VMFA Focus on African American Art

Building on a Long History

Cliff Hocker

Among southern arts institutions, Richmond’s Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has been a leader in supporting African and African American art and its appreciation.  In 1944, art students at Hampton Institute (now university) exhibited at the VMFA along with students from 11 other colleges.   The quality of the Hampton students work was glowingly praised in a review in the city’s major newspaper, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and a sculpture by Hampton student Samella Sanders (who, as  Samella Lewis, went on to renown) was purchased by a museum patron and loaned to the museum indefinitely. An article on the VMFA acquisition of Sanders' work appeared in the Hampton Script student newspaper, October 1944:

Samella Sanders. Photo from 1944 Hampton ScriptOnce again Hampton Institute has sown potent seed and reaped fruitful benefits.  Last May Hampton art students exhibited in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond along with eleven other outstanding colleges.  Occupying by merit the choice display room and outweighing the remaining exhibit in freshness, originality, and consciousness of current atmosphere, Hampton art was the main attraction of the exhibit.  In fact, Hans Jelinik wrote in the Richmond Times Dispatch, “The work of most of the young Negro artists from Hampton Institute is so far above the work from the other colleges that we simply have to refrain from comparison.”

Among the works exhibited by Hampton was a plastic sculpture, “Tired,” by Samella Sanders, which was purchased by Miss Elizabeth Davis on the opening night of the exhibit.  The sculpture, “Tired,” has been lent indefinitely to the Virginia Museum and is included in the Museum’s exhibit of “Recent Accessions” which opened September 16. 

Hampton Institute was the one of the twelve colleges exhibiting works at the museum which rated mention in the Bulletin of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.  The piece of Miss Sanders marks the second Hampton art work which has been included in a museum collection.  “Night Scene,” a painting by Junius Redwood, was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in New York during last year.

Benjamin Wigfall, Chimneys, 1951, oil on canvas, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, General Endowment Fund, 51.7.5. Hampton Institute Press Service release, 1943: “Above are shown some of the white and Negro representatives of the contemporary art world who were present at the unveiling of Charles W. White’s mural at Hampton Institute last Friday, and who participated in panel discussion on “Art and Democracy.”  Left to Right they are, White, the 25 year-old muralist, who is a native of Chicago, Harry Sternberg, noted painter, of the New York Art Students League, James V. Herring, chairman of the art department at Howard University, Dr. Viktor Lowenfeld, noted Viennese psychologist and artist,, who heads the Art Center at Hampton, Hans Van Werren-Griek of the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, and Hale Woodruff, well-known painter, of Atlanta University.” Photo: Ed Jones; courtesy Hampton University Archives One of the forces behind the early Hampton-VMFA connection was VMFA staff member Hans Werren-Griek (shown in photo at right) who participated in the 1943 unveiling of Charles White’s mural at Hampton Institute.

In the segregated 1950s, the VMFA offered Saturday classes for African American elementary school students.  Yes, their parents’ tax dollars went towards the support of this public institution, but the museum provided more access to its facilities and programs than did other publically funded institutions in the former capital of the Confederacy.

VMFA also supported African American artists through its generous fellowship program. Richmond-born Benjamin Wigfall received a VMFA fellowship to attend Hamptonand, during his 1949–50 winter vacation, worked in the museum’s design department, creating silk-screen posters for its statewide traveling exhibitions. Wigfall’s Chimneys —a painting inspired by his native city—was purchased for the collection from VMFA’s juried exhibition “Virginia Artists, ’51.” A twenty-one-year-old student and fellow at the time, Wigfall became the youngest winner of the purchase prize.


It's every collector's dream — finding a long-forgotten cache of works by celebrated artists. The artists in this case are Richmond Barthé, David Driskell, Norman Lewis, Charles White and Hale Woodruff, among others, and their works were discovered in the basement of a Richmond, Va. residence. Research into the origins of the works revealed that they had been a part of the renowned Barnett-Aden Gallery collection.

