Philadelphia Story

We Speak: Black Artists of Philadelphia 1920s – 1970sSeptember 26, 2015 – January 24, 2016, Woodmere Art Museum, Philadelphia, PA

Dox Thrash (left) and Claude Clark at a WPA printmaking shop (WPA)Much of the early history of African American art converges on Philadelphia.  One of the earliest African Americans to establish a reputation as an artist was Moses Williams.  Born in Philadelphia in 1776, Williams worked as a maker of silhouettes at Peale’s Museum from 1803 to about 1833.  During the early 19th century, African Americans in the city worked at a number of skilled crafts including blacksmithing and silversmithing.  Robert Douglass’s 1827 oil painting of the Pennsylvania Seal is the earliest known formally signed painting by an African American artist.  In the 1830s black Philadelphian Robert Douglass developed a brisk business as a portrait painter.  By the 1840s, two of the city's African American school teachers —Ada Hinton and Sarah Mapps Douglas — were proficient watercolorists.  Edward M. Bannister’s Under The Oaks painting won the first-prize bronze medal at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 (but the Providence-based artist had to struggle to obtain the award once his racial identity was discovered). 

Selma Burke with her portrait bust of Booker T. Washington, c. 1935 WPA, Federal Art Project (Pinchos Horn)These are just a few highlights of Philadelphia-related, African American art history prior to Henry O. Tanner setting forth from Philadelphia in the 1880s to make a career in art.

In 1890, the potential for African American mastery in painting was pointed out in the Philadelphia Times newspaper: “The colored race has a keen sense of the artistic, but little…opportunity to gratify it, and yet here and there through the scattering years… (they have) wielded the brush to some purpose…(and) done much creditable work." 1  

Laura Wheeler Waring (Wikimedia Commons)Philadelphia native Alain Locke most notably linked that "keen sense of the artistic" with an African ethos during the New Negro movement of the 1920s.  

From the late 1930s to the mid 1950s, art patronage formally developed among African American professional and business men who presented art exhibitions and lectures at their Pyramid Club.  In the 1940s, Philadelphia African American women and Richard A. Long (who would become a noted collector and patron) supported Horace Pippin, John Brown Going to His Hanging, 1942, oil on canvas, 24 1/8 x 30 1/4” Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts: John Lambert Fund Photo: of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine ArtsAfrican American art via Beaux Art Club exhibitions and salons.  The city's art schools also nurtured African American talent. After studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, numerous African Americans became noted artists and art educators during the early to mid-20th century.  

We Speak: Black Artists of Philadelphia 1920s – 1970s takes an expansive curatorial approach to its presentation of works by noted African American artists who were born and/or lived in the Philadelphia area. Fourteen oral histories from artists, family members, arts professionals, collectors and others in the city were instrumental in shaping the exhibition and are transcribed in the exhibition catalogue. The curators say the oral histories were a process of discovery that shaped the show’s checklist and thematic structure.

Claude C. F. Clark, Brothers & Sister, 1949, oil on board, 12 x 9”  Woodmere Art Museum: Museum purchase, 2011Among those represented in the exhibition which features 70 paintings, photographs, sculptures and prints are: Laura Wheeler Waring (1887-1948); Allen R. Freelon, Sr. (1895-1960); Dox Thrash (1892-1965); Selma Burke (1900-1995); Paul F. Keene, Jr. (1920-2009); Charles Searles (1937-2004); Ellen Powell Tiberino (1938-1992); Barbara Bullock (b. 1938); Moe Brooker (b. 1940); Donald E. Camp (b.1940); Barkley L. Hendricks (b. 1945); Richard J. Watson (b. 1946); Allan L. Edmunds (b. 1949).

Barkley L. Hendricks, J. S. B. III, 1968, oil on canvas, 48 x 34 3/8” Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Richardson Dilworth. Photo: courtesy Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine ArtsThe premise of the exhibition is to share the intricate web of institutional support and personal patronage in Philadelphia that advanced black artistic careers over much of the 20th century.

The experience of visiting the exhibition is designed as both a visual delight and historical education for visitors. 

Rachel McCay, assistant curator at Woodmere, organized the exhibition with Susanna Gold, guest curator.  “The exhibition explores the many ongoing conversations in the arts that were resonant to black artists in Philadelphia during the period, including questions of identity and gender, academic tradition, relationships within the urban fabric, exploration of abstraction, and the influence of African culture,” says McCay.

WeSpeak’s aims also fall squarely  in the Woodmere Art Museum mission to tell the stories of the art and artists of Philadelphia while adhering to the vision of the museum’s founder, civic leader Charles Knox Smith who wanted art to provide a spiritual experience to Philadelphians within the context of a ‘green’ environmental setting. 


1. The Times (Philadelphia) February 11, 1890. Philadelphia art historian discovered this article and cited it in his essay, "A Keen Sense of the Artistic: African American Material Culture in 19th Century Philadelpha", IRAAA, v. 12, n. 2, 1995.