JACOB LAWRENCE COMPLETED “The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture,” his first series of historic narrative paintings in 1938. It was the same year Talladega College commissioned Hale Woodruff to paint a series of murals depicting the Amistad uprising. Both projects document pivotal moments in black diasporic history and demonstrate the immense talent of important 20th century painters. Their work and that of a selection of their contemporaries, including Romare Bearden, William H. Johnson, Lois Mailou Jones, Archibald Motley and Alma Thomas, is currently on view in venues across the country.

These important artists were born between 1891 and 1917. Among the group, the careers of the duly talented female painters Jones and Thomas have historically been given short shrift compared with their male counterparts. The work of Jones and Thomas speaks volumes about the exceptional merit of their oeuvres and yet widespread recognition of their accomplishments remains elusive—only the male artists are being recognized with museum shows and related curatorial programming. Nonetheless, must-see exhibitions from Los Angeles to South Carolina offer compelling presentations of seven significant artistic voices.

JACOB LAWRENCE, “The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, No. 20: General Toussaint L’Ouverture, Statesman and military genius, esteemed by the Spaniards, feared by the English, dreaded by the French, hated by the planters, and reverenced by the Blacks,” 1938 (Tempera on paper). | Courtesy Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, New Orleans, Aaron Douglas Collection

JACOB LAWRENCE @ Cleveland Museum of Art | Oct. 11, 2014 – Jan. 4, 2015
Jacob Lawrence‘s penchant for storytelling is on full display at the Cleveland Museum of Art where his 41-panel Toussaint L’Ouverture series is mounted in the prints and drawings gallery. Early in his career, Lawrence (1917-2000) repeatedly probed the history of black perseverance. Before he painted multi-paneled series about Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, John Brown and the black migration from the American South to the industrial North, he created “The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture.” Methodically plotted out and executed using Lawrence’s modern color-blocking techniques, the paintings and corresponding narrative captions animate L’Ouverture’s command of the Haitian Revolution.

BACKSTORY: Lawrence became fascinated with Haiti in Harlem. A play by W.E.B. Du Bois at the Lafayette Theater sparked his interest in the subject. He researched it further at the local library (now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture), not far from his studio. He painted “The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture” between 1936-38. Lawrence was barely 20 years old at the time and, during the same period, he was taking art classes with Augusta Savage.

In 1941, Jacob Lawrence becomes the first African American artist to be represented by a major New York commercial gallery, the Downtown Gallery. — Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation

ALMA THOMAS, “Untitled (Study for Breeze Rustling through Fall Flowers),” c. 1968 (acrylic on paper). | Courtesy Hemphill Fine Arts

ALMA THOMAS @ Hemphill Fine Arts, Washington, D.C. | Oct. 11 – Dec. 20, 2014
For every canvas she glorified with her signature dabs of color, Alma Woodsey Thomas (1891-1978) sometimes made a score of studies. She diligently mapped out her explorations of the color spectrum, but her thoughtful consideration didn’t hinder the expressive, dynamic quality of her paintings. “Thirteen Studies: Form, Expression, and Process” at Hemphill Fine Arts presents fascinating examples of her process for what is believed to be the first time. Acrylic and watercolor works, many of the studies are several sheets of paper pieced together with staples, straight pins or safety pins, combined to find the right rhythm of color for subsequent paintings. For example, the study shown above is a study for “Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers,” a 1968 acrylic on canvas work in the Phillips Collection. A rare opportunity to glimpse Thomas’s process and signature aesthetic which she developed in her 70s, the exhibition “illuminates the tension between formal structure and the vitality of the painterly mark.”

BACKSTORY: The works are on view in Washington, D.C., Thomas’s adopted hometown where she taught at Shaw Junior High School for 35 years. The studies belonged to Harold R. Hart (1926-1997), one of her former students who eventually became a New York art dealer. Hart was her friend, as well as executor and beneficiary of the bulk of her estate.