View of Making History exhibition. Detail from 1947 painting by Elizabeth Catlett on entrance panel. An exhibition of these "lost" Barnett-Aden works, Making History: Twentieth Century African American Art, was on view March 31–June 10, 2012, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA), Richmond. Making History offered a fascinating glimpse at artistic production and patronage associated with the Barnett-Aden Gallery that operated in Washington from 1943 to 1969. Featuring more than 50 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper, the exhibition was anchored by a cross-section of art by the internationally acclaimed Elizabeth Catlett.

Founded by Professor James V. Herring and curator Alonzo J. Aden of Howard University, the Barnett-Aden Gallery provided crucial exhibition opportunities for emerging black artists at mid-century. Following their deaths in the 1960s, the collection was dispersed. The majority of it is owned today by Robert L. Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET). A smaller segment entered private hands and remained out of sight for nearly four decades — until its debut in this exhibition.

In recent years these exceptional artworks — in deteriorating condition and facing an uncertain future — were acquired by Richmonders Margaret and John Gottwald, longtime VMFA friends and patrons.

On March 30, 2012, artist, collector and art historian David Driskell reminisced about his association with the Barnett- Aden Gallery in an interview with art historian Tosha Grantham at the VMFA.


Launching this season's "Focus Series - American Art" lectures was a January 10 presentation about the Rosenwald Fund, which awarded grants to hundreds of black artists, writers, and scholars between 1928 and 1948.

The lecture, "African American Art and the Julius Rosenwald Fund", was given by Daniel Schulman, program director of visual art, Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, Chicago Cultural Center.  Schulman curated the landmark 2009 exhibition, "A Force for Change: African American Art and the Julius Rosenwald Fund." The talk highlighted the significance of this unique channel of 20th-century philanthropy. It is not well-known today. Unlike the perpetual endowments of tycoons like Carnegie, Rockefeller and Ford, Julius Rosenwald, then-president of Sears and Roebuck &. Co., believed he should concentrate the impact of his donated wealth on the current generation. He organized his foundation in 1917, designed to spend down all its resources within a few decades.

The fellowship program within the Rosenwald Fund encouraged black leadership in the arts, literature and scholarship. Between 1928 and 1948, nearly every one of that era's major African American artists, writers, and intellectuals received support from the fund. Richmond Barthé, Elizabeth Catlett, Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, Gordon Parks, and Charles White (all of whom are represented by work in VMFA’s galleries) received Rosenwald funding at critical junctures in their careers. For black creative talent of that period, Rosenwald was their single most important patron. 


Monumental evidence of the Rosenwald legacy exists right on the Hampton University campus. The Charles White mural, The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America (11'9 x 17"3), is located in the auditorium on the second floor of Clarke Hall. In 1942 White, then 24 years old, was awarded a $2,000 12-month grant. White's grant proposal was for six months studying mural painting at the National Academy in Mexico City, followed by work on a mural in the U.S. Because White's draft board would not allow him to leave the country, he studied in New York. To paint his mural, he would travel to Hampton Institute.


Charles White, The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America, 1943, Egg tempera (fresco secco) 11 x 17. Hampton University Museum and Archives In January 1943, the mural project brought to the Hampton campus two creative talents who subsequently would be recognized in the pantheon of African American artists:  Charles White and his then-wife, Elizabeth Catlett. Catlett, who'd later also win a Rosenwald grant, taught sculpture at the Institute.  Hampton art student John T. Biggers, another up-and-coming luminary, served as a model for some of the figures in White's mural.


The Rosenwald grant made a big difference in the career of Charles White, says Focus Series lecturer Daniel Schulman.  "It certainly gave him the opportunity to get out of Chicago, which could be a place one would not want to stay a long time. One would be wanting to go to New York, where artists really had careers," Schulman points out. "It enabled him to fulfill his ambition to be a mural artist on a public scale.  He met Elizabeth Catlett because of Rosenwald, and they were both Rosenwald fellows.  They went to Mexico together.  I think they learned from one another.  I think you can see this a great deal in their work. He was very radical politically, but not as outspoken as Betty Catlett was.  She was much braver."


