1939: Exhibiting Black Art at the BMA See the Exhibition

This website accompanies the exhibition 1939: Exhibiting Black Art at the BMA. Undergraduate students in the Program in Museums and Society at the Johns Hopkins University created the content, and it is curated and edited by their professor in collaboration with museum staff. The site shares biographies of people and artworks that shed light on the historical experiences of African American artists from the generations featured in the BMA's 1939 exhibition Contemporary Negro Art.

Artist Profile By C. Cholish

Archibald Motley Jr.

Archibald Motley, three-quarters length, seated, facing left. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Archibald Motley Jr. was one of the most important black painters of Chicago, a city he called home and muse. In the 1920s and 30s, Motley’s paintings caught eyes across America, during a cultural renaissance often more associated with Harlem or with poetry and jazz.

Born in New Orleans in 1891, young Motley and his family, like many other African Americans at the turn of the century, followed work on the trains to Chicago. They settled in middle-class Englewood, where Motley and his sister attended mostly white schools.2 Details of his family’s social status, Catholicism, and Creole ancestry appear in Motley’s earliest works, such as “Portrait of My Mother” (1919) and “Mending Socks” (1924) – voted the most popular painting in the Newark Museum exhibition Paintings and Watercolors by Living American Artists in 1927. At the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago, Motley received classical training and was influenced by George Bellows, a regionalist painter of the American Ashcan school.3 Motley embraced this “folk” style of white and black artists in his later street scenes and compositions.

Motley’s early studies of mixed-race women explore the variability of racial features. His prize-winning “The Octoroon Girl” (1928) portrays a woman of 1/8th African ancestry with an ambiguous skin tone and dignified attire, showing how class and color intersected within African American communities.4 Motley’s training at the Institute gave him opportunities to exhibit these and other works and gain a public recognition for them that was hard to come by for black artists in the United States’ segregated art system. In 1928, with the help of Institute director Robert B. Harshe, Motley became the second African American artist to earn a solo exhibition.5 Following the show’s success in New York, Motley received a Guggenheim fellowship to study in Paris for a year. Paintings such as Blues (1929) are from this period. They portray jazz clubs and cabarets where ethnically diverse couples of cosmopolitan Parisians dance in harmony.6

When Motley returned to the United States, he dove into Chicago’s vibrant nightlife. For his famous Bronzeville series, Motley painted pedestrians and public gatherings, nightclubs and cabarets, pool rooms and gambling dens.7 For some, these stylized depictions helped dissolve stereotypes about blackness, showcasing the heterogeneity of black culture and the diversity of black communities. But other viewers saw Motley’s “urban types” more as “tropes” drawing on historical caricatures of the “Old Negro.”8 They pointed to figures with exaggerated facial features or faces blurred altogether (as seen in “The Argument” from 1940), or to spectacles of black religious worship, seen in (“Tongues (Holy Rollers)” from 1929).9 Throughout his career, Motley answered these contradictory readings of his work by asserting a genuine intent to convey the range of possibilities for blackness.10 His paintings aimed to unpack the nuances of experience and perspective, and how both are shaped based on where you live, what you look like, and the opportunities you are exposed to – sometimes in surprising combinations.

In Motley’s own career, these factors offered him advantages, such that he was featured in all the important group exhibitions of black artists in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, as well as later exhibitions more focused on recovering black artists’ contributions to American art. He was, for instance, among a select group of black artists honored at the White House in 1980, a year before his death and most recently, in 2014, the Whitney Museum mounted a major retrospective of his work. At the same time, Motley’s story follows broader patterns of exclusion and there were limits to his privilege. Motley’s art pays close attention to this privilege. It acknowledges that race has no singular experience or appearance. He shows race interconnected with class, education, skin color, ancestry, gender, and even religion. In this way, Motley’s approach was a kind of intersectionality before its time.


[2] Jontyle Theresa Robinson, “The Life of Archibald J. Motley Jr” in The Art of Archibald J Motley Jr., eds. Jontyle Theresa Robinson and Wendy Greenhouse (Chicago: Chicago Historical Society, 1991)

[3] Elaine D. Woodall, “Looking Backward: Archibald J. Motley and the Art Institute of Chicago: 1914-1930,” Chicago History: The Magazine of the Chicago Historical Society 8, no. 1 (Spring 1979): 53-57

[4] Amy M Mooney, Archibald J Motley Jr. (The David C Driskell series of African American art: v. 4) (San Francisco: Pomegranate, 2004); Cécile Whiting, “More Than Meets the Eye: Archibald Motley and Debates on Race in Art,” Prospects 26 (2001): 465–67.

