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Looking for a place to observe Black History Month? The Brooklyn Museum galleries are ideal—in February or during any other month! Tune in all month as we spotlight African American artists from our collection American, Contemporary and Decorative art collections.
The career of Bob Thompson, the noted African American artist, was cut short by his early death at the age of twenty-eight. Thompson was born near Louisville, Kentucky, and studied at the University of Louisville and at Boston University. In the early and mid-1960s, he traveled throughout Europe and experienced many Renaissance paintings and other artworks firsthand. He fused the vigor and vibrancy of Expressionism with themes from Old Master compositions and the vivid palette of Fauve painting to create the original visual vocabulary exemplified by The Judgment. Recalling such time-honored Old Master subjects as the Last Judgment and the Judgment of Paris, here a nude male trio sits before faceless winged female angels while two figures (at left) await judgment. The planar, flattened figures and compositional contours in a gesturally applied background are all equally emphasized.
Helen LaFrance is a self-taught African-American artist born in 1919 in Graves County, Kentucky, the second of four daughters to James Franklin Orr and Lillie May Ligon Orr. Though the terms are confining, Helen is often described as both an outsider artist due to her lack of formal training and existence outside the cultural mainstream and as a folk artist best known for her memory painting of the disappearing lifestyle of the rural South. She also painted powerful and intensely spiritual visionary interpretations of the Bible, in a style that differed radically from her memory paintings.
LaFrance grew up in a nurturing household under Jim Crow laws, which between 1876 and 1965 prescribed segregation and disadvantaged social, economic and educational conditions for African Americans in the United States. Her father owned and farmed his land, growing tobacco, corn, black-eyed peas, beans, peanuts and sorghum, in a time when share-croppingwas customary. Her parents bought school books to teach her at home and, after her chores were completed, she drew and carved in her spare time. Her artistic bent was encouraged from childhood and she always followed her mother’s wisdom to “paint what you know.” She went to school in fifth grade, but later left to work on the farm. When her mother died, she left home to take various jobs in a hospital, caring for children, cooking, working in the tobacco barns and a ceramic factory where she decorated brand-name whiskey bottles. In her 40s, she made enough money to buy art supplies at the grocery store and in 1986 she began painting full-time.