Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on May 16, 2008 with permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the author directly at the Indiana State Museum, 650 West Washington Street, Indianapolis, IN 46204 at either this phone number or Web address:
The Paintings of William Edouard Scott
by Rachel Berenson Perry
Indiana artist William Edouard Scott (1884 - 1964) created paintings and murals throughout his life that focused on elevating the stature of African Americans. Generating artwork from locations in Paris, Mexico, Haiti and the American South, as well as Indiana, he interpreted blacks on canvas in positions of prominence doing noble deeds; a bold and uncommon approach for his time. He rejected the conventional portrait of African Americans as menial laborers or historical slaves.
Scott first studied under Hoosier Group artist Otto Stark, who directed Manual High School's art department in Indianapolis. He returned to Manual to aid Stark in the drawing department after graduating in 1903. Working several jobs to support himself, Scott entered the Art Institute of Chicago the following fall. In June of 1907 he graduated but opted to continue taking classes for two more years. His $50.00 Frederick Magnus Brand Prize helped finance his first trip to France in 1910.
While in France, Scott sought out artist Henry Ossawa Tanner at Trepied-par-Etaples, an artist colony. The American expatriate Tanner encouraged Scott's special interest in painting the achievements of African Americans. Tanner had fled the United States for Europe in 1891 seeking an unprejudiced environment where he could show his work without his race being an issue. Hale A. Woodruff, who frequented Tanner's studio, engaged in long conversations with Scott about art, and later wrote of Tanner's high regard for the younger artist's work.
Scott returned to Chicago after fifteen months and exhibited three French paintings in the Society of Western Artists' Fifteenth annual exhibition in 1910 - 11. He sold his remaining paintings to support further study abroad. During two subsequent extended trips to France, he enrolled in the Academie Julian and later the Colarassi Academy. His rigorous traditional studies paid off with paintings accepted in 1912 at the Salon de la Societe des Artistes Francais in Paris and again in 1913, as well as the Royal Academy in London. La Misere was awarded the Tanqueray prize of 125 francs.
Scott's social and cultural isolation at home, combined with his efforts to cater to European sensibilities, may have caused his complete imperviousness to the art world controversies prevailing in America. He remained an academic realist despite the critics' unprecedented attention to the 1913 New York Armory Show, which traveled to Chicago where Art Institute students burned a Matisse in effigy.
In late July of 1914, two weeks before France declared war on Germany, the artist returned to America, greatly encouraged by his success abroad. Establishing his home and studio in Chicago, Scott became known as the "dean of Negro artists." His international recognition stimulated much demand for his talents as an illustrator, muralist and portrait artist.
In the year 1915 alone, the artist painted more than twenty murals in Chicago and Indianapolis schools, and he received mural commissions in the 1920s from numerous Black institutions in Indiana and Illinois. When Scott unveiled his mural for the Black newspaper, Chicago Defender, building in the early 1920s, the paper reported, "When our new buildings are thus decorated by the works of our own artists we are contributing something substantial to American progress, especially if we obtain the services of well trained men or women."
The city of Indianapolis purchased Scott's A Rainy Night in Etaples for the John Herron Art Institute (now the Indianapolis Art Museum) in 1918, receiving accolades for making a "worthy tribute to an accomplished native son" in the local press. Depicting the area surrounding Tanner's summer home, loose brush strokes and a classical composition demonstrate his mentor's influence.
Scott was honored in 1927 with a gold medal for Distinguished Achievement among resident American Blacks from the Hannon Foundation, and four of his mural sketches were exhibited in New York's International House, the first all-black artist exhibition in America.
At age forty-seven Scott received the Julius Rosenwald Fine Arts Fellowship, which he used for a thirteen month trip to Haiti. His choice to go to Haiti may have been influenced by an idealistic wish to paint the primitive or unspoiled people of a Black nation who retained their African heritage. His familiarity with the French language combined with the U.S. occupation of the former French colony may also have influenced his decision.