[5] Robert A. Bone and Richard Courage, The Muse in Bronzeville: African American Creative Expression in Chicago, 1932-1950 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2011)

[6] Theresa Leininger-Miller, New Negro Artists in Paris: African American Painters and Sculptors in the City of Light, 1922-1934 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001)

[7] Richard J Powell, “Archibald Motley,” in To Conserve a Legacy: American Art From Historically Black Colleges and Universities (Andover, Mass.: Addison Gallery of American Art, 1999)

[8] Phoebe Wolfskill, Archibald Motley Jr and Racial Reinvention: The Old Negro in New Negro Art (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2017)

[9] Richard J Powell, “Becoming Motley, Becoming Modern,” in Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist (Durham: Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, 2014)

[10] “Autobiography,” n.d. Archibald J Motley Jr Papers, Archives and Manuscript Collection, Chicago Historical Society; Oral history interview with Dennis Barrie, 1978, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution: https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-archibald-motley-11466

Object Overview By C. Cholish

Black Belt

Archibald J. Motley Jr. (1891-1981). Black Belt, 1934. Oil on canvas, 33 x 40.5 inches (83.8 x 102.9 cm). Collection of the Hampton University Museum, Hampton, Virginia. ©Valerie Gerrard Browne / Chicago History Museum / Bridgeman Images

Black Belt is Motley’s first painting in his signature series about Chicago's historically black Bronzeville neighborhood. Cinematic, humorous, and larger than life, Motley’s painting portrays black urban life in all its density and diversity, color and motion.2

Black Belt fuses the artist’s memory with historical fact. In this composition, Motley explained, he cast a “great variety of Negro characters.”3 The scene unfolds as a stylized distribution of shapes and gestures, with people from across the social and economic spectrum: a white-gloved policeman and friend of Motley’s father;4 a newsboy; fashionable women escorted by dapper men; a curvaceous woman carrying groceries. Beside a drug store with taxi out front, the Drop Inn Hotel serves dinner. These details, Motley later said, are the clues that attune you to the very time and place.5 Meanwhile, the ground and sky fade away to empty space — the rest of the city doesn't matter.6

Capturing twilight was Motley’s first priority for the painting.7 Motley varies the hue and intensity of his colors to express the play of light between the moon, streetlights, and softly glowing windows. The Harmon Foundation purchased "Black Belt" in the 1930s, and sent it to Baltimore for the 1939 Contemporary Negro Art exhibition. At the time white scholars and local newspaper critics wrote that the bright colors of Motley’s Bronzeville paintings made them “lurid” and “grotesque,” all while praising them as a faithful account of black culture.8 In a similar vein, African-American critic Alain Locke singled out "Black Belt" for being an example of a truly democratic art that showed the full range of culture and experience in America.9

For the next several decades, works from Motley’s Bronzeville series were included in multiple exhibitions about regional artists, and in every major exhibition of African American artists.10 Indeed, Archibald Motley was one of several black artists with consistently strong name recognition in the mainstream, predominantly white, art world, even though that name recognition did not necessarily translate financially.11

The success of Black Belt certainly came in part from the fact that it spoke to a certain conception of black art that had a lot of currency in the twentieth century. At the same time, the painting defies easy classification. Critics have strived, and failed, to place the painting in a single genre. Is it first an artifact of the Harlem Renaissance and the New Negro? Or is it more aligned with the mainstream, white, Ashcan turn towards the conditions of ordinary life?12 Must it be one or the other? Locke described the painting’s humor as “Rabelasian” in 1939 and scholars today argue for the influence of French painter Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and his flamboyant, full-skirt scenes of cabarets in Belle Époque Paris.13

Today, the painting has a permanent home at Hampton University Art Gallery, an historically black university and the nation’s oldest collection of artworks by black artists.


