Artist Friendships: Loïs Mailou Jones and Céline Tabary

Inspired by the special exhibition New Ground: The Southwest of Maria Martinez and Laura Gilpin, we are celebrating famous artist friendships. Did you know that Loïs Mailou Jones (1905–1998) and Céline Tabary (1908–1993) were close friends who met in Paris before establishing art classes and a studio group in Washington, D.C.?

Lasting Impressions

NMWA’s collection contains six works by Loïs Mailou Jones. Her colorful landscape painting Arreau, Hautes-Pyrénées (1949) was completed while the artist was on a sojourn in France. Other works by Jones are much more modernist in style, with bold colors and an African influence veering towards abstraction.

Céline Tabary’s painting Terrasse de Café, Paris (1950) is also part of NMWA’s collection. Tabary painted in an impressionist style for most of her career, but Terrasse de Café, Paris reveals an emerging cubist influence.

Little Paris in Washington, D.C.

Loïs Mailou Jones, Arreau, Hautes-Pyrénées, 1949; Oil on canvas, 19 1/2 x 23 5/8 in; National Museum of Women in the Arts; Gift of Gladys P. Payne

Loïs Mailou Jones, Arreau, Hautes-Pyrénées, 1949; Oil on canvas, 19 1/2 x 23 5/8 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Gladys P. Payne; © Loïs Mailou Jones

Jones moved to Paris in 1937 to study at the Academie Julien. Jones fell in love with the French way of life and lack of racial prejudice, and was introduced to Tabary, a fellow student, when she needed help translating. The two became friends, and Jones visited Tabary’s family in the north of France. Jones considers paintings she did there some of her best.

Jones returned to Washington, D.C. in 1938, and Tabary joined her, as they both planned to go back to France together. However, the start of World War II prevented their return, and Tabary and Jones continued working together in the United States and established Saturday morning art class for children as well as a salon style group to promote the artistic practice of public school art teachers. Alma Thomas, another prominent artist represented in NMWA’s collection, was also a part of the “Little Paris Group” run by Jones and Tabary.

Jones and Tabary remained very close friends throughout their careers. Due to racial tensions in the U.S., Jones did not want to reveal to the institutions acquiring her work that she was African American. In these instances, Tabary delivered Jones’s paintings for her, ensuring her friend’s works were exhibited. Tabary eventually returned to France, but even in an interview in the late 1980s, Jones mentioned visiting her friend. “Very soon I’ll be goin’ to visit Céline. . . . Before I return to Haiti, I’m goin’ back to paint with her again, like in the old days, even at my age which is now 83. That is certainly many, many years since it all started in Paris at the Academie Julian in 1937.”

Learn about the friendship between potter Maria Martinez (ca. 1887–1980) and photographer Laura Gilpin (1891–1979), whose works are on view in New Ground through May 14, 2017.

—Meghan Masius is the spring 2017 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the arts.

5 Fast Facts: Loïs Mailou Jones

Impress your friends with five fast facts about Loïs Mailou Jones (1905–1998), whose work is on view in NMWA’s collection galleries.

1. Designing Woman

Loïs Mailou Jones began her career as a textile artist, designing drapery and upholstery fabrics for prestigious firms in Boston and New York. She incorporated traditional motifs, such as flowers and leaves, as well as more unusual Caribbean- and African-inspired imagery, in her designs.

Detail of Jones’s signature in Ode to Kinshasa

Detail of Jones’s signature in Ode to Kinshasa

2. What’s in a Name?

Jones lamented that the design world was mostly anonymous:[O]nly the name of the design printed on the borders of the fabric was known, never the name of the artist who created it. That bothered me because I was doing all this work, but not getting any recognition.” Consequently, she shifted her focus to painting—and signed every work.

3. Educator and Mentor

As a member of the art department at Howard University in Washington, D.C., from 1930 until 1977, Jones influenced several generations of African American artists, including Elizabeth Catlett, David Driskell, and Sylvia Snowden.

