Thursday, March 15, 2012

Remembering Loïs Mailou Jones

Loïs Mailou Jones (1905-1998) was an African-American artist from a well-to-do Boston family. She is said to be the most notable African American to study art in Paris in the 1930s, and is perhaps the most illustrious African-American woman ever to have studied here.

Loïs Mailou Jones
Photo from National Archives and Records Administration

Jones worked for Carter G. Woodson for several years, providing illustrations for his books and periodicals. In 1937, while teaching at Howard University, she received a General Education Board Fellowship to study at Académie Julian in Paris. She took advantage of her first sabbatical year at Howard to do so. Woodson went to the pier to see Jones off when she took her first voyage to France aboard the S.S. Normandie on September 1, 1937. When she set sail, she already had an assignment to complete – she was to create illustrations for Woodson’s book African Heroes and Heroines.

In accepting the General Education Board Fellowship, Jones was able to fulfill a long-term desire to go to Paris. Years earlier, her mentor, African-American sculptor Meta Warwick Fuller (1896-1968), advised Jones that she would need to go abroad to launch a successful career. Fuller was living proof of this as she had studied in Paris herself, attending the Académie des Beaux Arts (Paris’ classical art school) in 1899. In 1901, she was introduced to Auguste Rodin, who took her on as a student. With his sponsorship, Fuller made significant progress in her career. When she returned to the United States in the fall of 1902, she had seen 22 of her sculptures exhibited in Samuel Bing’s Galerie de l’Art Nouveau in Paris. Rodin insured that an enlargement of one of these pieces was accepted for display at the Sociéte National des Beaux Arts Salon in 1903.

Thus, Jones emulated Fuller by studying in the French capital. She had a lush studio apartment on rue Campagne Première during her one-year stay. There were three levels, a terrace and a roof garden. Floor-to-ceiling windows on one wall allowed light in - perfect conditions for an artist!

The directors of the Académie Julien appointed one of Jones’ fellow students to help her with her French, and her professors showed interest in her talent. She worked to reproduce the Impressionist style of one of her favorite teachers there, and produced many landscape paintings of Paris. Among these were several Paris street scenes, including boulevard St. Michel, the Moulin Rouge, and the Luxembourg Garden. But she also painted in the Cubist style, depicting black subjects in two works entitled Les Fetiches and Jeanne, Martiniquaise. She saw many of her still lifes and street scenes accepted at art salons and galleries in 1938.

Les Fetiches
Loïs Mailou Jones
1938 Oil on linen
National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Like Fuller, Jones also studied at the Académie des Beaux Arts and the Académie Colarossi during her sabbatical year.

Twenty-four years later, Jones returned to Paris as leader of Howard University’s first study abroad program in France; this included a three-week course at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, the famous art institute in Montparnasse. She taught at Howard until 1977, when she retired.

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