Jones, Lois Mailou 1905–

views updated May 21 2018

Lois Mailou Jones 1905

At a Glance

Taught Art

To Paris and Back

Discovered Culture of Haiti

Selected works


Painter, educator

In 1937, Lois Jones was where many young American painters of the time thought it essential to beParis. She was already a respected educator at Howard University in Washington, D.C., before she received the fellowship money she needed to travel overseas. A fervent admirer of Cezanne, Jones went to Paris to study European styles of art such as impressionism and cubism, to ground her work more fully in the classical tradition; but something else happened thereshe discovered her African heritage.

Jones felt a sense of freedom upon entering a city where racism still existed to be sure, but not in the intense, open way it did in the United States. Beyond that, Paris was at that time in a fever about Africa, as Jones put it. With African art exhibited bountifully around the city, Jones began to acquire an education in the traditions of black art, which she had not been able to receive in the States. It led to her painting,Les Fetiches,a painting of African masks done in a modernistic style. It became one of the most important American paintings of the first half of the twentieth century, as it introduced the use of African themes and imagery to classically trained American painters.

Lois Jones credited her drive and ambition to her father who was supporting his family as a building superintendent when she was born. He was also taking classes at law school at night. He received his law degree ten years after her birth when he turned 40. On the other hand, Joness artistic inclination must have come in large part from her mother, a beautician who kept their house beautifully adorned at all times with perhaps the same bright colors that would later figure in some of her daughters work.

Young Lois knew what she wanted to do and attended a high school for the practical arts. Imitating her father, she started a pattern she would continue to follow and took extra classes on the side, this time in drawing at the Boston Museum. During her high school years, she also assisted the costume designer Grace Ripley in making costumes for a dancing company in Boston. Jones told Titobia Benjamin in an interview inEbony that the masks she made for these dances were in a sense her first brush with African art.

As Jones had received her high school education on scholarship, she was admitted to the Boston Museum

At a Glance

Bom November 3, 1905, in Boston, MA; daugh ter of Thomas Vreeiand and Carolyn Dorinda (Adams) Jones. Married Louis Vergniaud Pierre-Nobel, 1953.Education: Boston Museum School of Fine Art, diploma, 1927; Boston Normal Art School, teaching certificate, 1928; Howard University, A.B., 1945. Attended Designers Art School, 1928 and Académie Julien, Paris, 1938.

Palmer Memorial Institute, teacher 1928-30; Howard University, art instructor, 1930-45, professor, 1945-77, professor emeritus, 1977.

Selected collections: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC; Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC; Corcoran Gallery, Washington, DC; National Museum of American Art, Washington, DC; National Womens Museum of Art, Washington, DC.

Selected awards: Honorary Degrees from Howard University and Colorado State Christian College; Robert Woods Bliss Award, 1941; First Place, National Museum of Art Competition, 1949, 1953, 1964; First place, Luban Watercolor Award, 1958; Franz Bader Award, 1962; Alumni Award of Howard University, 1978; Candace Award of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1982; Womens Caucus Honor Award for Outstanding Achievement in Art, 1986.

Addresses: Office 4706 17th Street NW, Washington, DC 20011.

School of Fine Arts program on the basis of winning the highly contested Susan Minot Lane Scholarship in Design. Her teachers there included Alice Morse and Anson Cross. She was one of the first blacks to graduate from that institution, adding to that degree a teaching certificate in art, which she earned concurrently at the Boston Normal Art School. Ludwig Frank, an internationally known designer, was teaching at yet another art school, the Designers Art School of Boston. Joness work came to Franks attention, and he secured her a scholarship to study with him. Her work in design enabled her to support herself for the next few years creating patterns for curtains and upholstery.

Taught Art

Despite going on to study at Harvard and Columbia, Jones was disappointed when she was told that there would be no position open for her at the same Museum School at which she had thrived as a student. Henry Hunt Clark suggested instead that she look for a position in the South where she could help her people. Jones applied to Howard University, but she was a little late and James A. Porter, who would later write insightfully about her work, had already been awarded a position in the Art Department. No other teaching jobs were open, so Jones decided to take Clarks advice and head south.