[2] David Baldwin, “Beyond Documentation: Davarian Baldwin on Archibald Motley’s Gettin’ Religion,” Whitney Museum of American Art, March 11, 2016, https://whitney.org/WhitneyStories/ArchibaldMotleyInTheWhitneysCollection

[3] Motley, “How I Solve My Painting Problems,” n.d. Harmon Foundation Archives, 2.

[4] Archival information provided in endnote #69, page 31 of Jontyle Theresa Robinson, “The Life of Archibald J. Motley Jr” in The Art of Archibald J Motley Jr., eds. Jontyle Theresa Robinson and Wendy Greenhouse (Chicago: Chicago Historical Society, 1991)

[5] Oral history interview with Dennis Barrie, 1978, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution: https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-archibald-motley-11466

[6] Baldwin, “Beyond Documentation: Davarian Baldwin on Archibald Motley’s Gettin’ Religion,” 2016

[7] “How I Solve My Painting Problems,” n.d.

[8] Richard J Powell, “Becoming Motley, Becoming Modern,” in Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist (Durham: Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, 2014), 138.

[9] Alain Locke, Negro Art Past and Present, 1933

[10] Foreword to Contemporary Negro Art, 1939

[11] “Black Belt” for instance returned to the BMA in 1987 for Hidden Heritage: Afro-American Art, 1800-1950, a survey of historically underrepresented artists.

[12] Mary Ann Calo, Distinction and Denial: Race, Nation, and the Critical Construction of the African American Artist, 1920-40 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007)

[13] Samella Lewis, Art: African American (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), 75.

[14] Yolanda Perdomo, “Art found inspiration in South Side jazz clubs,” WBEZ Chicago, August 14, 2015, https://www.wbez.org/shows/wbez-news/artist-found-inspiration-in-south-side-jazz-clubs/86840ab6-41c7-4f63-addf-a8d568ef2453

Artist Profile By Y. Dou

Elton Clay Fax

Elton Fax, Self Portrait.

Elton Clay Fax was an award-winning illustrator, writer, painter, educator and cartoonist who received many awards throughout his career, including a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship (in 1976) and a Chancellor's Medal from Syracuse University (in 1990).

Born on October 9, 1909, in Baltimore, Maryland, Elton Clay Fax was the son of Mark Oakland Fax, a clerk, and Willie Estelle Fax, a seamstress. After graduating from college, Fax began to emerge as a budding young artist around Baltimore, winning a gold medal from the Baltimore Women’s Cooperative Civic League in 1932. In 1935, Elton Fax taught art classes at Claflin College but soon left to work for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in New York City. There he studied with Augusta Savage, who had been teaching art in Harlem since 1929 and was a mentor to Norman Lewis, William Artis, Ernest Crichlow and Robert Blackburn among others. Later, he served as a faculty member at Harlem Community Center (HCAC) alongside artists Henry Mike Bannarn, George Barina, Selma Burke, Sargent Johnson, Riva Helfond, Norman Lewis, and Vlaclav Vytlacil. He had also taught at the City College in New York and held residencies at Purdue University, Princeton University, Fisk University, Western Michigan University, University of Hartford, and Texas Southern University.

In 1940, he became a freelancer and illustrated for magazines, children’s books and so on. He simultaneously started performing chalk-talks for the New York Times Children’s Book Program and producing a weekly series comic strip called Susabelle.

In 1959, Fax made his first trip to West Africa as a participant in the United States’ Educational Exchange Program, along with John Biggers and Henry Ossawa Tanner. In the following decades, Fax would continue to travel around the world, giving chalk-talks and documenting what he saw in places like Ethiopia, Nigeria and Northern Sudan. The theme for his lectures was often based on political topics connected to civil rights activism in the United States. From 1971 to 1973, Fax was a guest of the Soviet Writers’ Union and in 1982, when he was a guest of the Bulgarian Writers’ Conference, he shared a platform with celebrities such as John Cheever, William Saroyan, and Gore Vidal.

His work has been exhibited in many museums, including the National Gallery of Art and Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Kerlan Collection, University of Minnesota; and National Museum, Tashkent, Uzbekistan. He has also published many books about the African-American experience. Seventeen Black Artists (1971) won the Coretta Scott King Award. Garvey (1972) is a biography of the black nationalist Marcus Garvey, best known for his declaration: "Africa for the Africans." Through Black Eyes (1974) details his journeys to East Africa and the U.S.S.R. Fax is listed in “Who’s Who in American Art;” “Who’s Who in the East,” and Roslyn Walker’s “A Resource Guide to the Visual Arts of Afro-Americans.”

