Lois Mailou Jones (1905-1998)
|A Student at Howard, 1947
Watercolor over graphite on off-white wove paper
20 x 14 in.
Bowdoin College Museum of Art
Gift of Eliot O’Hara
Lois Mailou Jones had a long, distinguished career as an artist and art professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Born to educated middle-class parents in Boston, Jones was encouraged from a young age to engage in the arts. At 17, she had her first exhibition in Martha’s Vineyard. Achievements like this earned her a scholarship to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston from 1923 to 1927, making her one of the first African Americans to attend the prestigious art institution.
After graduating from the Museum School, Jones taught briefly at the Palmer Memorial Institute in North Carolina, and then began her 40-year career at Howard University, one of the country’s leading historically black colleges. Inspired by the career of the African American expatriate artist Henry Ossawa Tanner, Jones spent a year in Paris in 1937. There she studied at the Academie Julian, embraced the style of Impressionism, and gained the confidence to pursue her goal of becoming a great artist.
A Student at Howard, created in 1947, is a portrait of a young African American man wearing a collared shirt and sports coat. His gaze meets ours directly with a serious expression. Jones applied a palette of brown, dark blue, maroon, and dark greens in thin layers with broad brushstrokes. Her choice of colors emphasizes the student’s brown skin and his black identity.
A Student at Howard, like James Van der Zee’s At Home, Josephine Becton of 1934, deals with the theme of double consciousness. Defined in 1903 by the black sociologist and activist W. E. B. Du Bois, double consciousness is the double view all African Americans experience when they see themselves from within and from without according to the standards of white society. In A Student at Howard, we see a determined African American male who is aware of race because he is always reminded of it. He is also aware that he is educated and that he has the tools necessary to succeed. While Van der Zee emphasizes his subject’s success with her wealthy surroundings, Jones defines her subject against a neutral background; his success derives from his pursuit of higher education. At the time this painting was created, America was still under the shadow of segregation. By making a portrait of a Howard University student using a dark color palette, Jones depicts the intensity, determination, and beauty of the African American student, who, like his fellow white American students, wanted to succeed on his own terms.
For further reading:
Benjamin, Tritobia Hayes. The Life and Art of Lois Mailou Jones, Washington, D.C.: Pomegranate, 1994. Print.
Farrington, Lisa E. Creating Their Own Image: The History of African-American Women Artists. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Print.
Perry, Regenia. Free Within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art. Washington, D.C.: Pomegranate, 1992. Print.
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