She Made Her Way in the Art World

As a young Black woman in the 1920s, Loïs Mailou Jones graduated from SMFA and went on to create a lasting legacy as an artist

As a young Black artist growing up in the racialized, gender-based society of Boston in the early 1920s, the painter Loïs Mailou Jones remembered walking from her high school to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, where she took vocational art classes every afternoon and on Saturdays. 

“The drawing classes were excellent training for me while in high school. They grounded my skills more firmly and gave me confidence in my draftsmanship,” she later told Tritobia Hayes Benjamin, author of The Life and Art of Loïs Mailou Jones. “I made the museum my home!” 

Indeed, in 1923, Jones was admitted to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (now SMFA at Tufts University) as a design major. For all four years of her studies there, she received the Susan Minot Lane Scholarship, and she earned the Nathaniel Thayer Prize for Excellence in her senior year. In 1927, she become the school’s first Black woman graduate.

Now recognized as a major American painter, Jones’ works are in the collections of major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Museum of American Art, and the MFA Boston. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter gave her a White House Award for Outstanding Achievements in the Visual Arts. 

Over a career that spanned much of the 20th century, she pioneered a synthesis of “American, African-American, Caribbean, African, and European formal and thematic strains into a visual language of deceptive directness and striking beauty,” writes Edmund Barry Gaither, director and curator of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists and special consultant at the MFA, in his introduction to Benjamin’s biography.

Jones (1905–1998) inherited much of her drive and determination from her parents, who supplied her first set of watercolors at age 7 and sent her to a high school that specialized in “practical arts.” They provided hard-working role models through their own efforts to establish themselves among Boston’s Black upper class. 

Jones recalls visits to her family’s summer home on Martha’s Vineyard, where from an early age she met other creative people like the Harlem Renaissance writer Dorothy West, who became a lifelong friend. West, a neighbor, hosted Jones’ first solo show in the garden of her Vineyard Haven home when Jones was 17. 

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Watch the progression of Loïs Mailou Jones’ work as seen in the book The Life and Art of Loïs Mailou Jones by Tritobia Hayes Benjamin. Video: Alonso Nichols


After moving from the Museum School to graduate studies in textiles at the Designers Art School of Boston, Jones quickly employed her skills as a fabric designer, winning professional awards and work in Boston and New York. Throughout her life, she maintained a lucrative freelance career in design, but she yearned for more recognition and the creative freedom of a fine artist. 

Equally driven by a passion for learning and instruction, she convinced the founding director of the Palmer Memorial Institute, whom she met at a lecture in Boston, to let her develop an art department at his North Carolina prep school for Blacks. In 1928, she moved to Sedalia, North Carolina, to do just that—even if it also meant coaching the basketball team, teaching folk dancing, playing piano for Sunday chapel services, and teaching summer school at A&T College in Greensboro. 

By 1930, her efforts caught the eye of the chair of the Department of Art at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where Jones went on to teach for the next 47 years. 

Early Recognition

A self-portrait of a Black woman at a painting easel.

Loïs Mailou Jones, Self Portrait, 1940, casein on board, 17 1⁄2 x 14 1⁄2 in. (44.5 x 36.7 cm). Image: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of the artist, 2006.24.2

Since that first solo show back in Vineyard Haven, Jones tirelessly entered competitions, winning recognition not only for her mastery of Western techniques honed at the Museum School and later at the Académie Julian in Paris, but also for an increasing focus on her Black heritage. Jones was coming of age as a young artist at the time of the Harlem Renaissance, one of the most significant eras in the history of American cultural expression, and her talents were soon recognized. 

African-derived iconography covers her oil-on-canvas painting The Ascent of Ethiopia (1932). Suggestive of the African diaspora, a stairway leads a progression of Black figures from a desert landscape with pyramids and pharaoh to a jazz-age cityscape with symbols of modern art and culture. The painting won early recognition in an annual competition in New York and has since been hailed by critics as one of the earliest examples of American art based on African aesthetics. 

Jones pioneered a synthesis of “American, African-American, Caribbean, African, and European formal and thematic strains into a visual language of deceptive directness and striking beauty.”

Edmund Barry Gaither, director and curator of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists and special consultant at the MFA

Another early work, a charcoal drawing of one of her students at the Palmer Institute, Negro Youth (1929), won her an honorable mention from the same national competition. In this portrait in profile, the young man’s gaze appears at once determined and wise, as though weighing the odds he must surmount to achieve his dream. 

Jones was well-attuned to such a challenge. For a 1941 annual invitation for entries at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., she had a white friend submit her painting for her to conceal the color of her skin. “If I had brought my entry down myself, and the guards had seen me, they would have put it in the reject pile right away,” she told her biographer Benjamin. 

That oil-on-canvas landscape painting, Indian Shops, Gay Head, Massachusetts (1940), won the prestigious Robert Woods Bliss prize for landscape painting. She had to accept the award by mail to again conceal her identity—the Corcoran refused to accept submissions by Black artists. A half century later, the Corcoran held a retrospective exhibit of her work, and apologized for its past discrimination.

Facing the African Diaspora

Jones’ career can be divided into three distinct phases that address the African diaspora, says Martina Tanga, curatorial research and interpretation associate at the MFA Boston. Jones’ work in the 1930s is primarily cityscapes, still lives, and portraits rendered “in a Western style, even though some of her subject matter is not Western,” Tanga says.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Jones traveled regularly to Haiti, where her husband’s family lived. During that time, her palette became brighter and more intensely colorful, and she began to incorporate the decorative patterns and African-influenced styles she found there. Then, in the 1970s, she visited Africa to engage with contemporary artists and learn about cultural traditions. 

A painting with a Black woman with a white wrap around her eyes, and colorful abstract symbols above and to the side of her face.

Loïs Mailou Jones, "Initiation, Liberia," 1983, acrylic on canvas, 35 1⁄4 x 23 1⁄4 in. (89.6 x 59.1 cm). Image: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of the artist, 2006.24.7

In this last phase, she “shifted from a Western renaissance perspective of looking at the world to something that is more diagrammatic.” While still employing Western techniques, Tanga notes, she returned to “the cleanliness of mind and geometric patterning” of her early work in textile design. 

One example in the MFA collection is the acrylic-on-canvas painting Ubi Girl from Tai Region (1970). The face of a young woman—her forehead and cheeks painted in white and a crisscross of red lines—floats above a dark mask in profile and iconography from Côte d’Ivoire, which Jones visited. 

“In this painting, Jones sees the girl as connected to the strong women in her extended family, past and present,” Tanga explains. “Jones may have felt a kinship to this girl as she considered her relationship to ancestral Africa and the women who linked her to this land.” 

Her Home in Art History

Over the years, the accolades kept coming, increasingly with the full recognition of the artist as well as her artwork. She received honorary doctorates from several schools, including Howard University, and the White House honor from President Carter in 1980.

Her paintings are now part of the permanent collections at many museums and galleries, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Phillips Collection, the National Museum of American Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, as well as numerous works that span her career over the 20th century at the MFA Boston. 

In many ways, Jones has indeed made Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts her home. In 1972, the MFA honored Jones with its first solo show by a Black woman and has since featured her work in other shows. During the four decades since her graduation from the SMFA, she returned multiple times for studio visits with students, often on her way to Martha’s Vineyard, where she maintained a studio throughout her life. 

“Mentoring was very important to her practice as an artist,” says Tanga. “Her impact on Boston artists was huge.”

Rob Phelps is a freelance writer based in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

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