Study for History of Meharry Medical College

This work is William Edouard Scott’s polished study for a mural painting offering a composite visual history of Meharry Medical College, in Nashville, Tennessee. The central image is a group portrait of the Meharry brothers, whose modest bequest to the Methodist Church established a school “for the training of Negro youth in medicine” in 1876. The five white men stand before a desk bearing a document that references the Freedman’s Aid Society, founded during the Civil War to create schools for former slaves, and the year 1866, when Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment granting them citizenship. Progressing from the bottom to the top of the composition are other vignettes of the institution’s history. At the lower right Scott shows the incident that inspired the Meharrys’ gift, when a poor black family risked their liberty to aid the young Samuel Meharry, an Ohio farmer then traveling through Kentucky. At the upper left, the school’s founding president, a Northerner, and first professor, a Southerner, together instruct the first students; above, Dr. John James Mullowney lectures to a class in 1921, the year he assumed the presidency of Meharry; and crowning the composition is a view of Meharry’s new building complex in North Nashville, completed in 1931. In interpreting Meharry’s history as an unbroken narrative of white, male leadership, with African Americans as passive generic recipients of their benevolent guidance, Scott closely followed Mullowney’s telling of Meharry’s history.i

The mural, which stands more than seven feet tall, remains at Meharry Medical College, for which it was painted in 1938 on the occasion of Mullowney’s retirement after seventeen years as president. In his autobiography, published in 1940, Mullowney claimed credit for the idea of celebrating the school’s history in an oil painting to be displayed in the lobby of the 1931 building. The selection of Scott for this commission, however, might have come from its donor, a Chicagoan. The inscription at the lower left corner of the study identifies him as Dr. Maurice E. Hebert, a 1923 graduate of Meharry. The first black periodontist in the Chicago area, Hebert perhaps knew Scott by reputation if not personally and may have recommended him for the commission. This study was likely made to send to Meharry for the institution’s—that is, Mullowney’s—approval before Scott began work on the mural itself.

By the 1930s, Scott’s reputation for mural paintings in particular was at its height. Early in his career he had made such works for schools and other institutions—settings that favored idealized historical imagery and encouraged a straightforward, accessible style. Later, Scott painted murals across the US, including for Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress Exposition and under the sponsorship of the WPA. He was a natural choice for a celebratory official portrayal of Meharry’s history. Legible and accessible, this mural combines a naturalism grounded in Scott’s academic training with a modernist approach to composition in the use of striking diagonals to separate the various scenes that map out Meharry’s history.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i John J. Mullowney, typescript “A Pictorial History of Meharry Medical College,” May 1938, Meharry Medical College Archives, and Mullowney, American Gives a Chance (Tampa, FL: The Tribune Press, 1940), 90.

Savoy

Verging on an abstract composition, William S. Carter’s Savoy presents the forms of tall modern urban buildings fractured into planes of bright color. Glowing with nighttime illumination, they create an enticing spectacle contemplated by an approaching couple whose heads frame the view. At the right, a man in profile turns to speak to his companion, a woman seen only from behind. The buildings are emblazoned with signs reading “Savoy,” “Lenox,” and “Theresa”—names that evoke the New York City neighborhood of Harlem. From the 1910s through the 1930s, it was a black cultural mecca renowned for its entertainment, especially jazz music and popular dance, which appealed equally to blacks and whites. One of Harlem’s most important performance venues was the Savoy Ballroom: opened in 1926 on Lenox Avenue between 140th and 141st Streets, it was soon touted as the world’s finest ballroom. The high-rise Hotel Theresa on Seventh Avenue (today’s Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard) was a whites-only luxury establishment that became a vibrant center of African American life after it was desegregated in 1940.

