The Phillips Collection

Blake Gopnik reflects on a figure in 'Place du Tertre' by Lois Mailou Jones

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Second of five articles in which the Post's art critic chooses a single detail from a single painting to dwell on.

If you're going to risk some extreme connoisseurship -- looking and looking at the tiniest details in art -- you need to follow Rule 1 of the sport: Empty your bladder first, for concentration's sake. It was on my way out of the bathroom on the second floor of the old wing of the Phillips Collection that I noticed a work I'd never registered before. No wonder: The little painting, "Place du Tertre," looked like a retread of any number of impressionist views of Montmartre, deserving to be tucked away. Then I looked at the wall label, and was surprised to see the name of Lois Mailou Jones, a pioneering professor in the art department at Howard University who became famous for the black themes in her paintings. (She died in Washington in 1998, age 92.)

No blackness in this picture, I noted. Too early, I thought. The picture was made in 1938, when the 33-year-old Jones was in Paris learning modern painting, before she'd come of age as a black artist. I looked one last time, closer, to make sure that reading was correct, and did a double take.

There, buried at the far left edge of Jones's modest street scene, sat a tiny figure I could swear was black. In almost all the painting's other figures, no matter how small, Jones put down a blob or touch of pink where you'd expect a face or hands to be. Not so for the little figure I was concentrating on. Only black paint where you'd expect to see flesh -- white flesh, that is, as seen in your standard white painter's picture of Paris.

Looking still more closely at the picture, I noticed that my newly discovered "black" friend wasn't quite as marginal as I'd thought.

The painting shows a view up the middle of a broad Montmartre street, and the black figure is indeed once removed, the sole patron at a grim little cafe on the left-hand sidewalk. There's no sign of the happy patrons and colorful umbrellas at the street's other watering holes. But despite the emptiness around this figure, there's lots to direct our attention its way.

The largest and most notable person in the painting is the classic Parisian waiter, attention-getting in black pants and a white jacket, who stands on the right side of the street. But instead of tending to his many clients, all pink-faced like him, he's standing with his back to them, his arms crossed as he stares straight across the empty thoroughfare -- at our lonely dab of blackness. (Other figures are looking at that black spot, too.)

The second major point of interest in the scene is the great church of Sacré Coeur. Plumb a line down from the church's topmost dome and it lands smack on the head of our figure. That figure may be on the sidelines of the scene, but it sits right in the cross-hairs of the waiter's gaze and the dome's axis. Our figure may be depicted as socially marginal, sitting alone and bent over on a cafe chair, yet the whole painting seems arranged to bring attention to that marginality.

That word "arranged" seems right. The picture pretends to depict whatever happened to be in front of Jones as she worked at her easel. But can we really imagine that easel plonked down in the middle of traffic on a major street in Montmartre while its owner -- a female African American painter, no less -- takes her time capturing the scene? That seems more unlikely than the idea that a black woman painter all alone in Paris might choose to construct a scene that reflects her reality. And that reality is not so much what she sees, although that's the fiction that she uses in her art, but what she feels each day she's alive.

As a black person in Paris, Jones wasn't victimized, as she might have been in the United States. She even said that she felt much less black there than at home. But even in France she was a creature apart, of intense interest to the locals because of her difference from them. "It was a great curiosity for the French to see a colored artist painting," she wrote in a note on her work.

She is our figure at that cafe table.

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