremonial look of this African cultural performance.
In 1937, Lois exhibited at the Societe des Artistes Francais in Paris, which by her won measure was a success. Prior to her return to the United States in 1938, however, she worried her paintings would not be shown in leading galleries and museums because of her race. Her concern was justified. Works by Negro artists were still being excluded from leading art institutions.
Back in Washington, Lois made the daring decision to submit her paintings to various competitions held by prestigious galleries and museums that barred Negro artists. Her initial effort proved that she was an excellent artist, but her race trumped her talent.
Lois was told by an art restorer, a man she described as a”gentleman of color,” that the Smithsonian American Museum of Art had award her first prize for her 1940 landscape painting, “Menemsha,” only to then reject the painting after judges learned that Lois wasn’t white. The snitch apparently informed them that Lois was a professor at Howard. Thereafter, Lois chose galleries and exhibits in Philadelphia and New York where she could ship her entries and communicate by mail.
Lois made another attempt in 1940 to have her work shown at a Whites Only arts institution in D.C. This time her friend, white French artist Celine Tabary, submitted her painting “Indian Shops, Gay Head, Massachusetts” to the prestigious Corcoran Gallery of Art. Lois’s painting won first prize for landscape art. Fearing the award would be rescinded if she accepted in person, Lois had it mailed to her. The Corcoran Gallery finally revealed her race to the public in 1955.
In the 1940s, Lois’ practice shifted to Black American themes. There are several contributing factors including her exposure to Negritude movement intellectuals during her year in Paris; Dr. Alaine Locke, the Father of the Harlem Renaissance encouraging her in 1938 to focus her art on the Negro experience; and her own perspectives as a Negro artist living in Washington, D.C.
Lois’ 1940 self-portrait shows her wearing an artist’s smock and holding her brushes. In the background of the painting are African sculptures. The painting not only positions 35-year-old Lois as a serious American artist but also as a Negro artist beholden to African culture. During this period she produced such poignant portraits as “Jennie” (1943), “Meditation (Mob Victim)” (1944), and “The Pink Tablecloth (1944) that depicted the quiet dignity of average people.
Lois’ prioritized her art and delayed marriage until her late 40s. Her 1953 marriage to Haitian graphic designer, Louis Vergniaud Pierre-Noel, played a pivotal role in the development of her body of work. Lois had met Pierre-Noel in the 1930s when taking summer classes at Columbia University in New York. The two had maintained communications over the years and, in 1953, Pierre-Noel contacted Lois when he returned to the United States. Subsequently, Lois broke her engagement to a Hungarian painter and, later that year, married Pierre-Noel in France.
The next year Lois traveled to Haiti at the invitation of President Paul E. Magliore to create a series of paintings. In 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower commissioned Lois to paint the portraits of the Haitian President, Paul Magloire, and First Lady, Yolette Leconte Magloire, in honor of their state visit.
Over the next 30 years, Lois frequently lectured, taught and painted in Haiti. As she immersed herself into Haitian culture and spirituality, she moved away from impressionism and, by the 1960s, was using bolder colors and more geometrical patterns in her work. Lois’ connection to Haiti also increased her desire to explore art on the African continent.
In 1968, Howard University sponsored Lois to conduct “The Black Visual Arts,” a three-part research project of interviews and photographs from across Haiti, the African continent, and the United States documenting contemporary art of the African diaspora.
In 1970, Lois traveled to 11 African countries, and another nine African countries in 1972. Lois shared her groundbreaking work in exhibitions and lectures among her Howard University students and peers.
Lois Mailou Jones didn’t have a meteoric career. Rather she did a steady march toward greatness.
In assessing her contribution to American art, what is glaringly apparent is just how much energy she had to use to outwit Jim Crow just to get her work shown. Additionally, her gender was a factor in her being less visible than such generational peers as Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence.
Lois Mailou Jones’ career is a testament that, in the United States, talent wasn’t enough for a Black woman artist to succeed; she also had to have grit and determination.
Lois’ role as an educator is also critical to understanding the full scope of her artistic legacy. In 1977, Lois retired from Howard University’s art department after being on the faculty for 47 years. During her tenure, she taught thousands of students including such luminaries as Elizabeth Catlett, Robert Freeman, and art historian, David C. Driskell.
On Lois’ impact, Driskell said, “To many artists, educators, and former students, as well as art enthusiasts worldwide, Lois Mailou Jones was a grand dame of American art. To my good fortune, she became my teacher, mentor, colleague, and friend…”
Her contribution to American art was recognized by two Presidents of the United States, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and Bill Clinton in 1993. Lois Mailou Jones died in Washington, D.C. in 1998 at the age of 92.
In 1939, Lois’ friend, Émile Bernard, sent her a letter that read, “Charming Friend…You are a remarkably gifted artist and I hope that you will have the power to fully mature and achieve your own style…I have but one bit of advice to give you: Continue always in your own path, that is the only way to perfect one’s work….”
Lois Mailou Jones cleared her own path with a machete, chopping down obstacles that got in the way of her name going down in history.
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