Carter probably painted Savoy shortly after returning home from his only recorded visit to New York, in 1941. During his brief stay there, this jazz and dance aficionado likely attended performances at the famed Savoy. He also toured art galleries, and at the Downtown Gallery he was invited to contribute a work to the “American Negro Art” exhibition, a benefit for a fund for African American artists, which opened in early December. As Carter later recalled, he quickly purchased materials and set about making a painting to show.i Hung alongside paintings by such luminaries as Henry Ossawa Tanner and Archibald J. Motley Jr., Carter’s Purple Plum was among those “of especial merit” in the display, in the view of New York Times art critic Edward Alden Jewell.ii

Savoy demonstrates the influence of Cubism. Throughout his career, Carter both experimented with modernist distortion and worked in a solidly representational manner. This image is less a picture of the city as Carter saw it than a montage of its famous place-names and soaring skyline that captures the excitement of New York and of Harlem for the struggling Carter. The name Savoy equally evokes the artist’s hometown, however. The year after Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom opened, its equally lavish namesake opened in the Bronzeville neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. It too quickly became a prominent destination for jazz performances, public dances, sports matches, and other entertainments, as well as community meetings, and Carter attended many events there. Moreover, beginning in 1939, Chicago’s Savoy Ballroom hosted many of the Artists and Models Balls staged to benefit the South Side Community Art Center, which opened in 1940 and played an important role in the development of Carter’s artistic career. He was among a host of African American artists who designed sets, costumes, and decorations for the balls.

Wendy Greenhouse, Phd

i William Carter, interview by Toni Costonie, Nov. 3, 1988, transcript, 98-99, African-American Artists in Chicago Oral History Program, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
ii Edward Alden Jewell, “Negro Art Display Put on Exhibition,” New York Times, Dec. 10, 1941.

Untitled (Steamer in Harbor)

This painting is part of a group discussed in the following essay.

All four Chicago River views by James Bolivar Needham are studies of boats and buildings seen at a distance across the water’s slick surface under a mottled gray sky. Painted with rapid, obvious brushstrokes, Needham’s views appear to be unedited, quickly captured records of transitory scenes as noted by an objective observer. Yet the artist selected his viewpoints carefully to achieve a balance of vertical and horizontal forms and contrasts of color. The diffused light and somewhat smoky atmosphere, typical of the river in its industrial heyday at the turn of the twentieth century, lend subtle pastel tints to far-off structures and their shimmering reflections. In Tugboats and Steamer in Harbor, the steam issuing in plumes from the boats’ stacks unites the solid forms of the vessels with the hazy atmosphere overhead. Chicago River No. 1 and No. 2 both feature a horizon line exactly balanced between the top and bottom edges of the composition, the lower portion of which mirrors the pale neutral tones of the sky, setting off the diagonally receding, more densely colored band of boats, buildings, and their reflections.

Having worked as a deckhand on the Great Lakes as a young man, Needham was intimately familiar with shipping on the Chicago River, which he painted almost exclusively for several decades. As an African American and an outsider in Chicago’s art world, Needham had few formal opportunities to study art, particularly the depiction of the figure; the river, however, was always available, offering along its length a constantly changing spectacle and spots where he could paint undisturbed. Needham’s paintings often depict specific locales and named vessels. Yet the artist was less interested in physical details and identity than in creating compositions from the elements before him, particularly the subtle color effects resulting from the river’s shifting light and atmosphere. Compared with Goose Island, a Chicago River painting by the artist’s reputed teacher Albert Fleury, Needham’s works reflect greater concern for capturing transient light effects than for surface “finish.” This quality and his works’ apparent on-site execution suggest the artist’s awareness of impressionism, a radical approach to painting that was sweeping Chicago’s art scene in the early 1890s, just as he began painting the river.

Needham’s sensitivity to the “poetic” possibilities of the river, which was notorious in his day for its filth and noxious odors, made him an artistic pioneer in the mid-1890s. Within a few years a host of Chicago landscape painters, notably Fleury and William Clusmann, were discovering the river for themselves. By then Needham was painting in obscurity and the river itself faced industrial and commercial obsolescence thanks in part to implementation of portions of Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago of 1909. As if acknowledging that reality, Needham’s images banish the frenzied activity that once characterized the city’s waterways, confining movement to the flickering surface of the water and wraiths of smoke.