One of her teachers at the Museum School, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, found her a job at the Palmer Memorial Institute, one of the first black college prep schools in the nation, as the head of the art department. As many other eager, young prep teachers have had to do both before and since, Jones also had to coach athletics and lead extra curricular activities such as dance. In her position as a chair of Palmers art department, she invited the chair of Howard Universitys art department down to speak to her students. James Vernon Herrin, who was also the founder of Howards art program, saw immediately that she was drawing out an unusually high level of achievement from her students.

Herrin invited to Jones to teach art at Howard. She would remain there until her retirement as a teacher in 1977. Her students found her a demanding teacher who could be critical of their work and did not mind letting the class see her displeasure. One student who exhibited in a 1995 Howard University show of Joness and her most distinguished students work recalled: Your work would be criticized in front of the class, and she could be really brutal. I remember being very angry and hurt But when you met her standards, when you progressed, she loved you like a mother. Joness technique must have worked. Students of her students who went on to distinguished art careers include David Driskell, Alma Thomas, Elizabeth Catlett, and Sylvia Snowden. Not as well known outside of his field was Edward T. Wellborn, who took design classes with her and went on to become chief designer for Oldsmobile.

To Paris and Back

At the end of seven years, college educators are usually awarded a sabbatical, or time off from teaching. The instructors are expected to use the time to travel, work on research, or write. In 1937, Jones won a fellowship to go to Paris on her sabbatical. There, she came to the attention of Emile Bernard, an important French painter of strange paintings with elusive meanings; but it was also here that she began to draw upon her own heritage in her work. Paradoxically, she arrived in Paris more of a French painter than when she left. She got there and started painting traditional street scenes of the beautiful boulevards, but in a city that accepted those of African descent easily and appreciated African art, she began to realize the immense value of her own artistic traditions.

Black American folk artists had kept the heritage alive continuously since arriving on slave ships; but once African American artists became classically trained, they tended to denigrate the value of their own tradition. It was Jones who reversed this trend, and it was her time in Paris that gave her the confidence to create work recognizably influenced by African art. At the end of her time in Paris, she exhibited her ground-breaking painting,Les Fetiches.Perhaps her first masterpiece,Les Fetiches now hangs in the National Museum of American Art.

On her return to the United States, Jones had her first big solo show at the Robert Vose Galleries in Boston. It was critically acclaimed and led to one exhibition after another in a stream that continued throughout the 1940s. Jones also experienced racism with the white art establishment, but she found ways around the prejudice. She entered and won the Corcoran Galley Robert Woods Bliss Competition, which was closed to blacks, by having a white friend drop off and pick up her work. The white friend also accepted the award, so it was not until two years later that she claimed the proper credit for her painting,Indian Shops, Gay Head.She also took another degree, this one an A.B. in art education from Howard and graduated magna cum laude.

Dealing with such tight strictures of racism after the freedom of Paris, Jones brought to her work a new social awareness that was displayed in works such as MobVictim,a piece in which she used as a model a witness to a lynching. Soon after her return, she also met Alain Locke, who along with Langston Hughes, was the most visible poet of the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance, which was sometimes called the New Negro Movement, was a center of black cultural identity. Of course the new direction in Joness painting toward her own heritage greatly interested him, and he encouraged her to deal not only with her African cultural heritage but also with the social and racial injustices of her society. Jones would later refer to her work of the 1940s as her Locke Period.

Discovered Culture of Haiti

In 1953 Jones inaugurated a new phase of her life both socially and artistically when she married the Haitian graphic designer, Louis Vergniaud Pierre-Noel. They honeymooned in Haiti, and Jones fell in love with the people and the activity of the market. Cubist elements remained in her work, but her work picked up a new sense of freedom, and she became bolder with color. In Haiti she found exuberance and expressed it in her art in works such asPeasants on Parade,which she produced about ten years after she first saw Haiti.