4. Out of Africa

Inspired by the Black Arts Movement, Jones documented contemporary African Diaspora art of Haiti, Africa, and the United States. She traveled to 11 African countries between 1970 and 1972, visiting studios and workshops, interviewing artists, and making thousands of slides of their work. These experiences also directly influenced the subjects and style of her future paintings.

Loïs Mailou Jones, Arreau, Hautes-Pyrénées, 1949; Oil on canvas, 19 1/2 x 23 5/8 in; National Museum of Women in the Arts; Gift of Gladys P. Payne

5. Best of Friends

On her first trip to Paris in 1937, Jones began her lifelong friendship with French-born artist Céline Tabary (1908–1993). Tabary spent part of World War II living in Washington, D.C. During that time, she delivered Jones’s entry to the Society of Washington Artists exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art because African American artists were forbidden to participate.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­—Deborah Gaston is the director of education and digital engagement at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Loïs Mailou Jones: The Designer

Loïs works on her cretonne textile designs in a c.1927 photo recently discovered at the Howard University Archives

Loïs Mailou Jones’s long career had many chapters. One that is less-known is her career as a designer. In their 2000 study of women in design Pat Kirkham and Lynne Walker report that during the last century the involvement of women in this industry was not that unusual.1 However, aside from a few women involved in quilting in the 1920s and 1930s who rose above the relative anonymity of that activity—such as Wini Austin, Lucile Young, or Ruth Clement2—such opportunities were rare for an African American woman and probably were possible because of the relative anonymity with which designers worked and submitted designs. Jones would learn this was a double-edged sword.

In Boston, where Jones initially lived and worked, one of the institutions that provided design training was the Massachusetts Normal School of Art which was founded in 1873. Jones studied there between 1926 and 1927, and afterwards worked as a freelance textile designer for F.A. Foster Company in Boston and Schumacher Company in New York. What is evident in the corpus of Jones’s designs is her encyclopedic knowledge of art and design garnered through her dedication to her work experiences and studies. Her designs for cretonne fabric vary greatly, from more traditional floral and leaf designs to 

Loïs Mailou Jones, Design for Cretonne Fabric, c. 1928

Design for Cretonne Drapery Fabric (Palm Trees: oranges, yellows, green), c. 1928, which presents a Caribbean-esque, if not African-esque, whimsy. Another design shows a seated statue that evokes African art, whose torso is festooned with a diamond “dazzler” pattern that recalls Navajo weaving conventions of the 1880s and 1890s. This demonstrates how references to a multiplicity of cultures and media phenomena seemed to flow effortlessly and copiously from the well of Jones’s creative impulses.

Design for Cretonne Fabric, c. 1928

By the early 1930s Jones was segueing into the next episode of her career, and eventually gave up design work to pursue “fine” art: namely, painting. At this time she joined the faculty of Howard University initially as an instructor in design and later in watercolor. As Tritobia Hayes Benjamin records, Jones was increasingly perturbed that despite the prizes and citations that her designs garnered for her, she remained an anonymous entity in the design world. Jones’s design work was completely different from her paintings, as she worked to differentiate the two to signal her new vocational aspirations.

Jones’s struggle with her role in art and design has particular resonance in the context of the larger American art scene between the two World Wars. It highlights not only issues around authorship which surrounded the creativity of designers as well as craftspersons and women, but also questions the role of art in society.

Jones’s sense of design, however, seems not to have deserted her. It resurfaced with her experiences in Haiti starting in the 1950s and her travels to Africa in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which brought out a more overt cultivation of pattern and form in a non-narrative format. It might be said that in these paintings Jones came full circle back to her original love of design, after having gained the recognition that eluded her early on. In the end, Loïs Mailou Jones left a rich corpus of paintings that show the restlessness of her creative expression, ability, and willingness to respond to all that life offered her.


Adapted from “Loïs Mailou Jones: From Designer to Artist,” from Loïs Mailou Jones: A Life in Vibrant Color (The Mint Museum, Charlotte, North Carolina, 2009)

Lowery Stokes Sims is curator at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York.


1. Pat Kirkham, and Lynne Walker, eds. Women Designers in the USA, 1900–2000: Diversity and Difference, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, published for the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, New York, 2000).