Elton Fax passed away on May 13, 1993, in Queens, New York.

Object Overview By Y. Dou

Steel Worker

Elton Fax, Steel Worker, 1939.

Elton Clay Fax exhibited three paintings and two drawings at the Baltimore Museum of Art in the 1939. Alain Locke chose to reproduce Fax’s “Coal Hoppers” in the exhibition’s catalog and singled out Fax’s self-portrait as the artist’s strongest piece in a review of the exhibition which he published in Opportunity Magazine.

Fax’s paintings from the show, including “Steel Worker,” portrayed industrial scenes. He created them while working for the WPA Federal Art Project in New York City. Although researchers tend to focus on other black artists’ promotion of black workers as heroic subjects – artists like Dox Thrash (1893-1965), James Lesesne Wells (1902-1993), Charles White (1917-1979), and Ellis Wilson (1899-1977) – “Steel Worker” stands out for the individuality and confidence of its subject. Fax depicts him from below, with powerful crossed arms and squared shoulders. The worker is at ease in his crisp shirt, goggles and welding helmet. Behind him a steel beam becomes almost like a second face or mask that echoes the worker’s expression.

Artist Profile By L. Milano

Lois Mailou Jones

Lois Jones, artist and teacher, 1936/1937. National Archives and Records Administration. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As a black female painter, Lois Mailou Jones (1905-1998) was well aware of the upward battle facing her in order to succeed in the art world. Born in Boston, Jones grew up in a building supervised by her father. After attending night school to get his law degree, however, Mr. Jones switched career paths, for which Jones credits him as a major inspiration for her own work ethic.1 The Jones family vacationed at Oak’s Bluff in Martha’s Vineyard, a place that Jones praised for its inclusivity and enthusiasm for its resident artists. Inspired by the nature, Jones would paint watercolors of the island.2 Her parents, supportive of their daughter’s creativity, sent her to an arts high school and to extracurricular arts classes at the Museum of Fine Arts. Jones then received a full scholarship to the Museum School where she majored in design. Right out of school, Jones began a successful career in the textile design industry.

Following Jones’ immediate career boom, she experienced two events that would shape her outlook on her career and lead her to join Howard University’s art department in 1930.3 The first was a visit to a design firm where Jones saw a print of hers, Ganges, upholstered on their furniture. When she showed the head designer this print in her portfolio, he was so surprised that he called down all of his colleagues to look at this “colored girl” who had designed the Ganges fabric.4 This experience was an early wakeup call to Jones that her racial identity, whether she liked it or not, would impact her career. She also became aware of the limitations of the design world, namely its anonymity.5 This prompted Jones to leave textile design in favor of painting, hoping that high art would bring her name recognition.6 However, when Jones approached her alma mater of the Museum School asking for a teaching position in fine art, they turned her down and instead suggested that she “go down South and help [her] people.”7 Rejected from her hometown, Jones did indeed head south to Howard. Despite the circumstances, Jones enjoyed a successful teaching career and artistic success while at Howard, traveled to Europe and Asia with students, while also keeping in dialogue with many important black cultural advocates.8 Jones’ art always gravitated to the styles of Post-Impressionism and early Modernism, but her work went through multiple phases of heavy African diasporic influence, most notably from Haitian culture.9

However, Jones did not want her identity to affect the public’s reading of her artwork. Seeing how she was put on spectacle and ghettoized early in her career, Jones’ concern was that her artistic merit would be ignored. She refused to be hindered by her race or gender, and thus obsessively managed her public persona. Friend and writer Tritobia Hayes Benjamin said of Jones, “Lois was the quintessential self-publicist… She had every newspaper, report, and other documentation relating to her career and its development.”10 By keeping all public records of herself and her art, Jones knew exactly how the media was reading her and how to present herself to curators, collectors, journalists, and so forth. Jones also refused to deliver her artwork to galleries herself, or even accept awards in public. Instead, she would have one of her white friends do it for her.11 Jones defended her right to remain faceless, saying, “I felt it was better to get as strong as possible before I let them know that Lois Jones was Black.”12 Jones had a vision of how she should appear to the public and tried everything in her power to maintain that vision.

