Behind the Work

Lois Mailou Jones's 'Mob Victim': Strength in subtlety

Friday, December 24, 2010


Though far from political, Lois Mailou Jones used her art to advance a cause: the dignity of African Americans, Africans and members of the African diaspora. Married to a prominent Haitian artist in 1953, Jones made frequent trips to that island nation, and several works in the show sing of its people and culture.

But the painting "Mob Victim (Meditation)" is perhaps the most powerful work in the show. Made in 1944, it's a portrait of an elderly black man Jones met on U Street NW and invited to her studio. It's his eyes that grab you first, cast upward in the manner of "The Repentant St. Peter" at the Phillips Collection. You almost don't notice the subject's bound hands, indicating that he is about to be lynched.

Now look closely at his neck. You can see where Jones had second thoughts, painting over what was originally a noose. But she pulled back from that obvious prop, and the picture - along with the story it tells - is the stronger for her restraint.

- Michael O'Sullivan

© 2010 The Washington Post Company