As many of you know, the Brooklyn Museum launched the Fund for African American Art a few years ago. This ambitious initiative, which was covered in the New York Times, is designed to help us acquire works created by African American artists before 1945. As someone who just came on board, I’m excited to work with these new acquisitions, many of which are on view now in American Identities, our permanent exhibition devoted to American art on the fifth floor of the museum. For example, this beautiful portrait of actor Leigh Whipper painted by Loïs Mailou Jones was recently installed in American Identities and I had the opportunity to research the artwork to prepare for its debut.
When Loïs Mailou Jones painted this portrait, Leigh Whipper was approaching the height of his career as a Broadway and Hollywood actor. He had already become the first black member of the Actors Equity Association in 1920 and, by the end of 1939, he would be famous for his role as Crooks in Lewis Milestone’s critically acclaimed film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Whipper’s character—a handicapped farmhand ostracized because of his race—served to illuminate the movie’s Depression-era message that American Dream’s promise of economic and social success was impossible.
Faced with the task of learning more about such a fascinating person, I beat a path to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which holds the Leigh Whipper papers. Thanks these records, I learned that these two dynamic artists time spent together on February 9, 1939. On that day, Loïs Mailou Jones signed the actor’s signature book: “In memory of a very pleasant afternoon.” With that, she left her signature in the august company of other notables like NAACP leader Walter White. According to Jones’s archives, Whipper also left a caring note in Jones’s guest book: “To the #1 Negro artist (Loïs Jones) who will some day be America’s #1 artist.”
When Jones painted this portrait she had recently returned to teach at Howard University in Washington, D.C. after a year sabbatical spent studying painting in Paris. Perhaps it was nostalgia for France that led Jones to depict Whipper as if seated at a Paris café. At Howard, the artist would enter an intellectual conversation on campus that shaped the discourse of the Harlem Renaissance more broadly. Harlem Renaissance intellectual Alain Locke and “father” of African American art history James Porter were both professors at Howard.
Dans un Café à Paris (Leigh Whipper) reveals the influence of both Locke and Porter. The naturalistic modeling of figure and still-life arrangement of wine bottle and sandwiches follow the academic style that Porter himself employed in his own paintings. Although Locke heralded the flat, egyptianized forms of Aaron Douglas as the epitome of a “racial school of art” inspired by the abstracted forms of African art, Locke also implored black artists to create ennobling portrayals of African Americans—a call that Lois Mailou Jones’s portrayal of a pensive Whipper clearly fulfilled.