The Harlem Renaissance was the name given to the artistic, literary and intellectual movement within a tumultuous period of racial change in post-war United States. Also named ‘The New Negro Movement’, this cultural explosion drew black writers, photographers, artists, poets and scholars together to forge a new black cultural identity throughout the 1920s and 30s. Although critic and lecturer, Alan Locke (1926), described the transformation from “social disillusionment to race pride”, the women of the Harlem Renaissance had to face double prejudice of both race and sex.
Jones in her Paris studio, 1938, where she paints one of her most widely exhibited paintings; Les Fétiches
Born in 1905, Loïs Mailou Jones spent her formative years in Boston where she started selling paintings at the age of 12. She had her first solo exhibition at Boston Museum of Fine Arts at 17 years old (where she also took evening drawing classes). This makes Jones the first and only African American to break the segregation barrier denying black people the right to display visual art in public and private galleries and museums in the United States. With strong racial prejudices still going strong, however, Jones had to face the challenge of segregation alongside trying to gain independence as a female artist. This exclusion eventually encouraged her to move north, where a new chapter of her life began.
As African-Americans were physically excluded from Washington DC galleries, Jones had one of her art awards withdrawn when a gallery discovered she was black. She soon discovered that she couldn’t collect awards for her work from art shows and competitions for fear of being disqualified. Therefore, she started to either submit the work anonymously and asked for the award to be mailed to her or asked her white artist friend, Céline Tabary, to submit and pick up awards on her behalf.
Indian Shops, Gay Head, Massachusetts (above) was one of the paintings Jones received a prize for anonymously at the Corcoran Gallery in 1941; which she later donated to the institution after they apologised for their racist policies after her 89th birthday. After winning several prizes, however, she decided to give up anonymity.
Jones enjoyed portraying warmth, light and symbolism in her works and loved evoking the spirit of improvisation and playfulness. She also remained open to new styles and visual languages throughout her seven-decade career; as a result, her paintings range from traditional landscapes to African-themed abstraction. In 1938, she spent a year in Paris and produced one of her wider-exhibited works, Les Fétiches (below), which depicts her signature style.
Jones became highly influential and was the only African-American female painter of the 1930s and 40s to achieve fame abroad; exhibiting her works internationally, educating during the Harlem Renaissance, becoming a Professor of Design Art at Howard University in Washington DC and becoming an early voice for civil rights promoting the intellectual role of the black woman in both the art world and in wider society. Alongside her painter and sculptor counterparts, Edmonia Lewis and Augusta Savage, she helped to forge the idea of the ‘New Negro Woman’, founded in creativity and intellect.
In a climate unfavourable to black and female artists, Jones remained a positive influence on generations of black artists. She also has her own trust built in her name, which promotes the legacy of her artwork and provides scholarship funds at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and Howard University. Today, the artwork of Loïs Mailou Jones can be found in numerous public collections, including; National Museum of American Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Hirshhorn Museum and Museum of Fine Art.
Written for Sheroes of History by Danielle Blackburn
Find out more…
Visit the Lois Mailou Jones Trust website to find out more
See more of her work on the Smithsonian American Art Museum website.