Alma Thomas was the first student to graduate from Howard University’s fine arts program in 1921 and became the first black woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York in 1972.

“Black Belt,” 1934 (oil on canvas) by Archibald J. Motley Jr. | Collection of the Hampton University Museum, Hampton, Virginia. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.

ARCHIBALD MOTLEY @ Los Angeles County Museum of Art | Oct. 19, 2014 – Feb. 1, 2015
Los Angeles is experiencing a profound cultural moment. Featuring 41 rarely seen paintings largely held by private collectors, “Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It’s been more than two decades since a comprehensive survey of modern master Archibald Motley (1891-1981) was mounted. The mesmerizing portraits and vibrant cultural scenes painted between 1919 to 1961 depict Chicago jazz and Paris blues. Motley was particularly adept at capturing the vibe of a specific time and place and using wry humor to explore delicate issues of race and identity.

BACKSTORY: Organized by Duke University Prof. Richard J. Powell, the exhibition originated at the Nasher Museum which describes Motley as “one of the most significant yet least visible 20th-century artists, despite the broad appeal of his paintings.” Powell has characterized Motley as a “pioneering provocateur” and his motivation for mounting the exhibition was borne of a desire to introduce the artist’s work to a broad audience and raise his profile in art history.

Archibald Motley’s 1928 solo show at the New Gallery was described on the cover of the catalog as “the first one-man exhibition in a New York art gallery of the work of a negro artist.”

NEXT: “Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” will travel to the Chicago Cultural Center (March 6 – Aug. 31, 2015) and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York where it will be on view in its new Meatpacking District location in fall 2015.

CATALOG: “Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist,” Edited by Richard J. Powell (Duke University Press Books, 176 pages). | Published Feb. 10, 2014

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LOIS MAILOU JONES, “Eglise Saint Joseph,” 1954 (oil on canvas). | Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of the artist (this work is not a part of the exhibition)

LOIS MAILOU JONES @ DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities | Nov. 3, 2014 – Jan. 20, 2015
A major retrospective featuring more than 80 works by Lois Mailou Jones (1905-1998) is on display in the lobby of a District of Columbia government office building at 300 I Street, SE. One of the tenants is the DC Commission on Arts and Humanities, the sponsor of the exhibition. Oil paintings and watercolors, charcoal and pen and ink drawings spanning 1922 to 1994 are on view in “Full Spectrum: The Prolific Master Within Lois Mailou Jones.” A professor at Howard University for nearly half a century, the exhibition is a celebration of her vision and influence and the depth and breadth of her practice. Mounted with works belonging to the Loïs Mailou Jones Pierre-Noël Trust, her impressive art school drawings and a series of graphic tempera on paper illustrations for textiles appear alongside impressionistic landscapes of Paris, Martha’s Vineyard and Washington, D.C., and bold interpretations of Haitian and African culture.

BACKSTORY: A Howard University professor from 1930 to 1977, Jones was a dedicated artistic ambassador, traveling to countless countries to study and paint, and document the work of African and Haitian artists. She also led groups of students, colleagues and Howard alumni on international tours. Her groundbreaking diasporic research was completed in 1971. “The Black Visual Arts” project, gathering more than 1,000 slides and materials, was entrusted to the university’s archives.

Installation view: In foreground, “Self Portrait,” 1929 (oil on canvas); In background, left to right: “Woman in Calico,” “Mom and Dad” and “Li’l Sis,” (all three 1944, oil on paperboard). All works on loan from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. | Courtesy Florence County Museum

WILLIAM H. JOHNSON @ Florence County Museum, Florence, S.C. | Through Fall 2015
The Florence County Museum is celebrating the grand opening of its new $12 million building by highlighting its collection and mounting special exhibitions, including a significant presentation paying homage to Florence, S.C., native William H. Johnson (1901-1970). Johnson left home at age 17 for New York to pursue an art career. Offering an overview of his practice, “William H. Johnson: New Beginnings” gathers 21 paintings culled from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Florence Museum Board of Trustees, the Johnson Collection (no relation to the artist), and a private collector in Denmark. (Johnson’s wife was a Danish artist and the couple spent the better part of the 1930s in Scandinavia.) Capturing Scandinavian landscapes and exploring African American life and culture, his early canvases feature bold, textured strokes and in the 1940s he found a rhythm rendering colorful images whose folk-inspired, studied simplicity define his modern aesthetic.