Joness husband worked as a designer for the World Health Organization of the United Nations, and she frequently traveled with him. Still, of all the cultures she had witnessed closely, Haitis culture continued to influence her most. In the 1970s, she was still producing paintings such as her highly acclaimed,Ubi Girl from the Tai Region,which now hangs in the Boston Museum of Fine Artsa school she once attended but one at which she could not secure a teaching assistantship.

In 1969, Howard University gave Jones a grant to go to Africa to photograph and archive the work of contemporary artists. She returned with more than 1,000 slides for Howards library. Perhaps the trip to Africa gave her work a further push as she continued to combine a clean line and decorative elements with a brightly colored tendency toward abstraction. In the 1970s, the art world began to acknowledge the impact and importance of her art. Retrospectives of her work were held at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and at the Howard University Gallery. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter presented her with an award of international recognition. Further retrospectives have followed in the 1980s and 1990s. In the 1990s, her art was used in the poster for the motion picture,Cry, the Beloved Country.

However, just as Lois Jones has begun to achieve the recognition she deserves in the wider art world, the art world is becoming segregated againthis time by choice, not by force. Numerous black artists have begun calling for separatism, because they believe that whites cannot understand or appreciate the basis of their art. Jones is adamant in standing against this attitude. She told aWashington Post reporter in 1995, Artists from different races and cultures dont make the effort to get know each other like they used to The ignorance of not getting together is terrible.

Jones stated that the media also gives black artists short shrift when it comes to actually affording them attention. She noted that her own exhibits draw predominantly black audiences. Whites either do not know or ignore her work. This does not change her hope that African American art will always be part of American art I dont want it to be viewed as something separate [I dont want to be] separated from my colleagues, and by that I mean other artists. There is a connection. Art can help to strengthen that connection.

Selected works

Les Fetiches,1938.

Indian Shops, Gay Head,1941.

Mob Victim,1944.

Ville dHoudain,1949.

Peasants on Parade,1962.

Vendeuses de Tissus,1964.

Ubi Girl from the Tai Region,1972.

Le Chien Sophistique,1994.



Hine, Darlene Clark, editor,Black Women in America,Carlson Publishing, 1993, pp. 649-652.

Salem, Dorothy C, editor,African American Women,Garland Publishing, 1993, pp. 288-291.


Washington Post,December 26, 1995, pp. C1, C9.

Jim McDermott

Lois Mailou Jones

views updated May 23 2018

Lois Mailou Jones

Lois Mailou Jones (1905-1998) was a prominent African-American artist in the mid- to late-twentieth century. In addition to teaching at Howard University for several decades, Jones became the first African American to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. As her biographer Tritobia Haves Benjamin told Beth Baker of Ebony, "She is a reflection of the varied facets that represent American art. Just as American art has unfolded, embracing different styles and different cultures, so too has Jones' career."

Jones was born November 3, 1905, in Boston, Massachusetts. She was the daughter of Thomas Vreeland and Carolyn Dorinda (nee Adams) Jones. Her father worked as the superintendent of an office building, in which the family lived when Jones was a child. This proved to be a weird, isolated existence. Jones often played on the roof of the building. At night, Thomas Jones attended Suffolk Law School for nine years, becoming that school's first black graduate at the age of 40. Though he never took the bar exam, Jones saw what it took to succeed.

Carolyn Jones was a beautician, who often went to rich white people's homes to do their hair. Jones would accompany her mother and look at their art. Her mother also designed hats. One of Jones' paintings was inspired by her mother's artful headwear. Jones received further artistic inspiration during her summers at Martha's Vineyard. Every year from the ages of 4 to 17, Jones and her family would stay at her grandmother's home (where she worked for a wealthy family). Later, her parents bought a house there themselves.

