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Friday, September 25, 2015

William Edouard Scott

Mind, Body, and Spirit, 1937,  William Edouard Scott, (central section digitally restored).
William Edouard Scott
The history of African-American art parallels very closely the American chapters of the history of the race in general. That is to say, it came from virtually non-existent during the colonial years of slavery to becoming, a major cultural element in society today. That's not surprising in that the art of most cultures is a reflection of their society in general. For almost forty years we have explore African American history and culture in February during what's come to be known as Black History Month. The idea goes back as far as 1926, when history scholar, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, proposed a "Negro History Week." However, it wasn't until 1976, that this celebration became Black History Month. To my own way of thinking, at least insofar as art is concerned, this singling out of one, single, short month to study the work of African-American artists seems just as patronizing as writing special chapters in art history texts singling out the work of women artist, as if, without such separate commentary, neither would be worth mentioning. In Northern Chicago, the Wabash Avenue YMCA can claim itself as the undisputed birthplace of Black History Month. Located in the heart of the historic Bronzeville district and often referred to as the "Colored `Y' " during its heyday, the five-story building was where Dr. Woodson and three colleagues developed the notion that if whites learned more about the contributions of blacks, the races would get along better. Inside that building, painted in 1936, William Edouard Scott created a mural, for the first floor meeting room titled Mind, Body, and Spirit (above), probably the first ever to attempt the depiction of the vast panoply of the black history in America that Dr. Woodson hoped to promote.

From years of neglect, Scott's secco mural was in critical condition. (Secco painting applies paint to a dry wall versus fresco painting which applies paint to wet plaster.)
Sadly, the Wabash YMCA fell upon hard economic times. It was forced to close in 1981. Scott's murals inside fell upon even harder times, deteriorating to an alarming degree. The before and after photos (above) give some indication of the damage years of neglect can wrought upon a mural painted on dry plaster. The image surface had accumulated more than half a century of dirt, grime, and air pollution. This film darkened Scott’s original palette and robbed the painting of its intended brilliance. Due to the building’s lack of environmental controls, the mural also suffered from general structural instability. This resulted in numerous surface cracks and areas of loose paint. Early in 2001, work on restoring and preserving the mural began at the Wabash YMCA. The weakened paint layer was first consolidated using Beva-gel and, in some areas, a gelatin sizing. This required some time to complete due to the mural’s overall instability. The paint surface was then cleaned using a combination of detergent solvents and enzymes.

Rainy Night, Etaples, 1912, William Edouard Scott
William Edouard Scott was born in 1884, barely twenty years after the end of slavery. In many ways, his life's story is quite similar to the black history he depicted in the Wabash YMCA mural and throughout his sixty-year career as an artist. Born in Indianapolis, where he began his art training around the turn of the century, Scott moved on to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago around 1904. His earliest works are a number of murals painted around the city during his student days. Following graduation Scott moved to Paris to avoid racial prejudice against his art. There he studied at Académie Julien and Académie Colarossi where he was mentored by Henry O. Tanner, a famous African American artist who had come to Paris for the same reason as had Scott. During the years 1910-14, Scott occasionally visited his former teacher at the Etaples art colony and while there painted local scenes such as the atmospheric Rainy Night at Etaples (above) and others under Tanner's Impressionist influence.

Haitian Market, (1950s?) William Edouard Scott

When The Tide Is Out, William Edouard Scott
Having completed his formal education, and having returned to Chicago, Scott embarked on a career painting portraits and murals. Then, in 1931, he was fortunate enough to received a Rosenwald Foundation grant allowing him to traveled to Haiti to paint those who had “maintained their African heritage." His Haitian Market (above) and When the Tide is Out (right) are representative of Scott's work from his two Haitian periods. Later, Scott traveled to Alabama to study blacks in different communities in the South. He refused to paint them only as slaves and laborers, hoping to “reverse the stereotypical perceptions of African Americans and eventually foster an understanding among the races." When he returned to Chicago, Scott continued with that goal as he portrayed “blacks on canvas in positions of prominence doing noble deeds” through the portraits and murals he created during the rest of his life.

Frederick Douglass Appealing To President Lincoln To Enlist Negroes,
1943, William Edouard Scott
During WW II, Scott was commissioned to paint a mural for the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington, D.C. There he depicted another important event in African American history, his Frederick Douglass Appealing To President Lincoln To Enlist Negroes, (above) from 1943. Here Scott tells the story of Douglass’ appeal for African-American participation in the Union armies during the Civil War. The Civil War was proving much more difficult than the Union leadership had expected. And while Douglass presents a possible solution to the president, it is far from ideal in Lincoln’s eyes. Many whites of this time didn’t believe that African Americans could be effective soldiers. This portrayal furthers the message that African-Americans could be just as patriotic, and effective as soldiers, as any whites. Incidentally, despite the artist's noble message and heroic depiction of Douglass, this has to be one of the worst portraits of Lincoln ever painted.

Mother and Child, William Edouard Scott
(possibly from the 1930s).
Night Turtle Fishing in Haiti,
1931, William Edouard Scott
During the 1950s Scott once more returned to Haiti. Virtually none of Scott's Haitian paintings bear dates so it's difficult, just in judging from the negligible changes in his style, to ascertain whether individual works were created during the 1930s or 1950s. His Mother and Child (above) seems to resemble his work around the 1930s. However, Scott's Night Turtle Fishing in Haiti (right), was definitely a work from his 1931 stay on the island. I'm guessing Scott's lighthearted Maker of Goblins (below), was from the 1950s. William Edouard Scott survived to see the rise of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the beginnings of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He died in 1964 at the age of eighty.

The Maker Of Goblins,
William Edouard Scott


1 comment:

  1. This was a great article. Thank you for writing about my new found second cousin.