These four paintings are typical of Needham’s works in their small scale and their medium: oil on panel (in the case of Chicago River No. 1) or oil on canvas wrapped around panel. Often the panels on which Needham painted appear to have been cut down from packing cases of the sort commonly carried on the very boats he pictured. Steamer in Harbor is cradled at the back, possibly to prevent warping as well as to provide a handle, allowing the artist to hold the panel with its edges free as he painted. Chicago River No. 1Tugboats, and Steamer in Harbor feature Needham’s hallmark treatment of the backs of his supports: on a coat of matte black paint (possibly boat paint), he inscribed in red such information as the painting’s size and exact date of execution, enclosed in a red diamond-shaped outline. Steamer in Harbor and Chicago River No. 2 are among the very few known paintings by Needham that bear his signature on the front.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

Untitled (Tugboats)

This painting is part of a group discussed in the following essay.

All four Chicago River views by James Bolivar Needham are studies of boats and buildings seen at a distance across the water’s slick surface under a mottled gray sky. Painted with rapid, obvious brushstrokes, Needham’s views appear to be unedited, quickly captured records of transitory scenes as noted by an objective observer. Yet the artist selected his viewpoints carefully to achieve a balance of vertical and horizontal forms and contrasts of color. The diffused light and somewhat smoky atmosphere, typical of the river in its industrial heyday at the turn of the twentieth century, lend subtle pastel tints to far-off structures and their shimmering reflections. In Tugboats and Steamer in Harbor, the steam issuing in plumes from the boats’ stacks unites the solid forms of the vessels with the hazy atmosphere overhead. Chicago River No. 1 and No. 2 both feature a horizon line exactly balanced between the top and bottom edges of the composition, the lower portion of which mirrors the pale neutral tones of the sky, setting off the diagonally receding, more densely colored band of boats, buildings, and their reflections.

Having worked as a deckhand on the Great Lakes as a young man, Needham was intimately familiar with shipping on the Chicago River, which he painted almost exclusively for several decades. As an African American and an outsider in Chicago’s art world, Needham had few formal opportunities to study art, particularly the depiction of the figure; the river, however, was always available, offering along its length a constantly changing spectacle and spots where he could paint undisturbed. Needham’s paintings often depict specific locales and named vessels. Yet the artist was less interested in physical details and identity than in creating compositions from the elements before him, particularly the subtle color effects resulting from the river’s shifting light and atmosphere. Compared with Goose Island, a Chicago River painting by the artist’s reputed teacher Albert Fleury, Needham’s works reflect greater concern for capturing transient light effects than for surface “finish.” This quality and his works’ apparent on-site execution suggest the artist’s awareness of impressionism, a radical approach to painting that was sweeping Chicago’s art scene in the early 1890s, just as he began painting the river.

Needham’s sensitivity to the “poetic” possibilities of the river, which was notorious in his day for its filth and noxious odors, made him an artistic pioneer in the mid-1890s. Within a few years a host of Chicago landscape painters, notably Fleury and William Clusmann, were discovering the river for themselves. By then Needham was painting in obscurity and the river itself faced industrial and commercial obsolescence thanks in part to implementation of portions of Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago of 1909. As if acknowledging that reality, Needham’s images banish the frenzied activity that once characterized the city’s waterways, confining movement to the flickering surface of the water and wraiths of smoke.

These four paintings are typical of Needham’s works in their small scale and their medium: oil on panel (in the case of Chicago River No. 1) or oil on canvas wrapped around panel. Often the panels on which Needham painted appear to have been cut down from packing cases of the sort commonly carried on the very boats he pictured. Steamer in Harbor is cradled at the back, possibly to prevent warping as well as to provide a handle, allowing the artist to hold the panel with its edges free as he painted. Chicago River No. 1Tugboats, and Steamer in Harbor feature Needham’s hallmark treatment of the backs of his supports: on a coat of matte black paint (possibly boat paint), he inscribed in red such information as the painting’s size and exact date of execution, enclosed in a red diamond-shaped outline. Steamer in Harbor and Chicago River No. 2 are among the very few known paintings by Needham that bear his signature on the front.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

Untitled (Chicago River No. 1)

This painting is part of a group discussed in the following essay.

