From Cooper Union to Harvard’s Hutchins Center: The Journey of a Painting


For my followers, please excuse the delay in posting this past 8 weeks.  I’m well on the way to recovery from a fractured right wrist. But there is interesting news to report about an oil painting Jane Hall did while she was in art school at Cooper Union (1932-1935). It has now found a permanent home at Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African & African American Research. How can this be? First a little background:

Jane’s favorite professor at Cooper Union was well-known American regionalist John Steuart Curry; the project she tackled first for his life drawing class was an oil painting of a festival in Virginia that she called The Warrenton Oyster Fry. It’s the only painting that survives from her art school days.

At the top of the crowded, colorful canvas filled with young, high-energy African Americans engaged in lively camaraderie, a banner reads “Sons and Daughters of the I Will Arise Oyster Fry.” Jane had tried harder than ever on this project, and her efforts paid off.

The authentic carnival atmosphere impressed Mr. Curry, who, according to Jane’s diary, said she’d “got something there;” even the art school director, Austin Purves, thought the painting was “swell, something I’ve been waiting three years to hear.” She’d been to an exhibit of John Steuart Curry’s work at the Ferargil Galleries on East 57th Street in Manhattan; there, two years earlier, he had shared the stage with Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton in an exhibition of leading American regionalist painters. “He is a wonder,” Jane noted in a letter, plus the newspapers now referred to his “ ‘meteoric rise;’ ‘single-handedly, John Steuart Curry could probably bring about a renaissance in American art.’” Jane was exuberant. “Did I tell you that I am his special protégé?” she wrote her guardian and aunt, Rose Hicks. “I’m studying composition under him in the afternoon . . . I know now what I want to be – a real artist – a painter – an immortal.” She’d also earned an A on a written exam.

The Warrenton Oyster Fry received honorable mention when awards were given out at Cooper Union’s Day Art School that spring.  Jane was thrilled that on April 21st The New York Times  included her name on the list of those who had done well at Cooper.  She didn’t know yet that Mr. Curry would not return in the 1935-1936 academic year. And, in 1935, she would leave art school to get a job.

My daughters and I were not sure how to interpret this painting, or whether it would be well understood if we hung it in any of our homes. Thanks to Carlyn’s initiative, we had superb help from Curator Sheldon Cheek at The Hutchins Center Image of the Black Archive and Library. He found it to be a “sympathetic treatment of a theme rarely experienced by most white people. The exaggerated figural style reflects the liveliness of an event where African Americans could truly be themselves without the restrictions placed on them by Jim Crow society. There is a very close resemblance between Jane Hall’s use of bodily gesture and that of her mentor John Steuart Curry, as can be seen in his depiction of a black family at the mercy of a Mississippi flood painted in the same year as the Warrenton Oyster Fry.”  Mr Cheek believes “Jane Hall’s style is best described as an east coast representative of American Regionalism as developed by Curry, Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton etc.”   He continues: “In a more literary vein, I am also reminded of Du Bose Heyward and George Gershwin’s contemporary evocation of southern black life in Porgy and Bess. The reception by white audiences of these varied, privileged, and somewhat voyeuristic glimpses into the world of the other seems to been genuinely sympathetic, similar to the visits by whites to those Harlem jazz clubs exclusively reserved for them.”

This month we donated the painting to the Hutchins Center; it is wonderful to know that it has such a distinguished home.