FOUND! A Gwendolyn Bennett Painting

Jerry Langley

For many years Gwendolyn Bennett (1902-1981) intrigued scholars of African American cultural history.   Who was this poet who also painted, worked as a batik artist, illustrator and community activist?  This woman who was a major creative force on the Harlem Renaissance and WPA scenes yet whose achievement remains a minor footnote to that history in most accounts?  

This was the question that Jerry Langley and Sandra Govan probed in the first, major published account of Gwendolyn Bennett’s life in a 2009 issue of IRAAA (vol. 23, no. 1).

 “Art historians have had a difficult time assessing the full measure of her talent because little commentary about her artwork has been published and none of her original paintings or batiks can be found," explained Langley and Govan.  A few illustrations remain.  The authors described Bennett's pen and ink drawing on the July 1926 cover of Opportunity. It depicts a young African American “vamp” (as seductive women were then called) embellished with exotic touches. “She is clearly a modern, black American whose roots are African,” note the authors, “but her stance and her pensive expression are evocative of Cullen’s question, ‘What is Africa to me’?”

At the conclusion of the article, Jerry Langley said his search continued because he had not been able to identify the locations of any original Gwendolyn Bennett paintings:  “But I know they're out there somewhere.”   That hunch has proven to be correct and Jerry Langley now reports on the discovery of a painting by the artist. — ed.

The Discovery and Its Aftermath

Gwendolyn Bennett, Untitled (River Landscape), oil on canvas, 1931. Sold October 18, 2012 for $4,320. Courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

Gwendolyn Bennett (seated, center) at the Carver School, NYC, 1945.  Elizabeth Catlett is to the immediate left.  Others are, from left: Maymie Brown, Liz Branson, Edith Roberts, Hermine Dumont.  Photo: Collection of Elizabeth Catlett estate.Belinda Wheeler, a native of Queensland, Australia, found and acquired an oil on canvas painting by Gwendolyn Bennett.  Wheeler is an assistant professor of English at Paine College in Augusta, Georgia, and is preparing a book on Bennett.  The painting she acquired is untitled and contains the signature “GBJ 1931” in the bottom right hand corner.

In researching her book, Wheeler regularly peruses the web to locate information on Bennett and her artwork.  On one occasion, she discovered an auction site for a business in Florida which listed a painting for sale that was believed to be by Bennett, but the seller had no evidence to support this.   After performing her due diligence, she felt confident that the piece was a Bennett painting because of its style, the date and initials on it, the location where the seller acquired the piece, and the information on the back of the painting.

Gwendolyn Bennett.  Winter Landscape, 1936, oil. Reproduced from Alain Locke's The Negro in Art (Associates in Negro Folk Education, 1940). Location of the actual painting is unknown. The seller had acquired the painting from an antique dealer located 150 miles from Eustis, Florida where Bennett and her first husband, Albert Joseph Jackson, had once lived following his graduation from Howard University’s medical school.  The 1931 date on the painting corresponded with the time when they were residing in Eustis, and the “J” in the initials “GBJ” was consistent with Bennett’s practice of assuming her husband’s last name.  In addition, Bennett was known to have worked regularly with oil paints and photos of the back of the painting revealed a sticker from an art supply store in Washington, D.C. where Bennett had lived or commuted to before moving to Eustis.    

On the basis of that information, Wheeler decided to take the gamble and purchase the painting.  After the purchase, she took additional steps to verify that it was in fact a Bennett piece.  She checked the painting’s signature and date with a blacklight to ensure that they had not been tampered with and ultimately sent all the information she had about the painting to Swann Galleries in New York City to get their assessment.  Swann confirmed her conclusion and expressed an interest in auctioning the piece.

This newly discovered painting is the only work by Bennett that can be found. She rarely exhibited or marketed her artwork; some early works were destroyed by a fire in 1926 at her step-mother’s house and Wheeler learned that more works were destroyed  — again by fire — at a relative’s home in the 1980s, after Bennett’s death. 

For years, collectors and art historians have been searching for her artwork without success.  So, Wheeler appreciated the significance of the piece she owned and was leaning towards eventually transferring it to a gallery or museum where it could be preserved and seen by many people.  However, she ultimately decided to sell the work at the October 2012 Swann Galleries’ African American art auction.  It was sold in Lot 16 for $4,320 to a collector who she hopes make it available to the public.  Now, she plans to continue her search for Bennett works because she believes paintings such as the 1936 Winter Landscape, shown here, are out there just waiting to be found.

Jerry Langley is an attorney, art collector and art researcher who lives in Annandale VA.