Such control undoubtedly helped Jones advance her career. However, in order for Jones to receive the level of success that she desired, she had to maintain a certain degree of anonymity. Jones regretted that she had to prove herself as an artist and had to fight against the modifiers “African American” or “female.” With careful control over her public image, however, Jones fought against classification and lifted herself into the world of high art.

1 Benjamin, Tritobia H. The Life and Art of Loïs Mailou Jones. Pomegranate Artbooks, 1994. Page 5.

2 Kirschke. Women Artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Page 188.

3 Kirschke. Women Artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Page 189.

4 Benjamin. The Life and Art of Loïs Mailou Jones. Page 7.

5 Jones, Lois Mailou. Lois Mailou Jones: A Life in Vibrant Color. The Mint Museum, 2010. Page 41.

6 Kirschke. Women Artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Page 184.

7 Kirschke. Women Artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Page 186.

8 Driskell, David C. “Lois Mailou Jones (1905-1988).” American Art, Vol. 12, No. 3, 1998, Page 87.

9 Benjamin. The Life and Art of Loïs Mailou Jones. Page 111.

10 Jones. A Life in Vibrant Color. Page 78.

11 Benjamin. The Life and Art of Loïs Mailou Jones. Page 49.

12 Coblyn. “Social Mirroring”: Nine African American Artists Reflect on Their Origins Through In-Depth Interviews. Page 278.

Object Overview By L. Milano

Quarry on the Hudson

Lois Jones, artist at work, 1936/1937. National Archives and Records Administration. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“Quarry on the Hudson” is an enigma. No images or record of the work have surfaced beyond its listing in the catalog for the Baltimore Museum's 1939 exhibition.

Jones created an etching with the same title around the same time, but there is no way to know if the two works are connected.1 Etching would be a more unusual choice for Lois Jones than watercolor, which she taught at Howard University for her entire tenure there. Although Jones struggled with the fact that many critics dismissed watercolor as a feminine art form,2 she remained passionate about the medium. Part of watercolor’s appeal for Jones and other masters of the medium is its suitability for plein air painting and ability to render light.3

Jones' landscapes span from renderings of sites near her family's Martha’s Vineyard vacation home to depictions of the French countryside.4 They tend not to receive nearly the same level of attention as works featuring African motifs such as “Les Fétiches” (1938) or one of her portraits of Alain Locke.5 Those paintings pop up in many publications on Lois Mailou Jones, whereas a watercolor landscape like “Quarry on the Hudson” has no face.

The disappearance of “Quarry on the Hudson” is symptomatic of the sociocultural pressures put upon Jones. She was rejected from the American fine art institutions in Boston early in her career, instead told to go south to work for "her people" in black institutions.6 At Howard University, Jones received much creative support from her contemporaries and yet in that environment, she was restricted to being an African American artist, and not simply an American Artist.7 By the cultural standards of the time, a black female painter made no sense in the realm of American landscape painting.

“Quarry on the Hudson” comes from an early moment in Jones’ career. She would later turn more to black subjects in America and Haiti, only coming back to painting to landscapes after the death of her husband.8

[1] “Lois Mailou Jones | Quarry on the Hudson | The Met.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, i.e. The Met Museum, http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/491363.

[2] Driskell, David C. “Lois Mailou Jones (1905-1988).” American Art, Vol. 12, No. 3, 1998, Page 87

[3] Laduke, Betty. “Lois Mailou Jones: The Grande Dame of African-American Art.” Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 8 No. 2, 1987-1988, page 28.

[4] Kirschke. Women Artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Page 188.

[5] Benjamin. The Life and Art of Loïs Mailou Jones. Page XV.

[6] Rowell. “An Interview with Lois Mailou Jones.” Page 361.

[7] Jones. Lois Mailou Jones: A Life in Vibrant Color. The Mint Museum, 2010. Page 82.

[8] Jones. Lois Mailou Jones: A Life in Vibrant Color. Page 26.

Artist Profile By Y. Dou

Robert Hamilton Blackburn

Chaim Koppelman, Robert Blackburn, Thomas Laidman and others in the workshop, June 18, 1959. By Ldienes [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Robert Hamilton Blackburn (1920-2003) was the leading lithographer of his generation. His artistic soul and evolutionary process is most apparent in this medium. Despite his innovative and virtuosic prints, however, art-history tends to neglect Blackburn’s oeuvre1.

