THE PENNSYLVANIA ACADEMY of the Fine Arts (PAFA) recently acquired a particularly meaningful painting. “Morris Heights, N.Y. City” (1912) is an Impressionist landscape made by May Howard Jackson (1877-1931) more than a century ago. Jackson is a PAFA alum. She earned a scholarship in 1895 and became the first African American woman to attend the Philadelphia school.
“It is an honor to finally have her work in PAFA’s collection,” Anna O. Marley, PAFA’s curator of Historical American Art, said in a statement.
Jackson was known as a sculptor. Although she is not a widely recognized artist, she is a pioneer. One of the first black women artists to practice professionally, she is connected with prominent figures and associated with key institutions of African American art.
Although May Howard Jackson is not a widely recognized artist, she is a pioneer. One of the first black women artists to practice professionally, she is connected with prominent figures and associated with key institutions of African American art.
Scholars Lisa E. Farrington and Amy Helene Kirschke have both written about Jackson’s life and work. Born in Philadelphia, Jackson came from a relatively privileged family. After attending PAFA, she married in 1902 and moved to Washington D.C. There, she exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery of Art (1915) and displayed busts at Veerhoff Galleries (1919). She was a faculty member at Howard University from 1922-24. During her brief tenure, artist and art historian James A. Porter (1905-1970) was among her students. Porter published “Modern Negro Art” in 1943. The seminal volume was the first to examine African American art comprehensively and consider it within the context of American art.
Jackson also influenced artist Sargent Claude Johnson (1888-1967). Early in their marriage, Jackson and her husband took in his nephew, Johnson, and his siblings. After first losing his father, the artist was only 15 when his mother died. Like his aunt, Johnson pursued a career in art, working in a variety of mediums, including sculpture.
In the 1920s and 30s, Jackson showed her work at the Harmon Foundation in New York. Also in New York, she exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1916 and 1928. Later, however, after inquiring whether she had Negro blood, the academy refused to consider any more of her work. Jackson was very light skinned, fair enough to pass for white. Similarly, after being granted membership in the Washington Society of Fine Arts, her acceptance was revoked when the society learned she was black.
The artist corresponded at least a few times with W.E.B. Du Bois, the intellectual who founded the NAACP’s Crisis magazine. In a letter dated May 2, 1907, Du Bois references a bust that Jackson is making of him. He apologizes for not being able to give her a few more sittings, but says he has requested that photographs be sent to help her complete the work.
Two decades later, Jackson reached out to Du Bois about having her work featured on the cover of Crisis magazine. “…I am sending you two views of my last piece of work,” she writes on March 4, 1929. “My thought is that it will be nice cover for a magazine at Easter.” Two days later, a secretary responds acknowledging receipt of Jackson’s letter, informing her that Du Bois is on a lecture tour, and that the material for the April cover is already at the printer. The letter further states that when Du Bois returns on March 12, her pictures will be brought to his immediate attention.
JACKSON WAS FEATURED in “Three Generations of African American Women Sculptors: A Study in Paradox,” which was on view from 1996-98. Organized by the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum in Philadelphia (now known as the African American Museum in Philadelphia), the show was presented at seven venues, including the California African American Museum (CAAM) in Los Angeles and the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building. The exhibition included works by 10 artists, Augusta Savage, Edmonia Lewis, Selma Burke, Elizabeth Catlett, and Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, among them. Fuller entered PAFA the year after Jackson, becoming the second black woman to attend the art school.
When “Three Generations of African American Women Sculptors” was on view at CAAM in 1997, the Los Angeles Times mentioned Jackson’s contribution in its review of the exhibition. “Jackson’s work suggests Beaux-Arts influence and a dash of John Singer Sargent’s social elan. Her plaster ‘Mulatto Mother and Child’ combines tenderness with an energy hinting at Art Nouveau,” Times Art Critic William Wilson wrote.
Views of Jackson’s career and opinions about her work are mixed. In “Creating Their Own Image: The History of African-American Women Artists,” Farrington writes:
Jackson’s career, unlike that of Fuller, was less than satisfying, and, at best, a qualified success. Her work and professional achievements were routinely overlooked, even by African-American scholars, whose disdain may have stemmed from Jackson’s rejection of the requisite Grand Tour (of Europe). Her decision was deemed a career faux pas in 1936 by influential art and literary critic Alain Locke. In his 1943 Modern Negro Art, James Porter described Jackson’s work as “prosaic” and lacking originality. Present-day scholars, however, have found that Jackson’s isolation from the European art scene allowed her to develop a “distinctly personal style” that even Locke ultimately admitted was a refreshing departure from the “academic cosmopolitanism” for which Fuller is known.
James Porter described Jackson’s work as “prosaic” and lacking originality. Present-day scholars, however, have found that Jackson’s isolation from the European art scene allowed her to develop a “distinctly personal style”…
JACKSON’S PREFERRED MEDIUM was sculpture, but PAFA has acquired a rare painting by the artist. “Morris Heights, N.Y. City” is a modest-sized work measuring approximately 12 x 16 inches. It sold for $4,750 (including fees) at Swann Auction Galleries on April 5, 2018. The following is inscribed on the back of the painting: “Morris Heights, N. Y. city. Looking south. Morning, June 3rd, 1912.” The lot description also states that the work is the first painting by the sculptor the auction house has located.
The Jackson acquisition was announced in late June along with several other additions to PAFA’s collection. The museum has acquired 129 prints from Berkeley, Calif.-based Paulson Fontaine Press, its entire archive of prints by African American artists. Nearly 40 modern and contemporary works by “women, artists of color, and American artists often overlooked by the mainstream,” have also been brought into the collection, including the painting by Jackson. CT
TOP IMAGE: MAY HOWARD JACKSON, “Morris Heights, N.Y. City,” 1912 (oil on linen canvas, mounted to wood panel). | Courtesy Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
“Three Generations of African American Women Sculptors: A Study in Paradox” documents the 1996-98 exhibition of the same name, which featured work by May Howard Jackson. Lisa E. Farrington writes about Jackson in “Creating Their Own Image: The History of African-American Women Artists” and “Women Artists of the Harlem Renaissance” by Amy Helene Kirschke, also considers the artist’s work. James A. Porter’s “Modern Negro Art,” first published in 1943, briefly weighs in on Jackson’s work, too.
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