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MFA exhibit traces life, artistic legacy of Loïs Mailou Jones

Susan Saccoccia | 1/23/2013, 9:14 a.m.
Loïs Mailou Jones’ “Glyphs,” a 1985 acrylic on canvas on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. MFA

Not only stung, Jones also felt thwarted by the anonymity of textile design. She turned to painting and to support herself, applied for a teaching post at her alma mater. Its director, Henry Hunt Clark, advised her to instead go South and “help her people.”

Jones decided that moving ahead meant moving away. Soon after she began teaching fine arts at Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, N.C., she was recruited by Howard University in Washington, D.C. In 1930, she joined its art department faculty. Almost three decades later, in 1977, she retired as an honored professor emerita.  

“Howard was a crucible for her,” says Davis. “She met the foremost African American intellectuals of the era. Her colleagues were leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance.”

They included African American intellectuals such as Alain Locke, known as the father of the Harlem Renaissance, who urged Jones to bring her African heritage into her work.

Perhaps in response, in 1932, Jones created one of her greatest paintings, “The Ascent of Ethiopia” (not on view), which unleashed a visual vocabulary she would return to in later years. A surging Afro-American rhapsody in blue, black and gold, the strongly geometric composition integrates images of Africa — a mask-like profile of a pharaoh and pyramids — with the silhouettes of skyscrapers and a jazz combo.

Photos of Jones at various stages of her life accompany introductions to the four sections of the exhibition: her refined copies of MFA works as a student; her teaching career at Howard; her 1937 sabbatical in Paris and later travels to Haiti and Africa. The section on her teaching career displays a variety of works on paper, including commanding charcoal portraits of her young students.

Among her Howard colleagues was the pioneering African American historian Carter Godwin Woodson, who founded The Associated Publishers, Inc. Jones illustrated its children’s history and literature books, which cast African Americans as protagonists, encouraging racial pride.

Her exquisite pen and ink drawing for Gertrude Parthenia McBrown’s poem “The Paint Pot Fairy,” shows a dainty fairy with an Afro painting autumn leaves.

A life-changing sabbatical year at the Académie Julian in Paris in 1937 is the subject of the show’s third section. In Paris, Jones felt “shackle free.” She was inspired by the sensational African American dancer Josephine Baker and captivated by the Impressionist paintings of Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas as well as Post-Impressionist works of Paul Cézanne and Émile Bernard.

While in Paris, Jones formed a lifelong friendship with fellow art student Céline Tabary, who later helped Jones win a prestigious award from the Corcoran Gallery of Art by submitting a work by Jones as her white surrogate. In 1994, the Corcoran hosted a birthday party in honor of Jones to open its exhibition, “The World of Loïs Mailou Jones,” and made a public apology for its past racist policies.

The influence of Degas is visible in the oil painting “My Mother’s Hats” (1943), but so are stylistic elements true of her later work: an interplay of rectangles and ovals, strong oranges and reds, and a richly textured surface that crackles with energy.