2. Pat Kirkham and Shauna Stallworth, “Three Strikes Against Me: African American Women Designers” in Ibid, p. 132–134.

Loïs Mailou Jones & the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center

Loïs Mailou Jones at a banquet on the campus of Howard University, Photo Courtesy of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center

Several of the photographs included in Loïs Mailou Jones: A Life in Vibrant Color and many of the photographs in the exhibition catalog were selected from the personal papers of Loïs Mailou Jones. This private documentation of the artist’s life and affairs is housed at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center on the campus of Howard University.

Loïs Mailou Jones (left) with a colleague at the Palmer Memorial Institute in North Carolina, c. 1929, Photo Courtesy of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center

Joellen ElBashir, Curator of Manuscripts at the Research Center, personally handled the acquisition of Loïs Mailou Jones’s papers in 1997. This proved a daunting task, as the artist’s home was a veritable archive and art gallery in its own right, filled from wall to wall with paintings, sculpture, and Jones’ meticulous files documenting her various career paths and research abroad. Mrs. ElBashir recalls seeing a painting by Pablo Picasso hung beside the stairs in the artist’s home. As Dr. Tritobia Hayes-Benjamin has stated in the exhibition catalog, Jones was the quintessential self-publicist—never wasting an opportunity—and her papers reflect that attention to detail. She preserved every flyer, catalog, award, and photograph related to her art, a habit which cements her papers as the definitive record of her life and career.

Loïs Mailou Jones’s papers are extensive: more than 75 boxes of scrapbooks, sketches, writings by and concerning the artist, correspondence dating back to the early 1900s, as well as photographs and notes taken during her journeys to Haiti and a number of African nations. They stand as a testament to the life and career of a tireless advocate for African American art, an experimental and innovative thinker, and a true artistic pioneer. The personal papers of Loïs Mailou Jones are made available to researchers by appointment only. For further information or to schedule an appointment, call 202-806-7480.

–Melanie J. Spears, a graduate of Howard University, is Research Assistant at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center focusing on Prints and Photographs.

Loïs Mailou Jones & Howard University

Loïs Mailou Jones (right) and her friend Frances Garret on the campus of Howard University, c. 1931, Photo Courtesy of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center

On display at NMWA until January 9, 2011, Loïs Mailou Jones: A Life in Vibrant Color is the first major retrospective spanning the artist’s career of more than 75 years. One unique aspect of this traveling exhibition’s stint in Washington, D.C., is Loïs Mailou Jones’s ties to the District, and in particular, to Howard University.

Loïs Mailou Jones’s legacy is felt strongly at Howard, where she was a design professor for nearly half a century. Personally invited by James Vernon Herring, founder of the Howard University Art Department, Jones joined renowned art historian James Porter as a faculty member in 1930. Many artists of note studied with the Department during Loïs Mailou Jones’s tenure, including Elizabeth Catlett, David Driskell, Starmanda Bullock, and Akili Ron Anderson to name a few.

Given Loïs Mailou Jones’ history with Howard, the University was eager to partner with NMWA in offering programs for museum members and visitors to supplement the exhibition. Past and present students of the Howard University Art Department, myself included, participated in Member Day on October 13, and Dr. Tritobia Hayes-Benjamin, Associate Dean of the Howard University College of Arts and Sciences and author of The Life and Art of Loïs Mailou Jones, presented a lecture highlighting the cultural, social, and geographical variety of Jones’s oeuvre. Coinciding with Howard’s Homecoming, this past weekend was designated as Howard University Weekend at NMWA: all students, alumni, faculty and staff of the University received free admission to the exhibition. Throughout the month of November, current and past members of the Art Department will present Gallery Talks, exploring specific aspects of the exhibition.

–Melanie J. Spears, a graduate of  Howard University, is Research Assistant at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center focusing on Prints and Photographs.


