Lois Mailou Jones

1905 – 1998

Lois Mailou Jones, a colorist who explored diverse painting styles, subjects, and perspectives, painted landscapes, city scenes, and portraits in watercolors and acrylics.  She developed her own forms of figuration, Impressionism, patterned abstraction, and imaginatively collaged compositions.  Jones created dynamic cross-cultural juxtapositions of Western, Caribbean, and African visual traditions. Her gift for color and dynamic compositions was evident from the start.

Jones attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, as one of only two African American students.  She majored in design and graduated with honors in 1927.  She loved studying the textile and ceramic collections of the Boston Museum.  Jones began working as a freelance textile designer for companies in Boston and New York.  Her rich background in design made it easy for her switch from fabric design to art.

During the 1920s Jones was influenced by the Harlem Renaissance and worked as an illustrator for W.E.B. DuBois and Carter Godwin Woodson, who were publishing the first black history magazines and books for young people. Jones became a professor at Howard University from 1930 to 1977.

In 1932, Jones created her first African-themed painting “The Ascent of Ethiopia.”  It shows an Egyptian-styled side-view of a dark-skinned woman, wearing a headdress with a background of diverse figures of pyramids, skyscrapers, harvest moon, men making music, etc. This would be a keystone work for her, presaging her later exploration of African cultural motifs.

After teaching at Howard University for seven years, Jones took a sabbatical to study in Paris at the Academie Julian where she met Celine Tabary, who was to become a life-long friend.  The two women would spend the year living, painting, and traveling together in France and Italy. Jones was inspired by the French movement known as ‘Negritude’, a parallel to New York’s Harlem Renaissance.

Returning to Howard University, Jones was “very much disturbed by the many lynchings that are taking place in the United States, and I felt I had to make a statement on canvas about lynching.”  This resulted in her most dramatic portrait “Mob Victim (Meditation)” 1944.

In 1953, Jones finally married successful Haitian graphic designer Vergniaud Pierre-Noel, whom she had met almost twenty years earlier. Her art work was transformed by her travels in his country.  The couple spent part of the year at their Port-au-Prince home and art studio in the mountains of Haiti.  She used brighter, more opaque colors, leaving her impressionistic approach behind especially in her watercolors.  She painted market scenes, landscapes, seascapes, labor scenes, and Vodou images of Haiti’s indigenous religion.   Even seeing the fire dancers and hearing the drumming gave excitement to her art.

Just as Jones was a part of the Harlem Renaissance, she was also an essential figure in the  1960s Black Arts Movement. In 1970, she secured a research grant from Howard University to travel to Africa to meet contemporary African artists and document their lives and work.  This grant took her to eleven countries.  She took thousands of slides of African art and built an archive for Howard University.

While she was inspired in the past by Paris and by decades of work in Haiti, Africa precipitated the third wave in her ever-evolving work. Africa’s art, craft, textiles, spiritual symbols, and objects inspired her to fill her canvases with robust, colorful, geometric patterns.  She began using acrylics and found in textile designs a theme and grid for her paintings, works that verged on hard-edge abstraction.

As much as Jones loved African textiles, it was African masks that most impressed her and served as an image in paintings such as “Magic of Nigeria” 1971; “Moon Masque” 1971; and “Ubi Girl from Tai Region” 1972.  “Moon Mask” was a multicolored oil and collage work whose center had a papier-mache replica of a mask from Zaire, surrounded by mask-like profiles. Jones combined masks, sculptures, and patterns from different African regions to “explore on canvas a sense of the underlying unity of all of Africa.”  Through her travels and her art, she forged connections to Haiti and African nations by introducing African American art to Africans and African art to Americans.

In 1980, President Carter presented Jones with an Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Visual Arts. Jones received five Honorary Doctorates from universities.  She received awards and retrospectives from Cooper Union, Royal Society of London, Howard University, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Phillips Collection, and the Brooklyn Museum.  Her work resides in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Hirshhorn Museum, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the National Palace in Haiti among others.

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