The artistic talent of Lois Mailou Jones (1905–1998) was recognized at an early age. She received a wide range of encouragement, including scholarships to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, in her native Boston, and after graduating with honors, she assumed teaching was a likely next step. But, in what was the first of several rejections in an openly racist society, she was told to go south and help “her people.”
While Jones had studied fashion and textile design at school, and had initially planned to pursue that path, she realized that to be considered an important artist, she had to work in oils. Textile design nonetheless remained an integral part of her working methods: “As a painter, I am very dependent on design,” Jones once said. “Being basically a designer, I am always weaving together my research and my feelings.” Jones’s artistic style evolved continuously over the course of her distinguished career, and was informed by her extensive travels in Europe, Africa, and Haiti; her immense love of her culture; and her teaching. (Teaching, in the end, was to be a step on her journey: she taught for more than forty-five years at Howard University in Washington, DC.) The summers Jones spent in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s, however, had perhaps the most profound effect on her early development as an artist. During these visits, Jones immersed herself in the art and theories of the Harlem Renaissance, and she was particularly influenced by her friendship with painter Aaron Douglas (1899–1979); their art shares an affinity for stories and symbols of Black liberation.
In The Ascent of Ethiopia, Jones employed Egyptian motifs to express the ideals of the Harlem Renaissance, what Tritobia Hayes Benjamin, an art historian and a former student of the artist’s, described “as a means of conveying profound respect” for the Black experience, “with a sympathetic and dignified treatment.” Here, from a majestic pharaoh, figures move upward to the modern city, where Black creativity—a triad of art, drama, and music—flourishes. Jones’s composition links people of African descent with their past and their futures, and the painting’s composition suggests the rhythms and improvisation of the Jazz Age.
The Ascent of Ethiopia was the first painting that the African American Art Alliance—with additional support from founding member Dorothy Nelle Sanders—helped the Museum purchase, in 1993, shortly after the support group’s formation. Art historians and critics have proclaimed the painting as Jones’s early masterpiece, a perfect marriage of design and the visual language of the Harlem Renaissance.
Brandon Ruud is the Abert Family Curator of American Art.