Lois Mailou Jones was an American painter and educator whose works reflect a command of widely varied styles, from traditional landscape to African-themed abstraction.
Jones was reared in Boston by middle-class parents who nurtured her precocious talent and ambition. She studied art at Boston High School of Practical Arts, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Designers Art School of Boston. Her family spent summers on Martha’s Vineyard, where she painted watercolor sketches and enjoyed the encouragement of artists who summered there. She moved to Sedalia, North Carolina, to establish an art department at the Palmer Memorial Institute, a black preparatory school. Within two years, her students’ exhibitions attracted the attention of people at Howard University in Washington, D.C.; she joined Howard’s faculty in 1930.
In the early 1930s, Jones’s art reflected the influences of African traditions. She designed African-style masks and in 1938 painted Les Fétiches, which depicts masks in five distinct, ethnic styles. During a sabbatical year in Paris in 1937–38 to study painting at the Académie Julian, she produced landscapes and figure studies that she would use as source material for a dozen years. She painted out-of-doors, in the French tradition, rendering pastoral landscapes and street scenes, and she contributed to Paris exhibitions. Relishing the freedom from racial prejudice she found in France, Jones spent many summers there.
In 1953 Jones married the artist Louis Vergniaud Pierre-Noël of Haiti, and she came to know many of that nation’s artists. From this time she painted portraits and landscapes in brighter colors and with a more expressionistic style than she had previously employed. African influences reemerged in Jones’s art in the late 1960s and early ’70s, particularly after two extensive research tours of Africa. Her paintings became bold and abstract, and African design elements began to dominate. A retrospective of her work toured the United States in the 1980s and ’90s.