Martha's Vineyard proved to be a key to Jones' development as an artist. While she liked to draw from an early age and began experimenting with watercolors at the age of seven, the Vineyard afforded Jones the opportunity to be inspired by the natural landscape. Jones' mother would hang her watercolors on the clothesline and conduct informal art shows of her daughter's work. She met other artists and art administrators. They included Jonas Lie, president of the National Academy of Design. Lie was impressed with her work and offered to help, but died before seeing her portfolio. Jones also met the sculptor Meta Warrick Fuller, who recommended that she study abroad.

As a high school student, Jones' artistic ambitions were encouraged by her teachers. She attended a commercial high school (Boston's High School for the Practical Arts) on scholarship. Jones spent many of her after-school hours working and studying at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. She once took a class in vocational drawing, and would sketch the other artists' work. Jones later told Beth Baker of Ebony, "If I set out to do something, I'm going to do it. I discipline myself. And I love it. I love being an artist." Jones also was an apprentice to Grace Ripley, a dance costume designer. She helped Ripley prepare costumes for the Ted Shawn School of Dance.

Attended Boston Museum of Fine Arts

In 1923, after graduating from high school, Jones received the Susan Minot Lane Scholarship to study at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. She was one of only two black students. Jones excelled at the Museum's school, and won numerous awards. When she graduated with honors in 1927, Jones was disappointed to learn that the museum would not hire her as a teacher. She was told that she should teach other African Americans in the south. Jones continued her education, receiving teacher certification through night classes at the Boston Normal Art School (later known as the Massachusetts College of Art) in 1927. She did graduate work at Boston's Designers Art School and took a class at Harvard University during the summer of 1928.

At this point, most of Jones' artistic energies were focused on textile design. She worked in Boston and was very successful, although it was sometimes necessary to have a white friend submit her work in order to make sales. Jones hoped to be recognized by the public for her work, and textile design was a generally anonymous art form. As she told Tritobia Hayes Benjamin in American Visions, "I wanted my name to go down in history." Therefore, Jones decided to focus on painting.

Jones was hired by the Palmer Memorial Institute, in Sedalia, North Carolina, a new prep school for black students. Jones founded and chaired the art department and created the curriculum. Jones' activities were not limited to art: she also was the dancing teacher, basketball coach, and played the piano for Sunday church. The one to two year-long experience changed her perception of race.

Began Five-Decade Tenure at Howard

In 1930, Jones accepted an offer to teach at Howard University, a primarily African American college located in Washington, D.C. The school had tried to hire her earlier, but Jones chose Palmer instead. The adjustment was a difficult one her. Washington, D.C. was more segregated and openly hostile to blacks than her hometown of Boston. While Jones enjoyed teaching watercolors, design, and drawing, she knew that some art teachers neglected their own work. She did not. Instead, Jones was inspired by and inspirational to her own students. In 1931, she began preparing illustrations for the Negro History Bulletin, which was produced at Howard by historian Carter G. Woodson. After attending a summer course at Columbia in 1934, she made masks for several dance companies.

Influenced by Year in Paris

Jones' direction as a painter was greatly guided by the year she spent in Paris. In 1937-38, she studied at the Academie Julia, on a general education (Rockefeller) fellowship. Jones felt liberated by the lack of racial prejudice. Bart Barnes of the Washington Post quoted her as saying, "Paris really gave me my freedom. I forgot my color. I forgot that I was black." Jones was noticed for her work, which tended towards impressionism and post-impressionism, and garnered much recognition. She exhibited her paintings at the Salon des Artistes Francaise and Societe des Artists Independent. Jones had found it difficult to have her work exhibited in the United States.

African art was very popular in France. She saw numerous exhibitions, which inspired her to produce one of her best known works, 1938's "Les Fetiches." Five African masks were depicted with oils on linen in a modernist/ cubist style. This was one of the first paintings by an African American artist to use African imagery. "Les Fetiches" was later purchased by the National Museum of American Art as part of its permanent collection. Jones would return to Paris each summer until World War II.

When Jones returned to Howard, she tried to improve the university's art department while furthering her own career. Alhough Jones was allowed to exhibit her work at a 1938 show in Boston, she often faced discrimination. She was not permitted to enter a competition at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Arts in 1941, because of her race. Instead, her work "Indian Shops, Gay Head" was entered under a white friend's name. It won. Two years later, Jones told the truth.

