1930s - Modernism was about revolt, but Lois Mailou and her black contemporaries had a more radical
Lois Mailou Jones was the rare kind of artist who can work successfully in as many modes as she felt like. The New England-born artist, a member of the “New Negro” movement, made work that was ever-changing and in dialogue with a broad range of international influences. As a young artist, Jones’s attention to detail in works like “Young Negro,” a charcoal-drawn portrait of a pensive man, showcased her strong knack for realism. As her career progressed, she made more impressionistic canvasses, like 1943’s “My Mother’s Hats,” a floral, sentimental still life in the 19th-century style. Once Jones left the U.S., her work would never look the same. Into the 1960s and ’70s, after living in Paris and traveling to Haiti, her work took on an unapologetic boldness, demonstrating a debt to Cubism and a penchant for large, lushly pigmented paintings. Jones’s later, more abstract expressionist work, draws on African and European art, but feels — particularly in works like the 1985 painting “Glyphs” — like an iconography unto itself.
Jones was born in 1905 to a middle-class family in Boston. Her father was a building superintendent who later became the first African American to graduate from Suffolk Law School. Her mother, a cosmetologist, often brought Lois along when visiting wealthy clients, and some have suggested that it was seeing the paintings on view in their homes that first inspired her to draw. She had the steady support of her family and made artist friends who encouraged her studies and her creative work early in life. She attended the High School of Practical Arts, and then the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Jones spent childhood summers amid the rarefied beauty of Oaks Bluff on Martha’s Vineyard, where her family owned a summer home. The area was a well known haven for the black elite, and Jones occasionally sold paintings to neighbors.
In the years before her career really took off, Jones also spent a summer studying at Harvard University and took a mask-making course at Columbia University. She graduated magna cum laude with an art degree from Howard University, though not until 1945. According to Cornell University art history professor Cheryl Finley, Jones got her “first unsavory taste of New England-style institutional racism” when she was denied a teaching position at her alma mater, and told she should “go South and help your people.” Finley writes that this kind of statement was typical of the “subtle and often patronizing system of inequality based on race that developed in the North, usually occurring systemically within institutions, such as schools, businesses, and government offices to shape and control social relations and to maintain the status quo.” Though not always as overt as it was below the Mason-Dixon line, race still determined and directed the course of individual lives.
Jones got her first taste of the actual South when she was recruited to start an art department at an African American prep school in Sedalia, North Carolina. There, she taught painting, drawing, and watercolor classes, and coached a women’s basketball team. Her paintings from the period suggest a hearty engagement with her rural surroundings, and a keen interest in her students. Jones joined the faculty of the Howard University art department in 1930 — she would remain on the faculty there for 47 years.
In 1937, Jones accepted a fellowship in Paris, to study at the Académie Julien, where she came into contact with a thriving and diverse community of actors, artists, writers, and dancers. In Paris, Jones’s painting career blossomed further; she felt welcomed into the milieu of artists who appreciated quality above all else, and who weren’t distracted by race. “France gave me my first feeling of absolute freedom,” Jones is quoted as saying in a catalogue for one of her shows. In the decade following her time in Paris, Jones showed her work in numerous galleries, earning awards and distinctions and being lauded as a major figure of the post-Harlem Renaissance art scene.
One of the cornerstones of Jones’s creative life was her relationship to Haiti, where she traveled frequently with her husband, Haitian designer Louis Vergniaud Pierre Noel. “The art of Africa is lived in the daily life of the people of Haiti,” Jones said, and the exposure to Haiti informed all of her subsequent work. Paintings like “La Baker” (a reference to Josephine Baker) express this affinity in rich, daring color.
Modernist art of the early 20th century exploded formal conventions that had hitherto been seen as certainties. As Edmond Barry Gaither, director of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, told NPR, “The thing that describes Modernism more than anything else is revolt.” But revolting is a privilege, and for many African-American artists working in the same era, “reclaiming African Americans as human” was a more radical and a more urgent project.
Jones’s work was always at least partially concerned with the dignified representation of black reality, whether in her early portraits of her Sedalia students or in her later work, where more overt themes of African and African American life were visible. She was also active in the Civil Rights movement. In 1968, Jones embarked upon an extensive three-part research project, “The Black Visual Arts,” collecting interviews, photographs, and slides collected across Haiti, Africa, and the U.S. to document contemporary art of the African Diaspora. Sponsored by Howard, she traveled to 11 African countries in 1970 (Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia, Congo, Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Senegal) and another nine African countries in 1972 (Sudan, Ehtiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zaire, Nigeria, Dahomey, and Ghana). Jones shared this work in exhibitions and lectures among her students and peers. According to a biographical note on Jones’s work at the Howard University Library, her papers showcase the “intellectual contributions LMJ made to the theoretical underpinning how should a Black artist pursue their craft.”
Throughout her life, Jones was also known as a cheerful interlocutor, a tireless learner, and a vociferous advocate not only for her own work but for the arts as a whole. She was honored by President Jimmy Carter in 1980 as an outstanding contributor to the arts, and was awarded honorary degrees from a number of American universities. A 1939 letter from her friend Émile Bernard reading, “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 without letting yourself be influenced by ‘fashion’….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….” It was advice Jones heeded until her death in 1998.