Loïs Mailou Jones and Céline Tabary

Sources

Summary

Loïs Mailou Jones was born in 1905 in Boston. Her career as an artist was nearly 70 years in length. She showed interest in drawing at a young age, so her parents enrolled her in the High School of Practical Arts, where she became the art editor of the school magazine. At 17 years old, she had her first art show at Martha’s Vineyard. She next graduated from School of the Museum of Fine Arts, and went to the Boston Normal School of Arts, Designers Art School, and finally summer classes at Harvard University.

She started out working in textiles in 1927, but quickly disliked not having her work under her name. She then founded and chaired the art department at Palmer Memorial Institute. In 1930 she got a teaching position at Howard University, a HBCU founded in 1867.

The racism and sexism she faced made it extremely difficult for her artwork to be recognized in the U.S.. In 1937, thanks to a colleague’s suggestion, she got a fellowship in France at Acadamie Julian. She was having trouble with French, so the school had Céline Tabary interpret for her. In a 1989 interview Loïs said, “That was one of the most wonderful things that could have happened.” She spent vacations with Céline and her family. Loïs’s style began to focus more on African culture. Most of her paintings from her time in France were impressionistic, but in 1938, she painted the award-winning Les Fétiches, a painting of African masks.

Once her fellowship ended, she taught at Howard University, and she brought Céline Tabary with her. Céline did not teach at the University until 1945, but before then she taught children’s art classes with Loïs separately at Loïs’s studio. Once WWII ended, the two traveled to France in the summers painting together in a shared studio.

Céline helped Loïs gain recognition in the U.S.. When Loïs’s painting Indian Shops, Gay Head, Massachusetts (1940) won the top prize (African Americans were not allowed to submit pieces), Céline received it and mailed it to her to make sure she received the award. Remaining in America led Jones to focus more on African American culture. Some of her most famous works from this time are Jennie (1943) and Mob Victim (1944).

In the 1940s, they opened a studio/salon together in Washington, D.C. and had a “Little Paris Group” there that was made up of artists in the area that were being ignored due to their race. From 1940-1944, Paris was occupied by Germany, so black artists could no longer travel to Paris to escape oppression. However, even after Paris regained its freedom, the group remained successful, and had members including Alma Thomas, Richard Dempsey, and Delilah Pierce.

In 1953, Loïs Mailou Jones married Louis Vergniaud Pierre-Noel, a famous artist in Haiti. Céline moved back to France around this time, but I am not certain if it was before or after the wedding. The way Loïs talks about this in her 1989 interview is very interesting. Her mother had just been pressuring her to get married, and she was about go to Paris and reluctantly marry a black Hungarian artist. Luckily, Louis stopped by her studio unannounced and asked her if she had married yet. Jones dated Vergniaud Pierre-Noel when they were in summer school at Columbia University about twenty years ago (in the interview she said they had separated). Despite the long time apart, the two married right away in Cabris, France; more specifically, in Céline Tabary’s house.

I do not doubt that Louis and Loïs were close. Loïs speaks very fondly of him in the interview:

“Ours was a marvelous companionship of thirty years: we travelled together, we worked together, and we had joint studios. Now it’s been six years since he has passed. I know his one wish is, “go on with your career, Lois; do the things you want to do.” I constantly go back to Haiti because he is buried there, and I feel very close to him, and my studio is there. It’s there that I do most of my creative work.”

Rowell, Charles H. “An Interview with Lois Mailou Jones.” Callaloo, no. 39, 1989, pp. 357–378. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2931576. Accessed 29 Dec. 2020.

This quote is very moving, but I’m not so sure the relationship was romantic. After all, Jones calls it a companionship. One theory would be that they were in a lavender marriage. I really believe they might have been two close friends that were gay and married to avoid arousing suspicion and to avoid pressure to get married. However, I think the alternative is completely possible.

Contrary to most women in the 1950s, her marriage helped her career blossom. She began teaching in Haiti as a guest professor, and the Haitian government paid her to paint Haitian people and Haitian scenery. Loïs Mailou Jones still taught at Howard University and did not retire until 1977. Most of this time was spent in Haiti, France, Africa, and the U.S. painting and teaching. Two notable artists she taught are David Driskell and Elizabeth Catlett. Some of Jones’s more famous paintings from this time period were:

Ubi Girl from Tai Region (1972) in the MFA Boston- Top left

La Baker (1977) in the MFA Boston. Josephine Baker was also a wlw. – Top right

Église Saint Joseph (1954) in the Loïs Mailou Jones Pierre Noel Trust – Bottom left

Moon Masque (1971) in the Smithsonian – Bottom right

After retiring, Jones kept painting. She kept winning awards and getting honorary doctorates as she had before. It was around this time in the 1980’s and early 1990’s that she began to get more of the recognition she had deserved for so long. In her interview in 1989, she expressed wanting to go back to Céline and paint with her. She talks about how Tabary’s parents always treated her like family. Céline also seems to consider herself a part of Loïs’s family. According to this site, in 1942, Céline painted Loïs’s mother and her dog, and in the attached note calls her “my dear mama Jones.”

Loïs passed away in 1998.

I find it baffling that not a single source I found (as of 12/29/2020) has even suggested that Céline and Loïs were may have been in a long-term romantic relationship. Most sources call this a life-long friendship or “best of friends,” which is common for biographies of wlw, but the fact that I have not even found a source on social media other than myself speculating this is very aggravating!

Here are assorted photos, paintings, and drawings.

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