Joseph Clinton DeVillis

A Brief But Remarkable Life in Art

Juliette Harris

Joseph Clinton DeVillisThere are numerous African American artists who were born in the 19th century, received formal art training, developed considerable skill, and passed on without achieving a lasting recognition. Some such as Joseph Clinton DeVillis (1878-1912) and his painting, Girl of Morocco, are truly remarkable.

Joseph Clinton DeVillis, Girl of Morocco, oilCompleted before or during 1905, Girl of Morocco depicts a beautiful, dark-skinned African woman at a time when African American artists typically portrayed non-black subjects. Information on the artist, Joseph Clinton DeVillis, is scant. The photographs shown here are reproduced from the article, "Collins and Devillis — Two Promising Painters," by W.O. Thompson in the October 1905 issue of the Voice of the Negro, a journal that was published in Atlanta.  The other artist profiled is Samuel O. Collins.  Thompson describes the makeshift exhibition sites for these artists in his introduction to the article:

About a year ago a young man fitted up a place down in Gay Street, New York, as an art gallery. The place was not adequate for the showing off of paintings. The lights were ineffectual and the space was small, but it was the best he could do, so he made out with it. From this place were sent out invitations for the public to view his exhibitions of paintings in oil and water color.... During July of this year a similar exhibition was given at No. 1865½ Fulton Street, Brooklyn, N.Y. Along with the work of Mr. Collins are some examples of the work of another young artist, J. Clinton DeVillis.

At the time, DeVillis was a bookkeeper and salesman at the Rohlf Art Gallery in Brooklyn. Trained in art at Adelphi College, he was able to continue his study in Europe by enlisting in the navy. While his mates were amusing themselves on shore leave, DeVillis studied masterpieces in the Louvre and Luxembourg and in London galleries.

This article is based on a note that appeared in IRAAA, v. 17, no. 3 which, in turn, was based on W.O. Thompson's Voice of the Negro article. Thompson's article includes a reproduction of a second DeVillis painting, A Poet's Theme, which does not appear in the IRAAA article. The entire 1905 volume of the Voice of the Negro journal is in Hampton University Library's Peabody Collection which is accessible to the public. 

Joseph Clinton DeVillis, The Shanty, oilThe only other readily extant information on DeVillis is an auction record for his oil painting, The Shanty, which was sold in 2005 for $550.

Joseph Clinton DeVillis died at age 33 or 34. If he had lived longer, there might be a more substantial record of his life and work.  

We are left with the tantalizing possibility that Girl of Morocco might someday surface onto the market. And if its price were comparable to that of The Shanty, what a boon that would be!