"More than 10 years ago, in 1996, A Shared Heritage: Art by Four African Americans was presented by the Indianapolis Museum of Art as a means of recognizing the contributions of William Edouard Scott, John Wesley Hardrick, Hale Aspacio Woodruff and William Majors, painters who shared a common bond — other than Indianapolis — despite their stylistic differences. Each exemplified a sense of pride in their African-American heritage, and while their painting did not always reflect this directly, each would touch upon it in some way while creating art that stood on its own artistic merits.
The most senior of these, both in terms of age and status as one of Indianapolis’ first African-American painters to be recognized locally as well as nationally and internationally, William Edouard Scott (1884-1964) is the subject of a solo retrospective now on view at the Indiana State Museum.
Scott is thought of as one of the finest painters to come out of the Harlem Renaissance. But first Scott traveled to Europe, where he studied in France with Henry Ossawa Tanner, by then an expatriate who sought to create and show his work without the tensions of racial discrimination. Scott wanted to learn more about his artform and more about himself — and he brought these gifts home with him.
Early paintings reflect Scott’s exploration of French impressionism and Tanner’s influence, adapting both to his own uses. “Rainy Night, Etaples,” a brooding cityscape rendered in a dusky blue-grey palette, depicts a caped woman and child standing alone while in the distance a well-lit chaos of activity suggests the unattainable comforts of wealth.
Scott later traveled to Haiti — said to be his favorite subject as a painter — where he produced a large body of work depicting native culture in all its confident glory. Paintings such as “Turkey Vendor” depict the celebration of daily life: A woman proudly smoking a pipe carries live turkeys in her arms and on a tray balanced expertly upon her turban. Scott’s dark impressionist style has now given way to a brighter one, symbolically evident of his greater confidence in his own unique point of view.
Scott is perhaps best remembered as a muralist and portrait artist, leaving behind a legacy of numerous portraits including those of renowned African-American figures such as Frederick Douglass and a dual portrait of Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver.
Especially in the years since its reopening on the White River State Park campus, the ISM has been in a favorable position to extract these gems from our city and region’s past and give them their due.
Our Own Artist: Paintings by William Edouard Scott is on view through June 3 at the Indiana State Museum, 650 W. Washington St. Call 317-232-1637 or visit www.in.gov/ism for information.