The Art of Delilah Pierce, Revealed!

Delilah Pierce, seated (or stooping), second from the left. Lois Mailou Jones and Alma Thomas, seated, first and second from right. Little Paris Group meeting in 1948 at Lois Jones studio. Alma Thomas papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian InstitutionThree women artist friends in Washington, DC were reaching the peak of their careers in the 1970s.  For decades, these elder artists Lois Mailou Jones (1905-1998), Delilah Pierce (1904-1992) and Alma Thomas (1894-1978) worked hard to excel as painters and exhibit their work although African Americans, women and people living south of the Mason Dixon line had little chance of being recognized by the art establishment.  But their prospects finally were beginning to change.

Delilah Pierce, Fishing Boats at Martha’s Vineyard, 1951In the Spring 1970, Lois Mailou Jones traveled to 11 African countries to research art, with a Howard University grant.  The result of this in-depth African immersion was a dramatic, new direction in her painting that combined all of her visual arts skills — textile design, graphic design and painting, for example her 1971 Magic of Nigeria painting.  In 1979, Jones had a one-person show at the Phillips Collection in Washington DC.

Delilah Pierce, Where the Blue and White Nile Meet, 1953In 1972, Alma Thomas was first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art.  Thomas’ emerged as a nationally-recognized artist with that exhibition and a solo show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art the same year. 

Delilah Pierce, Untitled (F Street), 1955Unlike Jones and Thomas who were solidifying signature styles at this time and were among the few African American artists to have solo shows in mainstream museums and galleries, Delilah Pierce appeared to be still searching and exploring.  She painted numerous subjects seascapes, landscapes, still lifes and the occasional human figure in a variety of styles.  

Although Pierce was well-known and regarded in Washington, she watched as the reputations of her two, long-time artists friends eclipsed hers.

Pierce had dabbled in abstraction  — mostly figurative abstraction including the Cubist approach in Cellist (shown below, left) — over the years and one wonders whether she developed a more non-objective form of abstraction in her "Nebulae" series, between 1982 and 1984, as a result observing of Alma Thomas’ spectacular success with a similar style?

Alma Thomas used mosaic-like patterns to represent subjects from the natural world and Pierce’s "Nebulae" series seems to echo Thomas’ famous paintings of leafs and petals. This is not to imply that Pierce directly emulated Thomas who had died in 1979. However, observing her friend’s great break-though and Delilah Pierce, Nebulae #6, 1982recognition for this style may have been a Delilah Pierce, Cellist, 1957, oil on boardprod for Pierce to focus on distilling a similar style.  The similarity stemmed, at least in part, from shared experience. As close friends,  Thomas and Pierce together drove into the countryside to seek inspiration for their art.  

Delilah Pierce, Gold Floating with White Edge, 1958The "Nebulae" series is an outstanding but anomalous achievement. After her experimentation with the cosmic theme, Pierce returned to familiar subjects of sea and forest. These sites may have been a spiritual as well as artistic haven for her and inextricably linked.

In retrospect, Delilah Pierce’s lesser recognition, compared Jones and Thomas, seems like the inadvertent curse of being multi-talented. Her mastery of a variety of styles worked against the sustained development of the kind of distinctive body of work that would have captured the attention of curators at major institutions.

Delilah Pierce, Nature’s Symphony #1, not datedNow Delilah Pierce is finally getting recognition for her body of work which is a strong as it is broad. Delilah W. Pierce: Natural Perspective, an exhibition of more than 70 paintings, sponsored by the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) Arts Program, is on view through January 3, 1916, at the UMUC’s Marriot Hotel and Conference Center, 3501 University Blvd. E., Hyattsville, MD.  Many of the paintings are in the collection of Pierce relative Wanda Spence.

Delilah Pierce, Peace, 1964As an art educator at the secondary and college levels and as an always active artist, Pierce’s had a significant presence on the Washington D.C. arts scene for more than 65 years. After retiring as an art teacher from the DC public school system in the early 1950s after 27 years, she began letting her attention range over numerous styles and subjects.