All four Chicago River views by James Bolivar Needham are studies of boats and buildings seen at a distance across the water’s slick surface under a mottled gray sky. Painted with rapid, obvious brushstrokes, Needham’s views appear to be unedited, quickly captured records of transitory scenes as noted by an objective observer. Yet the artist selected his viewpoints carefully to achieve a balance of vertical and horizontal forms and contrasts of color. The diffused light and somewhat smoky atmosphere, typical of the river in its industrial heyday at the turn of the twentieth century, lend subtle pastel tints to far-off structures and their shimmering reflections. In Tugboats and Steamer in Harbor, the steam issuing in plumes from the boats’ stacks unites the solid forms of the vessels with the hazy atmosphere overhead. Chicago River No. 1 and No. 2 both feature a horizon line exactly balanced between the top and bottom edges of the composition, the lower portion of which mirrors the pale neutral tones of the sky, setting off the diagonally receding, more densely colored band of boats, buildings, and their reflections.

Having worked as a deckhand on the Great Lakes as a young man, Needham was intimately familiar with shipping on the Chicago River, which he painted almost exclusively for several decades. As an African American and an outsider in Chicago’s art world, Needham had few formal opportunities to study art, particularly the depiction of the figure; the river, however, was always available, offering along its length a constantly changing spectacle and spots where he could paint undisturbed. Needham’s paintings often depict specific locales and named vessels. Yet the artist was less interested in physical details and identity than in creating compositions from the elements before him, particularly the subtle color effects resulting from the river’s shifting light and atmosphere. Compared with Goose Island, a Chicago River painting by the artist’s reputed teacher Albert Fleury, Needham’s works reflect greater concern for capturing transient light effects than for surface “finish.” This quality and his works’ apparent on-site execution suggest the artist’s awareness of impressionism, a radical approach to painting that was sweeping Chicago’s art scene in the early 1890s, just as he began painting the river.

Needham’s sensitivity to the “poetic” possibilities of the river, which was notorious in his day for its filth and noxious odors, made him an artistic pioneer in the mid-1890s. Within a few years a host of Chicago landscape painters, notably Fleury and William Clusmann, were discovering the river for themselves. By then Needham was painting in obscurity and the river itself faced industrial and commercial obsolescence thanks in part to implementation of portions of Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago of 1909. As if acknowledging that reality, Needham’s images banish the frenzied activity that once characterized the city’s waterways, confining movement to the flickering surface of the water and wraiths of smoke.

These four paintings are typical of Needham’s works in their small scale and their medium: oil on panel (in the case of Chicago River No. 1) or oil on canvas wrapped around panel. Often the panels on which Needham painted appear to have been cut down from packing cases of the sort commonly carried on the very boats he pictured. Steamer in Harbor is cradled at the back, possibly to prevent warping as well as to provide a handle, allowing the artist to hold the panel with its edges free as he painted. Chicago River No. 1Tugboats, and Steamer in Harbor feature Needham’s hallmark treatment of the backs of his supports: on a coat of matte black paint (possibly boat paint), he inscribed in red such information as the painting’s size and exact date of execution, enclosed in a red diamond-shaped outline. Steamer in Harbor and Chicago River No. 2 are among the very few known paintings by Needham that bear his signature on the front.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

Untitled (Chicago River No. 2)

This painting is part of a group discussed in the following essay.

All four Chicago River views by James Bolivar Needham are studies of boats and buildings seen at a distance across the water’s slick surface under a mottled gray sky. Painted with rapid, obvious brushstrokes, Needham’s views appear to be unedited, quickly captured records of transitory scenes as noted by an objective observer. Yet the artist selected his viewpoints carefully to achieve a balance of vertical and horizontal forms and contrasts of color. The diffused light and somewhat smoky atmosphere, typical of the river in its industrial heyday at the turn of the twentieth century, lend subtle pastel tints to far-off structures and their shimmering reflections. In Tugboats and Steamer in Harbor, the steam issuing in plumes from the boats’ stacks unites the solid forms of the vessels with the hazy atmosphere overhead. Chicago River No. 1 and No. 2 both feature a horizon line exactly balanced between the top and bottom edges of the composition, the lower portion of which mirrors the pale neutral tones of the sky, setting off the diagonally receding, more densely colored band of boats, buildings, and their reflections.

