LOIS MAILOU JONES
1905 - 1998
LOIS Mailou Jones was one of the most prolific American painters of the 20th century. Her bold, penetrating images that span the globe from street scenes of Montmartre and the River Seine in Paris to vivid portraits of society in Haiti finally forced the world to recognize her often-ignored phenomenal talent.
Jones, who was an art professor at Howard University for 47 years, died in 1998 at age 92. The pioneering artist leaves a legacy of prodigious work produced over seven decades, ranging from impressionist to politically inspired, that will have a long-lasting impact on generations of artists.
"Beyond all her achievements in the world of art, she has been the mentor to whom many of us have turned for advice about art and about life in general," says David C. Driskell, a protege of Jones, who is a professor of art at the University of Maryland at College Park. He is also a trustee of the artist's estate.
The Jones estate recently donated $500,000 to Howard University to begin the Lois Mailou Jones Scholarship for Students in Fine Arts. Says Howard's president, Patrick Swygert: "Lois Mailou Jones is a very important person and personality here at Howard University, and in the art world. She represents some of the highest aspirations of this institution."
Also underway for September 2006 is an exhibition of Jones' design work during the 1920s at the School of the Museum of Fine Art, Boston. A more elaborate show of Jones' work is scheduled for 2009 at the Museum of Fine Art, Boston.
Jones' paintings have been acquired by major museums throughout the country. One of her masterpieces, Les Fetiches, a depiction of African tribal masks completed in 1938, is now on display at the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C.
Other paintings are on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Palace in Haiti and the National Museum of Afro-American Artists. At the Milwaukee Art Museum, for example, is the painting Ascent of Ethiopia (1932) while the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn., has the painting Peasant Girl Haiti (1954) on exhibit. (Johnson Publishing Company has also purchased several of Jones' paintings and was one of her early investors.)
With an invincible spirit, Jones overcame many societal slaps as a Black, as a woman and as an artist, to emerge as an iconic figure in the art world today. "She believed in Lois Mailou Jones," says godson Chris Chapman, M.D., a trustee who is busily continuing his godmother's legacy. "She didn't get the respect that she thought she deserved, but she believed that one day it would come.
"She didn't want to be known as an African or Black artist," he continues. "She wanted to be an American artist. She knew that one day it would come out that she was one of the great artists--whether she was Black, purple or green."
Born in Boston in 1905, Jones' mother was a beautician, and her father, a building superintendent. Her father later received his law degree after taking classes at night.
Her mother nurtured young Lois' interest in art by bringing her to the homes of wealthy White customers, who opened doors for the budding artist to attend the Boston Normal Art School and to study drawing at the School of the Museum of Fine Art, Boston.
By 17, she gave her first show on Martha's Vineyard, where her family vacationed during the summer. In 1923, she won a four-year art scholarship to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and later studied further at both Harvard and Columbia universities.
Yet, when she applied for a teaching position at the Museum of Fine Art, Boston, she was told there were not any positions available for a Black woman. She was advised to "go down South and help your people."
Jones spent two years in North Carolina organizing the art department at Palmer Memorial Institute, a private school that educated children of the Black elite. Unprepared for racism in the South, she joined Howard University's faculty in 1930 for a starting salary of $1,500.
Years later, she interrupted teaching to paint in Paris, to be "shackle free" and to study the styles of classical art. Inspired by impressionists Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cezanne and Emil Bernard, Jones painted French landscapes and still-life portraits, rejecting the notion of her as just a Black artist. Her work, however, was greatly influenced by her travels to Africa.
Jones quickly became the rage in Paris. But back in the United States, neither galleries nor museums would exhibit her work. So she came up with a plan so that her work could be displayed. She frequently had her White friends enter her work and accept awards on her behalf.
In the 1950s, Jones married a Haitian artist and went to live in Haiti. Breaking away from her impressionist style, she painted with forceful strokes and vibrant colors, showing no end to her creativity. In 1977, she retired from Howard University. It was not until then that the White art world began acquiring small amounts of her art.
"It's all overdue," Jones has said. "what's happening in my life should have happened 50 years ago, but because of my color everything has been slowed down."
419A Convent Avenue New York, NY 10019
212-368-9635 | Join Us | Hours Tuesday through Saturday, 10am-6pm. Essie Greeen Galleries 2012