Artist to Know: Loïs Mailou Jones

Liz Catalano
Published on

Dane Fine Art Brings Painting From Artist, Educator, & Trailblazer

The road to artistic greatness was not an easy one for Loïs Mailou Jones. Active throughout the 20th century, Jones faced ongoing discrimination as a Black American woman. She saw her paintings withdrawn from galleries, rightfully-won prizes taken away, and career opportunities eliminated. Despite this, Jones was determined to make a name for herself. “I was just full of the desire to be an artist and I don’t think anything could have stopped me,” she said

One of Loïs Mailou Jones’ still life paintings will come to auction on January 14th, 2021 at 12:00 PM EST with Dane Fine Art. Learn more about Loïs Mailou Jones and her wide-reaching influence before the sale begins.

Loïs Mailou Jones, 1937. Image from the Loïs Mailou Jones Pierre-Noël Trust.
Loïs Mailou Jones, 1937. Image from the Loïs Mailou Jones Pierre-Noël Trust.

Loïs Mailou Jones was born to supportive parents who encouraged her artistic endeavors from an early age. Her parents, a building manager-turned-lawyer and a cosmetologist, enrolled her in Boston’s High School of Practical Arts in the early 1920s. The experience lit a fire in Jones. She spent the rest of her life engaging with art education, first as a student at Howard University and then as an educator at the same institution. 

Jones’ career started in textiles, where she sold bright, African-inspired fabrics. With time, however, she discovered the pitfalls of artistic anonymity. Thus launched a long struggle for recognition and appreciation that would take Jones from the university halls to the streets of Paris. By the early 1930s, the artist was teaching full-time at Howard while submitting her work for exhibits in Washington, D.C. Frustrated by the racial climate of the United States, Jones took a year-long sabbatical in Paris to explore life as a Black expatriate.

The time spent in Paris deeply affected Jones’ artistic style. She connected with other artists and enjoyed opportunities that did not hinge on the color of her skin. Jones completed one of her most famous paintings, Les Fétiches, during this productive period. The masterwork shows Jones’ skill and adaptability. Her subject’s angles imply Post-Cubism while reclaiming African culture.

Lois Mailou Jones, untitled oil painting, undated. Image from Dane Fine Art.
Lois Mailou Jones, untitled oil painting, undated. Image from Dane Fine Art.

After Jones returned to the United States, she pursued recognition with a vengeance. She submitted her work to segregated galleries and institutions, only revealing her identity after the art was accepted and the award received. While making these waves, Jones continued to teach at Howard and produce a significant number of paintings. Her style oscillated over the years, slowly turning from Impressionist strokes to bright Expressionism. African and Haitian influences reemerged in Jones’ work after she married fellow artist Louis Vergniaud Pierre-Noël. The subject matter of her paintings also varied. She captured delicate watercolors of the French countryside, abstract oil paintings with geometric patterns, and three-dimensional portraits.

The undated painting coming to auction this January demonstrates the breadth of Jones’ abilities (USD 13,000 – $18,000). This still life shows a vibrant flower bouquet bursting from a red-brown vase. Her broad brushstrokes still capture the details of the scene, including a delicate shadow under the vase and careful highlights that enliven the arrangement.

Loïs Mailou Jones, Guli Mask, 1972. Image from Sotheby’s.
Loïs Mailou Jones, Guli Mask, 1972. Image from Sotheby’s.

Jones acquired fame slowly over a long career. Though she was never directly associated with the Harlem Renaissance, her work bears traces of its influence. She enjoyed numerous solo shows during her lifetime. Jones also set trends for the students under her care at Howard, including Elizabeth Catlett, Alma Thomas, Robert Freeman, and David Driskel.

A slow but steady rise in the art world has led to a delay in Jones’ recognition at auction. Prices for her paintings generally settle below $20,000. However, the stylistic diversity explored throughout Jones’ career has made her work more appealing and accessible to collectors. Guli Mask, a 1972 painting by Jones that demonstrates her renewed interest in African cultures, fetched $13,750 at Sotheby’s in 2013. Swann Auction Galleries sold a similarly-styled painting titled Cock Fight for $17,000 in late 2020. 

Loïs Mailou Jones never wanted labels or qualifiers next to her name. “I’m tired of being considered only as a black painter,” Jones emphasized, according to The New York Times. “I’m an American painter who happens to be black.” That distinction became possible with time as she slowly and systematically removed barriers for herself and the artists who followed in her footsteps. Jones’ influence on American art rippled far beyond her death in 1998, and likely will for years to come.

The upcoming Dane Fine Art auction will be held on January 14th, 2021 at 12:00 PM EST. Visit LiveAuctioneers for more information and to place a bid. 

Want to learn more about other notable artists? Auction Daily recently profiled Toshiko Takaezu, an American ceramicist.