Loïs Mailou Jones (first row, third from right) on a Howard University faculty trip to Hawaii in July of 1967, Photo Courtesy of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center

Loïs Mailou Jones with Dr. Tritobia Hayes-Benjamin, presenting The Life and Art of Loïs Mailou Jones, c. 1995, Photo Courtesy of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center

Loïs Mailou Jones: A Life in Vibrant Color

Loïs Mailou Jones: A Life in Vibrant Color, a dynamic exhibition of more than 70 paintings, drawings, and textile designs, spans the artist’s career from the late Harlem Renaissance to her contemporary synthesis of African, Caribbean, American, and African American iconography. Despite formidable racial and gender prejudices, Loïs Mailou Jones (1905–1998) achieved success as a designer and painter, and her influence as a teacher extended beyond her native country, impacting several generations of artists.

Loïs Mailou Jones, Sedalia, North Carolina, 1929; 13 3/4 x 19 3/4; Watercolor on paper; Collection of Drs. Christopher and Marilyn Chapman

Jones was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and the Jones family spent their summers on Martha’s Vineyard. After graduating from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Jones began her career as a textile designer. She successfully created imaginative and marketable designs; however, Jones soon shifted her career focus to the fine arts, where her achievements would be less anonymous.

During a brief teaching stint at Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, North Carolina, Jones created several paintings that marked her transition to fine art. Sedalia, North Carolina, 1930, and Brother Brown, 1931, demonstrate the Regionalist character of her early paintings. She was invited to join the faculty of Howard University in Washington, D.C., by art historian James V. Herring to help build its burgeoning art department. It has been said that Jones was just as involved in the development of her students’ careers as her own. Among her illustrious students are David Driskell, Elizabeth Catlett, and Robert Freeman. Jones taught at Howard from 1930 until her retirement in 1977.

Loïs Mailou Jones, Jennie, 1943; 35 3/4 x 28 3/4 in.; Oil on canvas; Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Jones’s influences were extensive throughout the remainder of her career. She received a fellowship in 1937 to study in Paris at the Académie Julian. While in Paris, Jones observed the importance of African tribal arts, which were extremely popular in that city at the time. Her lush oil paintings of the French countryside and traditional fruit and flower still lifes highlight her skillful observation of nature. Upon returning to Washington, New Negro Arts Movement theorist Alain Locke encouraged Jones to draw inspiration from African art. She conveyed the social struggles of African Americans through powerful psychological portraits such as Mob Victim, 1945, and Jennie, 1943.

Her marriage in 1953 to noted Haitian graphic artist Louis Vergniaud Pierre-Noël instigated a change in the subject matter and palette of her paintings. Her frequent trips to Haiti re-energized her strong design sense and inspired vivid acrylic and watercolor paintings that display her fascination with Caribbean culture. Seizing the moment of heightened black consciousness, Jones designed an extensive research project to document contemporary African Diaspora art of Haiti, Africa, and the United States, traveling extensively throughout Africa in 1970 and 1972. Her work became characterized by brilliant color, rich patterns, and a variety of Haitian and African motifs.

In 1973 Jones became the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. President Jimmy Carter honored Jones for her outstanding achievements in the arts in 1980, and in the last ten years of her life both President Bill Clinton and French President Jacques Chirac met the artist and collected her work. During a six-year solo exhibition tour, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., held an 89th birthday party for Jones and apologized for previous prejudicial policies. Loïs Mailou Jones continued to create her vibrant paintings until her death in 1998.

Loïs Mailou Jones, Symboles d’Afrique I, 1980; Acrylic; 29 ¼ x 35 ½ in.; Courtesy of the Loïs Mailou Jones Pierre-Noël Trust

A 144-page exhibition catalogue published by the Mint Museum of Art includes essays by Dr. Edmund Barry Gaither, director of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, Boston; Dr. Lowery Stokes Sims, curator of the Museum of Art and Design, NYC; Dr. Cheryl Finley, associate professor of Art History, Cornell University, and an interview with student of Loïs Mailou Jones, Dr. Tritobia Hayes Benjamin.

Loïs Mailou Jones: A Life in Vibrant Color is organized by the Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, NC, in collaboration with the Loïs Mailou Jones Pierre-Noël Trust, and toured by International Arts & Artists, Washington, DC. Lead support in D.C. provided by Walmart with additional support from Lois Lehrman Grass, National Endowment for the Arts, Verizon Communications, and ESSENCE.