Scott's stay on the island attracted the attention of several Haitian artists, including a lawyer, Petion Savain. Savain became a constant Scott groupie, following him everywhere to watch his oil painting technique. Later, several artists assembled around Savain to practice French academicism, lauded by the Mulato ruling class. Within a few years, however, emphasis shifted to Haitian "primitive" art, which has gained international recognition. Scott could be indirectly responsible for the Haitian primitive art movement still in existence today.
By the end of his stay, Scott had created 144 canvases, which were exhibited in Port-au-Prince. The exhibit was intended to show native artists, accustomed only to copying French masterpieces, that rich subject matter existed at home. The exhibit was seen by Haitian President Stenio Vincent, who not only purchased twelve paintings, but also awarded the artist with the degree of Nationale Honeure et Merite.
Beginning during his student days, Scott discovered that his drawing skills and ability to visualize narrative scenes could provide a livelihood. He sustained a prolific output of mural commissions throughout his life, painting murals in Arizona, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, New York City, and Washington D.C. Joining other noted Indiana artists in 1914, Scott enhanced the walls of Indianapolis' City Hospital (now Wishard) with Pilgrim Dwelling and Simeon and the Babe Jesus. He unveiled two murals for the Indianapolis Senate Avenue Y.M.C.A. three years later.
For the 1933 Chicago Worlds Fair, Scott created murals and worked for the Federal Art Project Mural and Easel Division. He was one of seven artists to win the juried contest for the Recorder of Deeds Building, Washington, D.C., in 1942 with his depiction of Frederick Douglass appealing to President Lincoln to enlist black soldiers. His numerous mural contributions allowed black people, for the first time in the history of American culture, to see themselves through the eyes of their own artists.
The artist's treks to Indiana, possibly influenced by the lingering popularity of Hoosier landscapes, resulted in a few scenic paintings, but they were not his forte. His last painting trip outside the U.S. took him to Mexico in 1955, where he may have wished to repeat his Haitian experience of painting genre scenes in a rural culture. But his failing health cut the trip short. Diagnosed with diabetes, the artist endured the amputation of his left leg and later vision impairment. He died May 15, 1964 in a Chicago nursing home.
Scott did not belong to any particular school of art, despite his proximity and active career during the Brown County Art Colony, a nebulous derivative of the Hoosier Group school of painting. The latter, was lauded in 1894 for helping the people of Indiana to see the beauty in their own quiet landscape.
Although he lived in the generation after the Hoosier Group's fame, Scott enjoyed a reputation and stature easily as prominent in the international art community. He was able to render detailed illustrations for covers of Crises, the magazine for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; organize and execute narrative murals elevating the imagery of African-American stereotypes; paint portraits of eminent blacks in the community and create poignant yet beautiful easel paintings to express his own feelings about social tribulations.
Scott's years of study in the French academic tradition, combined with training from the most respected African-American instructor, advanced his standing as an artist and as an individual. Like the Hoosier Group artists before him, he was a leader in the art world for his convictions born of rigorous European training and his ability to apply that training to subjects back home.
William Edouard Scott painted the black experience and
helped African Americans to recognize and celebrate the wealth of material
in their immediate world. The retrospective exhibition at the Indiana State
Museum re-introduces an exceptional man and artist to today's audiences.
He is not only "our own artist" as he was to the African Americans
of his day but to all of us who appreciate the strength of his art and its
About the author
Rachel Berenson Perry is the fine arts curator for the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis. She has written numerous articles for the American Art Review, Traces of Indiana and Midwest History, Outdoor Indiana, and Southwest Art Magazine. She provided the introductory essay for Painting Indiana II: The Changing Face of Agriculture and "An American Art Colony" in The Artists of Brown County, published by Indiana University Press. Her books include Children of the Hills: The Life and Work of Ada Walter Shulz, published by Artist Colony Inn and Press, and T. C. Steele and the Society of Western Artists 1896 - 1914, to be released by Indiana University Press in spring 2009.
Resource Library editor's note:
The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on May 16, 2008, with permission of the author, which was granted to TFAO on March 24, 2008. Ms. Perry's essay pertains to an exhibition, Our Own Artist: The Paintings of William Edouard Scott, which was on view at the Indiana State Museum February 3 - June 3, 2007. This essay was published in the March - April 2007 issue of American Art Review,.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Shana Herb Johannessen for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
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