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Lois Mailou Jones

 (1905 - 1998)
Lois Mailou Jones was active/lived in District Of Columbia, Massachusetts / Haiti.  Lois Jones is known for African figure-genre, landscape, still life and mask painting, teaching.

Lois Mailou Jones

Biography from the Archives of askART

Biography photo for Lois Mailou Jones
Artist Statement: "Mine is a quiet explorations quest for new meanings in color, texture and design. Even though I sometimes portray scenes of poor and struggling people, it is a great joy to paint."

For more than fifty years, Lois Mailou Jones has enjoyed a consistently successful career as a painter, teacher, book illustrator, and textile designer. Her art spans three continents: North America, Europe, and Africa, and she has been represented in more than seventy group shows and mounted twenty one-woman exhibitions since 1937.

Jones was born in Boston in 1905, the second of two children of Thomas Vreeland and Caroline Dorinda Jones. Jones's Carolina, as well as the climate and aftermath of the Harlem Renaissance, motivated the depiction of African and African- American themes in Jones's early paintings. She became associated with the Harmon Foundation shortly after moving to Washington, and was a frequent participant in its exhibitions during the 1930s.

In 1937 Jones received a General Education Board Foreign Fellowship to study in France. She went to Paris in 1937 where she studied painting at the Academie Julian, lived among the French, learned to speak French fluently, and painted views of Paris and surrounding areas.

Since her first trip to France, Jones has felt a spiritual affinity for the French people and their nation. She explains that France provided her with the first feeling of absolute freedom to live and eat wherever she chose. Her admiration for France and its people was so profound that she returned to Paris each year, except during World War II, for more than twenty years after her first trip.

In 1952, a book of more than one hundred reproductions of her French paintings, Lois Mailou Jones Peintures 1937-1951, was published in Paris. Jones was the only African-American female painter of the 1930's and 1940's to achieve fame abroad, and the earliest whose subjects extend beyond the realm of portraiture.

Jones's third period was also formed outside the United States in Haiti where she discovered a second spiritual home. She first went to the capital, Port-au-Prince, in 1954 when the Haitian government invited her to visit and paint the country's landscape and its people. The trip lasted ten weeks and in that time Jones developed a love for Haiti's warm climate, its beautiful scenery, and its colorful, deeply religious people. She also conducted painting classes at the Centre d'Art and the Foyer des Artes Plastiques. In recognition, the government of Haiti made her a chevalier of the National Order of Honor and Merit.

Haiti acquired even more meaning for Jones following her marriage to Louis Vergniaud Pierre-Noel, a prominent Haitian artist. Jones and Pierre-Noel first met in 1934 when they were graduate students at Columbia University. For almost twenty years they corresponded before they eventually married in the south of France in 1953. Jones and her husband lived in Washington, D.C., Martha's Vineyard, and in Pierre-Noel's hometown, Port-au-Prince. They had no children. His death in 1982 ended their twenty-nine year marriage.

Jones's numerous oils and watercolors inspired by Haiti are probably her most widely known works. In them her affinity for bright colors, her under personal standing of Cubism's basic principles, and her search for a distinctly style reached an apogee.

Jones's return to African themes in her work of the past several decades coincided with the black expressionistic movement in the United States during the 1960s. Skillfully integrating aspects of African masks, figures, and textiles into her vibrant paintings, Jones continues to produce exciting new works at an astonishing rate of speed, even in her late eighties.

In 1945 James Lane, curator of painting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, said of Jones's work, "God's gift to Lois Jones is a beautiful sense of color. Like a singer who always sings true, this well-trained painter-and she has studied under Philip Hale, Jonas Lie, and the Academie Julian-shows true harmony in her oils. But that is not God's only gift: He has given her a sense of structure and design (which she uses in her textile patterns) that carries the color to victory, for unorganized color alone could not possibly do the trick. Her work, from her earliest still lifes and her prize-winning portrait French Mother, has, one sees, been responsive to light and the joyousness of light, but where the fine cityscapes of her Paris period were charming and gray, the landscapes, the portraits, and the still lifes from Martha's Vineyard are clarion and colorful. It is all, in the best sense of the word, happy art."

It is extraordinary that nearly fifty years later, Jones's paintings, currently inspired by African themes, are still highly reflective of Lane's description.

Note from Carol Parkinson-Hall.
Dr. Jones was my professor at Howard University, Washington, DC. She taught Design and was an excellent teacher. I don't think she retired until 1979 or 1980...she taught for over forty years.

Biography from The Johnson Collection

On the occasion of her ninetieth birthday, Lois Mailou Jones reflected upon her artistic longevity and the obstacles she had confronted. “It wasn’t easy,” she said. “There was the double handicap: being a woman and being a woman of color. I kept going on, with determination. As I look back, I wonder how I’ve done it.” Jones had indeed faced daunting gender and racial discrimination, yet her stalwart resolve empowered her to persevere and succeed.

The Boston-born artist displayed creative promise at an early age and, with her parents’ encouragement, began her training at the High School of Practical Arts in 1919, advancing on to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts from 1923 to 1927. While the curriculum at the Museum School covered life, freehand, and perspective drawing courses, she gravitated towards design as a major. She enrolled in graduate studies at Boston’s Design Art School, eventually becoming a freelance textile designer. Jones realized, however, that textile design had its limitations: “As I wanted my name to go down in history, I realized that I would have to be a painter. And so it was that I turned immediately to painting.”

Armed with new resolve, Jones applied to her alma mater, the School at the Museum of the Fine Arts, for a teaching position. Her request was denied, the rejection tendered with the director’s suggestion that she “go South to help your people.” Initially, Jones balked at the notion, but after attending a lecture delivered by pioneering educator Charlotte Hawkins Brown at a local community center, she began to reconsider. Jones convinced Brown of the necessity of art instruction at Palmer Memorial Institute, a preparatory school for African American youth in Sedalia, North Carolina.

Jones’s two-year residency, 1928 to 1930, in the rural community was her first encounter with the segregation and racism particular to the American South. She established a thriving art department at Palmer, which soon attracted the attention of another artist-educator, James Herring, who recruited her to Howard University. Jones would remain at Howard for forty-seven years, teaching exceptional students such as Alma Thomas, Elizabeth Catlett, and David Driskell.
In 1968, an article in Ebony magazine remarked on Jones’s creative curiosity, reporting that “she has devoted her life to a quiet exploration—a quest for new meanings in color, texture and design.” That innovative spirit is borne out in Africa, dating to 1935. Executed in vibrant jewel-like hues, the work depicts three sharply-defined figures with chiseled features. This trio’s symmetrical, elongated features and expressionless eyes recall similar visages found in African masks, a recurrent aesthetic component in Jones’s oeuvre.

Jones’s colleague at Howard, Alain Locke, had urged African American artists to create images that would contradict pervasive racial stereotypes of the period. He also exhorted African Americans to connect with their “ancestral legacy.” Ultimately, Jones hoped that race and gender would no longer circumscribe her art or achievements, vowing, “I’m an American painter who happens to be black.”
Submitted by Holly Watters, Registrar, The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina

Biography from National Museum of Women in the Arts
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 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.

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.

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About  Lois Mailou Jones

Born:  1905 - Boston, Massachusetts
Died:   1998 - Boston, Massachusetts
Known for:  African figure-genre, landscape, still life and mask painting, teaching

Essays referring to
Lois Mailou Jones

Black American Artists