Having worked as a deckhand on the Great Lakes as a young man, Needham was intimately familiar with shipping on the Chicago River, which he painted almost exclusively for several decades. As an African American and an outsider in Chicago’s art world, Needham had few formal opportunities to study art, particularly the depiction of the figure; the river, however, was always available, offering along its length a constantly changing spectacle and spots where he could paint undisturbed. Needham’s paintings often depict specific locales and named vessels. Yet the artist was less interested in physical details and identity than in creating compositions from the elements before him, particularly the subtle color effects resulting from the river’s shifting light and atmosphere. Compared with Goose Island, a Chicago River painting by the artist’s reputed teacher Albert Fleury, Needham’s works reflect greater concern for capturing transient light effects than for surface “finish.” This quality and his works’ apparent on-site execution suggest the artist’s awareness of impressionism, a radical approach to painting that was sweeping Chicago’s art scene in the early 1890s, just as he began painting the river.

Needham’s sensitivity to the “poetic” possibilities of the river, which was notorious in his day for its filth and noxious odors, made him an artistic pioneer in the mid-1890s. Within a few years a host of Chicago landscape painters, notably Fleury and William Clusmann, were discovering the river for themselves. By then Needham was painting in obscurity and the river itself faced industrial and commercial obsolescence thanks in part to implementation of portions of Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago of 1909. As if acknowledging that reality, Needham’s images banish the frenzied activity that once characterized the city’s waterways, confining movement to the flickering surface of the water and wraiths of smoke.

These four paintings are typical of Needham’s works in their small scale and their medium: oil on panel (in the case of Chicago River No. 1) or oil on canvas wrapped around panel. Often the panels on which Needham painted appear to have been cut down from packing cases of the sort commonly carried on the very boats he pictured. Steamer in Harbor is cradled at the back, possibly to prevent warping as well as to provide a handle, allowing the artist to hold the panel with its edges free as he painted. Chicago River No. 1, Tugboats, and Steamer in Harbor feature Needham’s hallmark treatment of the backs of his supports: on a coat of matte black paint (possibly boat paint), he inscribed in red such information as the painting’s size and exact date of execution, enclosed in a red diamond-shaped outline. Steamer in Harbor and Chicago River No. 2 are among the very few known paintings by Needham that bear his signature on the front.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

Untitled (Landscape)

William A. Harper’s sketch-like landscape shows a deserted scene of a riverbank with trees, some bearing the russet leaves of early autumn. The vivid colors in this work include rich blues, not only in the flowing water and the sky but tinting the dense woods on the far shore. Distinct brushstrokes are evident, particularly in the trees on the right; in the foreground, more blended paint indicates succeeding bands of muddy bank, rock, and dry soil. Harper seems to have been less concerned with conveying the surface qualities of the landscape’s features than with exploring relative tonal and color values and the juxtaposition of near and distant elements in the landscape.

From the beginning of his brief career, Harper focused on landscape painting. He found his subjects in a variety of locales, notably Cornwall, England, and rural France, which he interpreted in a romantic manner that reveals the influence of the French Barbizon school and of his most important landscape teacher, Charles Francis Browne. This painting, however, manifests a fresh immediacy, strong color, and rapid brushwork that, combined with the absence of any human presence, suggests an American setting. It may depict the area around Eagle’s Nest, an exclusive summer art colony overlooking the Rock River at Oregon, Illinois. Harper’s mentor Browne was a founding member of the colony and an avid painter of the surrounding scenery. Possibly thanks to him, by 1905 Harper had already spent several summers at Eagle’s Nest as an “assistant” to the artists. There he also found time to paint works “that commanded our genuine admiration and respect,” according to an unnamed colony artist writing after Harper’s death.i

Harper’s memorial exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1910 included two works, The Stream and The River Bank, either of which might have been this landscape. Never previously exhibited, according to existing records, these paintings may have been among several relatively minor or student works included in the memorial show, which was intended to liquidate the artist’s estate. All the exhibited paintings were for sale, perhaps to benefit Harper’s father and brother, who were living in Decatur, Illinois, at the time. In this work, the signature at lower left, in which a faint “Harper” was reinforced with a more distinctly painted “W. A. Harper,” perhaps indicates the artist’s transition from student to confident professional.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i “The Whirl of Society,” Chicago Inter Ocean, Feb. 9, 1905.