Blackburn grew up in Harlem’s artistic community, which at the time afforded Black artists significantly more opportunities than many places in the United States. There Blackburn participated in the Harlem Arts Workshop (HAW), the artistic salon “306”, the Arts and Crafts program at the Harlem YMCA, the federally funded Harlem Community Art Center (HCAC) and the Uptown Art Laboratory. He benefitted from the mentorship of Charles Alston, Augusta Savage, and James Lesesne Wells and built an extensive professional network that included such well-known figures as Romare Bearden, Ernest Crichlow, Roy DeCarava, and Jacob Lawrence. A prolific artist even as a student, Blackburn won acclaim early in his career, receiving three top prizes at HCAC, as well as the John Wanamaker Medal in 1936 and the prestigious Spingarn Award in 1937. He earned praise from the mainstream (read: white) newspaper the New York Times as well as from the Black cultural critics Alain Locke and James Porter.

His most recognized legacy, however, is the Printmaking Workshop he opened with Will Barnet in the late 40s. Run as a cooperative, the workshop gave artists access to training, the space and technical support to experiment with printmaking processes, and it encouraged innovative approaches to a medium that was slowly gaining recognition and acceptance as a major art form. The Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop had a liberal structure that served as a welcoming hub to people of all backgrounds. It was always full of notable artists and students and had a major impact on American art. The Workshop’s contributions extend to the preservation of Black arts. Many works on paper by Black artists currently in American art museums (including the Baltimore Museum of Art) are later prints that Blackburn prepared of his colleagues’ earlier work.

Blackburn often focused on the Workshop and its artists during interviews. He seemed almost reluctant at times to put forward his own art. This may explain, in part, why his art has not yet received the historical recognition it deserves. But Blackburn is a pivotal figure in the history of art on many grounds: for his community work, his advocacy for and support of people from diverse cultural backgrounds, and his creativity.

[1] For instance, Blackburn is not even mentioned in Riva Castleman’s Standard Print of the 20th Century.

Object Overview By Y. Dou


Robert Blackburn. Woodscape. 1984. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of the Joshua Johnson Council in Honor of the 100th Anniversary of The Baltimore Museum of Art; and Print, Drawing, and Photograph Society Fund, with proceeds derived from the 2012 Contemporary Print Fair, BMA 2014.90. © The Estate of Robert Blackburn. Used with permission. Photo by Mitro Hood

Robert Blackburn started making woodcuts in the late 1960s. It is one of the many printmaking media he explored in innovative ways throughout his career. Blackburn particularly enjoyed iterative experimentation and pushing the creative possibilities of both form and material. Woodscape, from 1984, is a mature example of his approach. Blackburn probably used three woodblocks to create this piece. On one of them, he raised the wood grain in select areas. The effect is of textured crimson zones set over clean grays and framed by deep black accents. The title “Woodscape” draws attention to that and plays off the idea of landscape. It suggests that a representational intention grounds the picture’s abstraction.

“Woodscape” is one of three Blackburn prints owned by the Baltimore Museum of Art. All entered the collection on the occasion of the museum’s centennial in 2014, purchased as gifts, respectively, of Mark and Lorraine Schapiro and the Joshua Johnson Council, an African American museum support group. The pieces’ abstract style differs considerably from the four figurative lithographs a young Blackburn exhibited in Contemporary Negro Art. Blackburn abandoned figuration entirely by the mid-1950s, and that choice, along with his commitment to the Universal Limited Art Editions (1957-1963) and the fame of his printmaking workshop, has contributed to this master printer being less publicly known than some of his contemporaries.

Artist Profile By D. Murray

Jacob Lawrence

Jacob Lawrence, c. 1941. National Archives and Records Administration, Harmon Foundation Collection

Jacob Lawrence was born in 1917 in Atlantic City, moving with his family to Harlem in 1930. There he came into contact with artists such as Augusta Savage, Norman Lewis, and Charles Alston – whose WPA studio provided the staging ground for Lawrence to learn about and practice art. His time in the critical eye began shortly after, with a 1935 group exhibition at the Alston-Bannarn Studios in New York City. By the time he died, in early June of 2000, Lawrence had been active for over 65 years.

