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African American artist Loïs Mailou Jones (1905-1998) is best known for bold colors, graphic lines, and designs evocative of African tribal prints. But the new exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, opening tomorrow, reveals the Boston-born-and-educated painter”s stunning breadth of work, including textile designs, delicate watercolors, and oils reminiscent of the Impressionists. The exhibit is arranged chronologically, so viewers can trace the progression of her work and the changing of her influences. Below, in chronological order, some of the most interesting examples of her work.
Watercolor is a such soft, ethereal medium, and Jones’ work in “Sedalia, NC”—from the sharpness of her lines to the richness of her color to the depth of her shadowing—really defies convention. She created this work in 1929, while she was an instructor in North Carolina a few years after college. In the exhibit, this painting is placed next to another watercolor from the same time period bearing similar lines but a more tradition style.
Early in her career Jones designed textiles. She began with large-scale, tropical florals, but progressed into abstract tribal prints, like this one from 1932. She stopped designing textiles shortly after this design after because she didn’t like the anonymity of the pursuit—she wanted to be able to sign her work and be recognized for it. She would still have to hide her identity later in her career: As a professor at Howard University, she wanted to enter a painting in a competition at the Corcoran Gallery. But the Corcoran didn’t allow African Americans to compete, so she had a friend enter it for her. When “Indian Shops, Gay Head, Ma.” won first prize, she had the award mailed to her rather than risk it being rescinded by collecting it in person. This design hints at the style that would become her signature in the ’70s and ’80s—which is interesting, because, as evidenced in the two paintings below, for 40 years these influences lay largely dormant in her work.
The mother and child motif is timeless, of course, and spans across styles and generations, but I was struck by the similarity in Jones’ “La Mère, Paris” to the work of Mary Cassatt. The similarities go beyond the motif, particularly in the brushstrokes and the use of light. Jones painted this in 1938, during her first sabbatical year from Howard, which she spent in Paris. She found an absence of prejudice in Paris and would return there throughout her career—”Les Clochards, Montmartre” from 1947 and “Paris Rooftops, Montmartre” from 1965 are two other gorgeous examples of her Parisian work.
“Jennie,” a depiction Jones painted in 1943 of one of her adolescent students in the art classes she conducted in her apartment on Kalorama Ave., is reminiscent of another Impressionist’s work. I can’t look at this painting without thinking of Paul Gaugin‘s “Ancestors of Tehemana.” The similarity of the girls’ bone structure, the positions of their arms and hands, the paintings’ composition—it’s like a 1940s American update on the 1890s Tahitian classic. This painting is part of the permanent collection at Howard, where Jones taught for 47 years.
I was pretty unfamiliar with Jones’ work before attending the exhibit. I was expecting it all to look like “Street Vendors, Port au Prince,” from 1978. This painting is prototypical of Jones’ work in the ’70s and ’80s, the work that would become her signature. Her husband, Louis Vergniaud Pierre-Noël, was Haitian, and Haiti was a primary reference point for Jones during this time. Into the ’90s, Jones kept the bright colors from this time period but lines and images became softer—think watercolor landscapes and still lifes. The thing I found most heartening and inspiring about the exhibit is that while painting was surely a vocation for Jones all her life, she didn’t come upon the style that made her famous until she was well into her 60s. We can all aspire to such growth and productivity at that age.
The exhibit is on view tomorrow through Jan. 9, 2011 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW. $10. (202) 783-7996.