Artists were not the sole recipients of Rosenwald's $70 million of generosity.  This funding also helped creative writers James Weldon Johnson, Sterling Brown, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin. Scholarly writers W. E. B. DuBois, Charles S. Johnson, E. Franklin Frazier, Ralph Bunche, and Allison Davis competed for and won no-strings-attached grants, as did performing artists Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus and Marian Anderson.  The Chicago businessman financed black scholars to attend universities, earn graduate degrees and even used his influence to get faculty appointments for black professors at "white" universities. Most extensively, many of the parents, grandparents or great grandparents of today's African Americans directly benefited from the over 5,000 "Rosenwald Schools"  built in the 1920s to give primary education to rural southern blacks.


On January 24, VMFA hosted a lecture, "Radiance from Ancient Heights: Ethiopia's Sacred Art in Context," by Richard Woodward, VMFA curator of African art. It introduces the museum's collection of Christian art dating from the 12th to the 19th century.  One of world's earliest Christian institutions -- the first in sub-Saharan Africa -- was the Ethiopian church.  A vibrant outpouring of art and architecture has supported the church's 1,800 years of continuity.  Actor and filmmaker Tim Reid screened a short film shot in Ethiopia that was specially edited for the program.  Acquired from Robert and Nancy Nooter, the Eithiopian collection is now available for viewing in the galleries.  A jazz-themed February 2 Family Day is followed by a February 15 presentation about enslaved populations in 18th-century Virginia. On April 11, a lecture on "Zulu" and its impact globally -- from Zulu Krewe in New Orleans to Zulu-ism in popular culture -- will be presented as part of VMFA's Focus Series.

Enriching VMFA’s already acclaimed holdings of African art, American painting, sculpture, and photography, the new acquisitions include ancient Ethiopian icons, paintings by Beauford Delaney and Aaron Douglas, an Elizabeth Catlett sculpture and photographs by Gordon Parks. 


Beauford Delaney (American, 1901-1979), Marian Anderson, 1965, oil on canvas, 63 x 51½”, J. Harwood and Louise B. Cochrane Fund for American

Aaron Douglas (American, 1899-1979), The Prodigal Son, ca. 1927, oil on canvas, 26 x 18 ½”,  J. Harwood and Louise B. Cochrane Fund for American Art

Elizabeth Catlett (American, 1915-2012), Standing Mother and Child, 1978, bronze, 16-1/16 x 4-3/8 x 3½”, Gift of Richmond Chapter, The Links, Inc.


Beauford Delaney, Marian Anderson, 1965, oil on canvas, 63 x 51½, J. Harwood and Louise B. Cochrane Fund for American Art   Aaron Douglas (American, 1899-1979), The Prodigal Son, ca. 1927, oil on canvas, 26 x 18 ½,  J. Harwood and Louise B. Cochrane Fund for American ArtImportant paintings by two leading 20th-century American modernists—Beauford Delaney’s Marian Anderson (1965) and Aaron Douglas’s The Prodigal Son (ca. 1927)—were purchased with the J. Harwood and Louise B. Cochrane Fund for American Art. In addition, Elizabeth Catlett’s bronze Standing Mother and Child (1978) was donated by the Richmond chapter of The Links, Inc.

Beauford Delaney is critically acclaimed for his modern portraits, of which Marian Anderson is his most ambitious and accomplished. Characterized by a chromatic brilliance and technical complexity, the painting of the iconic contralto and cultural figure epitomizes the artist’s exploration of abstractions that featured the color yellow as a symbol of perfection and transcendence. The second work by Delaney to enter VMFA’s collection (the 1946 New York cityscape, Greene Street, was acquired in 2010), Marian Anderson becomes the museum’s first painted portrait of a celebrated historical black figure.

Called the "dean of African American art," Aaron Douglas is regarded as the leading visual artist of the Harlem Renaissance as well as the first black artist to create a distinctive modernist style that connected contemporary African Americans with their African heritage. The Prodigal Son has all the hallmarks of Douglas’s signature approach, while evoking one of his most important collaborations – eight gouache accompaniments to James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, a collection of free-verse poems inspired by folk sermons of Southern black preachers. The Prodigal Son oil acquired by VMFA directly relates to this award-winning 1927 publication for which Douglas produced various drawings and paintings, including versions of the same subject in different media.

