Celebrating Black History Month: Lois Mailou Jones

Africa, 1935, oil on canvas, 23 1/2 x 19 1/2 in. On loan.

With a career spanning more than seventy years, Lois Mailou Jones devoted her life to ridding the world of race and gender prejudices by producing beautiful art. Born in Boston in 1905, Jones has always been involved with the arts. As a child, her parents often took the family to Martha’s Vineyard, where Jones experimented with watercolor and landscape painting. Jones studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston then moved to New York to work for a textile firm. In 1928, Jones took a teaching position at Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, North Carolina, where she later founded the art department.

In 1930, Jones moved to Washington, D.C., to establish a career in painting and began teaching and attending classes at Howard University. It was there that Jones met Elizabeth Catlett and fostered an artistic friendship. Jones continued to teach at Howard on and off for the next forty years, earning a Master’s degree in 1945, gaining recognition in her field, and training several generations of African American artists. In 1937, Jones took a sabbatical to Paris where she became interested in African tribal art, which was then heavily coveted by the German Expressionists, Dadaists, and Surrealists. Her most famous piece produced during this time, Les fetiches, combines Western and African techniques. Jones loved her time spent in Paris and claims it was the first time in her young life “that the color of her skin didn’t matter.”

In 1953, Jones married Haitian graphic artist Louis Vergniaud Pierre-Noёl. She made many trips to Haiti, which further inspired her to create more abstracted work. Jones’ paintings are in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and the National Palace in Haiti. Jones died in 1998 but her work continues to be treasured and her importance as an African American artist and a woman artist recognized.

Ode to Kinshasa, 1972, mixed media on canvas, 48 x 36in. Gift of the artist.

This fall, NMWA will be featuring a major exhibition, Lois Mailou Jones: A Life in Vibrant Color, organized by the Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, North Carolina. The exhibition will feature seventy paintings showcasing various styles of painting and experiences influenced by Jones’ life in America, France, Haiti, and Africa.

Ali Printz is currently an intern in the Library and Researh Center at NMWA