Her artwork was exhibited in numerous group exhibitions in Washington and elsewhere.  She was also an untiring, DC community activist for inclusive programs that supported minority artists and their art.

Delilah Pierce, Studio Patterns, not datedPierce did most of her creative work in Washington, DC  and on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. Her favorite place to paint in D.C. was Rock Creek Park in the north western part of the city.  During the summers, she went to Oak Buffs on Martha’s Vineyard where she joined her friends Alma Thomas and Lois Mailou Jones to paint. 

In The Life and Art of Lois Mailou Jones, art historian Tritobia Benjamin describes the history of the African American enclave at Oak Bluffs. Jones grandmother came to the island as a young domestic worker, brought her children with her for the summer, and after many years of domestic service and savings was able to purchase several acres in Edgartown and Oak Bluffs. Jones’ mother continued to visit the island in the summer and Lois Mailou Jones maintained property there until her death.

Delilah Pierce, Gay Head Cliffs, Martha’s Vineyard, not datedUndoubtedly, under the influence of Jones, Oak Bluffs later became a favorite summer retreat location for African American artists. 

The exhibition is accompanied by an 88-page catalog containing many full-page, art work reproductions and articles by art historian and educator Floyd Coleman and art researcher and collector Jerry Langley.

Jerry Langley contributed a detailed biography of Pierce's life in art. The essay also reveals the social mobility possible for African Americans born during the early 20th century. Pierce's father was a maintenance man; her husband was the first African American to graduate from what is known as the Wharton School of Business of the University of Pennsylvania.    

DC Waterfront, Maine Avenue, 1957, oil on board, 173/4 x 231/2Floyd Coleman's essay includes commentary on the strengths of Pierce's various approaches.  For example, with regard to abstraction, he cites the 1957 painting, DC Waterfront, Maine Avenue as exemplary: "In this work the artist reveals her interest in visceral, tactile, impasto surfaces, broken-color technqiues, and the desired effocts of light. Although painting in a higher key, it has some of the aesthetic qualities of Monet's paintings, estaicially Water Lilies, works that inspired the develoment of a variety of 20th-century apporaches to abstraction, particularly abstract expressionism."

In the Studio (Self Portrait), not dated, acrylic on linenColeman also says that because Pierce was not represented by a mainstream gallery, she felt free to experiment rather than manufacture a singular approach that could be recreated over and over again with insignificant changes to generate sales.

In viewing Delilah Pierce's paintings, most of which, remained in her possession, one can sense the enjoyment she took in seeing her surroundings with an acute artist's eye, in selecting sites to paint and in making the paintings. This kind of pleasure can be just as satisfying as fame and fortune, and without the attendant hassles.

Full Captions

Because the format of this article did not permit a full caption display for the paintings, the full details are listed below.

All artwork photography by John Woo

Fishing Boats at Martha’s Vineyard, 1951, watercolor on paper, 12 x 16", UMUC Permanent Collection, Doris Patz Collection of Maryland Artist

Where the Blue and White Nile Meet, 1953, acrylic on linen, 20 x 16"  Collection of Louis Ford

Untitled (F Street), 1955, watercolor on paper, 20 x 15", Collection of the Spence family

Cellist, 1957, oil on board, 291⁄2 x 251⁄2" Collection of the Spence familyNebulae #6, 1982, acrylic on linen, 40 x 30" Collection of the Spence family

Gold Floating with White Edge, 1958, acrylic on board, 171⁄4 x 231⁄2" Collection of the Spence family

Peace, 1964, acrylic on canvas, 20 x 16" Collection of the Spence family

Studio Patterns, not dated, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 111⁄2" Collection of the Spence family

In the Studio (Self Portrait), not dated, acrylic on linen, 24 x 20", Collection of the Spence family

Gay Head Cliffs, Martha’s Vineyard, not dated, oil on canvas, 30 x 40" Collection of Howard University Gallery of Art

DC Waterfront, Maine Avenue, 1957, oil on board, 173/4 x 231/2"  Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and image courtesy the Smithsonian American Art Museum