Standing Mother and Child is among the best-known later sculptures by the seminal African American artist and social activist Elizabeth Catlett. The iconic theme of mother and child, so expressively rendered in this 1978 bronze, is one most associated with the artist (who had three sons with her second husband, Francisco Mora). Characterized by Catlett’s distinctive figural realism with abstract elements drawn from African and Pre-Columbian art, Standing Mother and Child emphasizes the loving intimacy between the all-but fused figures.


  • Processional Cross, 17th-18th century, Ethiopia, Silver, Gift of Robert and Nancy Nooter

  • Galukoji (Divination Instrument), c.1930, Pende culture (Democratic Republic of the Congo),Wood, fiber, feathers, Aldine S. Hartman Endowment Fund

  • Barber Shop Sign, after 1957. Unidentified artist, Ghana, Paint on panel, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Kenneth L. Brown


•	Processional Cross, 17th-18th century, Ethiopia, Silver, Gift of Robert and Nancy NooterVMFA’s new acquisitions of African art push the boundaries of the collection to include Ethiopian religious art from the 12th to the 19th century. They also represent works from other countries that respond to the wrenching transitions experienced during the 20th-century colonial period and the renewed sense of optimism that came with independence.  Ethiopian icons, crosses, and manuscripts acquired from the collection of Robert and Nancy Nooter place VMFA among a select few museums that own and display Ethiopian art.

•	Barber Shop Sign, after 1957. Unidentified artist, Ghana, Paint on panel, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Kenneth L. Brown An array of works reflective of both the colonial era and the independence movement from Ghana, Burkina Faso, South Africa, and Democratic Republic of the Congo–including a flag, diviner’s implement, statues, paintings, and prints–were acquired from the collections of Dr. and Mrs. Kenneth Brown and Mr. and Mrs. Allen Davis. Select works from several western and central African cultures—including a rare Kuba royal drum—enrich VMFA’s core representation of Africa’s historical arts. These works were also acquired from the Brown and Davis collections, formed during and after both men served as ambassadors to several African nations.


  • Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006), Stokely Carmichael, Watts, Los Angeles, CA, 1966, gelatin silver print; printed 1966 or 1967, 13 X 10¼”, Katherine Boone Samuels Memorial Fund
  • Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006), Untitled, Mobile, Alabama, 1956, pigment print, 13¾ x 13¾, Funds provided by Linda Sawyer, Plantation, Florida

Two photographs by Gordon Parks are the first by this major 20th-century photographer to enter VMFA’s collection. Both of these images enable the museum to tell a more expansive story of photography at mid-century, while emphasizing Parks’ commitment to documenting the Civil Rights movement over more than a decade.

Parks’ position as the first African American photographer on the staff of Life magazine put him at the center of the period’s complex racial struggles—from segregation in the South to the rise of the Black Power movement. Stokely Carmichael, Watts, Los Angeles was the lead image in the May 17, 1967 Life article on this important, if controversial, African American leader who coined the term “Black Power.” Gordon Parks wrote the essay in the feature, offering an important opportunity to pair his written voice with his photographic vision.

Untitled, Mobile, Alabama comes from a series of 70 original transparencies taken for a September, 1956 Life photo-essay on segregation entitled “The Restraints: Open and Hidden.” The “colored entrance” neon sign reveals the degree to which segregation was indelibly designed and integrated into 1950s American culture. Yet the dignity and repose of the woman and small child stand in contrast to the more violent Civil Rights images of protests usually associated with the genre.

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Reporting by Cliff Hocker, contributing writer to the IRAAA+.  Acquisitions notes by Sylvia Yount, chief curator and Louise B. and J. Harwood Cochrane Curator of American Art; Richard B. Woodward, curator of African Art; and Sarah Eckhardt, assistant curator of modern and contemporary art.