Jones wanted to be recognized in competition, not as a black woman, but as a talented artist. At least one award from the Corcoran was rescinded because of her race. A similar event happened when she entered a watercolor in competition at the Smithsonian. Although an expert selected her work for first price, she later discovered that the jury rejected his choice because of her race. Because of these incidents, Jones would often send her work to competitions out of town, so that her race would not be known.

Finishes "Mob Victim"

Although Jones was interested in both black and European-inspired art, she was encouraged to produce work that was relevant to the African and African-American experience. Jones did so, but often in an impressionistic manner. Her 1944 painting "Mob Victim" (also known as "Mediation") made a particularly strong statement. The painting depicted an African-American man about to be lynched, calmly awaiting his fate. It won first honorable mention for oils at a competition in Paris.

In 1953, Jones married Vergniaud Pierre-Noel, a Haitian artist and graphic designer who worked for the United Nations' World Health Organization. Her husband and his native country, which she began to visit annually, greatly influenced her style. Jones gradually moved away from impressionism. Her paintings became more individual, spirited, fresh, and fluid. She began using more geometric forms and colors.

By the 1960s, many student radicals at Howard regarded Jones as part of the establishment. She, however, remained sympathetic to their cause and tried to build bridges between generations. In 1963, she produced "Challenge America," a collage based on sketches made at the 1963 March on Washington. It brought together disparate influences of African-American history with African tribal roots. In the late 1960s, Jones traveled to 11 African countries with a grant from Howard. The purpose of her trip was to meet African artists and collect more information about their work.

Retired from Teaching

In 1973, Jones became the first African American artist to be given a solo show at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Jones had finally gotten the recognition she deserved. By the time she retired from Howard in 1977, Jones had taught 2500 students, several of whom had gone on to establish successful careers, including David Driskenn and Elizabeth Catlett.

Although Jones retired from teaching, she continued to paint and was encouraged to do so. Jones related a conversation with a Paris-based curator in an article by Jacqueline Trescott of the Washington Post : "the man said, 'not in age, you think young, think of what Picasso could do at the same age.' That was quite encouraging because sometimes you get to a place, where you retire, and you can't go on. I feel I have a lot to say and I can't wait to continue." By 1983, her paintings could be found in 16 of the most prestigious museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Corcoran Gallery, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

In the 1990s, Jones received more recognition. Many leading museums and galleries held retrospective exhibits of her work, including a traveling retrospective, "The World of Lois Mailou Jones." A mainstream audience was exposed to her work in 1995, when she prepared a poster for Cry, the Beloved Country, a film with an African theme.

Jones died of a heart attack on June 9, 1998, in Washington, D.C. As Edmund Gaither, National Center of Afro-American Artists director, told Mike Hughes of the Gannett News Service, Jones was "one of the few figures in American art to achieve a long, exciting and inspiring career, in which there [was] no room for defeat, dullness or trickery."

Further Reading

Adamson, Lynda G., Notable Women in American History: A Guide to Recommended Biographies and Autobiographies, Greenwood Press, 1999.

Bearden, Romare and Harry Henderson, A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present, Pantheon Books, 1993.

Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, edited by Darlene Clark Hine, Carlson Publishing, 1993.

Contemporary Black Biography: Profiles from the International Black Community, edited by Shirelle Phelps, Gale Group, 1995.

American Artist, September 1995.

American Visions, June-July 1993.

Atlanta Journal and Constitution, February 12, 1999.

Boston Globe, October 21, 1992.

Dallas Morning News, February 3, 1997.

Ebony, January 1997.

Gannett News Service, February 17, 1994.

Jet, July 6, 1998.

Negro History Bulletin, April-June 1998.

New York Times, June 13, 1998.

Times-Picayune, August 22, 1997.

Washington Post, March 1, 1978; February 23, 1983; December 26, 1995; June 12, 1998. □