BACKSTORY: Many of the paintings in the exhibition were sourced from the Smithsonian which completed a three-year, nine venue traveling exhibition of Johnson’s works (organized in collaboration with Morgan State University) earlier this year. According to the Smithsonian, after Johnson’s death in 1970, his “entire life’s work was almost disposed of to save storage fees.” Ultimately, the cache was rescued by “friends” and through the Harmon Foundation was gifted to the Smithsonian where more than 1,000 works by Johnson are now part of the collection at the American Art Museum.

According to the Florence County Museum, “the Smithsonian American Art Museum owns more work by [William H.] Johnson than any other single artist.” More than 1,000 paintings by Johnson are in the collection.

woodruff murals
Black history unfolds across six murals painted by Hale Woodruff painted for Talladega College in 1938.

HALE WOODRUFF @ Smithsonian, Washington, D.C. | Nov. 7, 2014 – March 1, 2015
Murals painted more than 75 years ago by Hale Woodruff (1900-1980) are helping the Smithsonian’s forthcoming National Museum of African American History and Culture tell an important American story. Slated to open next year, the museum has been curating exhibitions in gallery space borrowed from the National Museum of American History. Woodruff’s Amistad murals are the latest installation. A painter, printmaker and draftsman, formally trained in the United States and Paris, Woodruff joined the faculty of Atlanta University in 1931 and established its art program. After studying mural painting with Diego Rivera in Mexico, Talladega College commissioned Woodruff to paint a series of six murals. The 1938 works depict the Amistad uprising and its aftermath and the post-Civil War founding of the Alabama college.

BACKSTORY: After hanging in the HBCU’s library for decades, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta partnered with Talladega to remove and conserve the historic murals and share them with a national audience for the first time.

NEXT: The mural exhibition will travel to the Birmingham Museum of Art (June 13 – Sept. 6, 2015) and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas, Mo. (Sept. 25, 2015 – Jan. 10, 2016

CATALOG: “Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College,” by Stephanie Mayer Heydt (University of Washington Press, 156 pages). | Published June 15, 2012

1. Fall of Troy
ROMARE BEARDEN, “The Fall of Troy.” 1977 (watercolor and graphite on paper). | Private Collection, Courtesy of Jerald Melberg Gallery, Charlotte, N.C.

ROMARE BEARDEN @ Columbia University, New York, N.Y. | Nov. 15, 2014 – March 14, 2015 (closed Nov. 27 – 28 and Dec. 21 – Jan. 6)
The spirit of Romare Bearden‘s “A Black Odyssey” is pulsing throughout the campus of Columbia University. Bearden (1911-1988) produced 20 collages and watercolors based on episodes of Homer’s “The Odyssey” in 1977. On view at the school’s Wallach Art Gallery, the entire campus is embracing the exhibition and the opportunity to delve deeper into the artist’s layered, narrative images. The museum describes Bearden’s series as “rich in symbolism and allegorical content” creating “an artistic bridge between classical mythology and African-American culture.” His interpretations of the Greek epic poem are the focus of a yearlong, university-wide exploration influencing curriculum and inspire programs, lectures and other special events.

BACKSTORY: When Bearden’s Black Odyssey collages were exhibited at DC Moore Gallery in 2007-08, the occasion marked the first comprehensive presentation of the works since they were created 30 years earlier. Robert O’Malley, Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, wrote the catalog for the gallery show and is curating the current Columbia exhibition.

CATALOG: “Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey,” by Robert O’Meally (DC Moore Gallery, 116 pages) | Published Feb. 1, 2008

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