For much of that time, he had the attention of the art critical, and art historical, world. To be sure, there were dips and swells of interest: his career really took off in 1941, when The Migration Series was displayed in New York City’s Downtown Gallery. There was a resurgence of interest in his work in the 1980s. In many ways Jacob Lawrence – as a modernist painter, as an artist with a socially interested bent, and as a visual storyteller – got his due.

But Lawrence is not just an artist with an interest in the history of African American historical figures. In fact, he is not just interested in furthering public knowledge of African American historical figures either. In many ways, Jacob Lawrence is trying to show through his historical series (such as the Toussaint L’Ouverture series, the Harriet Tubman series, the John Brown series, the Frederick Douglass series, and Struggle – From the History of the American People) that African-American history is an essential part of American history.

Object Overview

Toussaint L'Ouverture series

Gallery, Contemporary Negro Art exhibition, The Baltimore Museum of Art, 1939. Archives and Manuscripts Collections, The Baltimore Museum of Art. AN6.44

Between 1936 and 1938, Jacob Lawrence produced forty-one intimately-scaled tempera paintings about General Toussaint L’Ouverture, the enslaved leader of the Haitian independence movement. This was the first of Lawrence’s many painted historical series, for which he usually composed descriptive captions to help explain the narrative. Number 20 in the L'Ouverture series shares: "General Toussaint L’Ouverture, Statesman and military genius, esteemed by the Spaniards, feared by the English, dreaded by the French, hated by the planters, and reverenced by the Blacks." Number 36 states: "During the truce Toussaint is deceived and arrested by LeClerc. LeClerc led Toussaint to believe that he was sincere, believing that when Toussaint was out of the way, the Blacks would surrender." Number 41 articulates "Desalines was crowned Emperor October 4, 1804, thus: Jean Jacques the First of Haiti. Desalines, standing beside a broken chain, was dictator - as opposed to Toussaint's more liberal leadership."

The Life of Toussaint L'Ouverture was prominently featured in the BMA's 1939 exhibit - filling an entire gallery and garnering much public attention. It opens with Christopher Columbus landing in Haiti in the fifteenth century and delves into Haiti's colonial history, including the mistreatment of Africans on the island. By panel seven Lawrence turns to L'Ouverture's birth, education and struggle to liberate Haiti from the Spanish and French. The series culminates in L'Ouverture's capture and death as a prisoner of war in 1803, with the final panel showing Haiti finally declaring its independence. Scholar Lindsay J. Twa argues that for his 1930s audience, The Life of Toussaint L'Ouverture claimed Toussaint and Haiti's history as a part of a shared black experience.2 In creating this body of work, Lawrence launched a research-based artistic practice and process of serial painting to which he would regularly return, including in the work that would make him an overnight sensation in 1941, The Migration Series.

The Toussaint L'Ouverture series remained important to Lawrence throughout his career. He revisited the paintings in 1986, working with printmaker Lou Stovall to select and translate fifteen of the paintings into silkscreen prints. Many of those prints have found homes in public collections, including the National Gallery of Art. The original paintings are at the Amistad Research Center.

1 Harmon Foundation Biographical Sketch," November 12, 1940, p. 2. American Art Archives, Artist Notebooks, Lawrence, reel 5577.

2 Lindsay J. Twa, Visualizing Haiti in US Culture, 1910-1950 (Florence: Taylor and Francis, 2014), p. 159.

Other Sources

Greene, Caroll. Interview with Jacob Lawrence. Smithsonian Archives of American Art. 10 Oct. 1968. Hills, Patricia. Painting Harlem Modern. University of California Press, 2009.

“The Life of Toussaint L'Overture.” The Phillips Collection, The Phillips Collection, 7 Jan. 2017

Artist Archibald Motley Jr.

Black Belt By Archibald Motley Jr.

Artist Elton Clay Fax

Steel Worker By Elton Clay Fax

Artist Lois Mailou Jones

Quarry on the Hudson By Lois Mailou Jones

Artist Robert Hamilton Blackburn

Woodscape By Robert Hamilton Blackburn

Artist Jacob Lawrence

The Life of Toussaint L'Overture By Jacob Lawrence