Inner Intensity and Outer Calm: Figurative Sculpture by Nancy Elizabeth Prophet in Paris, 1922-1934
While in Paris for twelve years between the world wars, Nancy Elizabeth Prophet (1890-1960) produced the powerful sculpture for which she has become best known – meditative portraits of black men (including the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Congolais, 1931), as well as androgynous, and sometimes racially ambiguous, busts and figures. Prophet worked primarily in wood, favouring cherry, sycamore, ebony, and pear, as well as marble, but also in bronze, alabaster, granite, terracotta, plaster, and clay. Fewer than two dozen of her pieces have been located; most are in the museum of her alma mater, the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, which is mounting a travelling exhibition of her art in 2024. Prophet earned critical international acclaim, exhibiting at the Salon d’Automne, the Société des Artistes Français, the Harmon Foundation, the Newport Art Association, the Boston Society of Independent Artists, and Fifty-Sixth Street Galleries in New York.
An intensely private woman, Prophet refused simple classifications of race and gender. Although of African American and Narragansett-Pequot descent, she declared that she was ‘not a negro’, and her name appears male, as ‘Eli’, in an exhibition catalogue from 1927. This presentation examines Prophet’s education at the École des Beaux-Arts, relationships with such influential figures such as W.E.B. DuBois, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, and Roland Hayes, the impact of the Colonial Exposition of 1931, and press reception in France and the US, and features iconographical analysis of such themes as discontent, silence, prayer, poise, and Africa.
Theresa Leininger-Miller, Ph.D. is Professor of Art History at University of Cincinnati (UC), where she teaches 19th- to 21st-century American and European art history. Her publications include New Negro Artists in Paris: African American Painters and Sculptors in the City of Light, 1922-1934 (Rutgers, 2001); essays in Imprinted: Illustrating Race (Norman Rockwell Museum, 2022), The Routledge Companion to African American Art History, Deborah Grant; Harlem Renaissance; Black Paris; Paris Connections: African American Artists in Paris, Women Artists of the Harlem Renaissance; Out of Context: American Artists Abroad; The Modern Woman Revisited: Paris Between the Wars, and Picture Cincinnati in Song; essays in Panorama and Source: Notes in the History of Art; and multiple book and exhibition reviews. Leininger-Miller has lectured widely in the United States and abroad, and appeared on radio and television, and in documentaries. The curator of exhibitions at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, Yale University Art Gallery, Weston Art Gallery, and UC’s Langsam, Blegen, and DAAP Libraries, she was a Rockwell Center Fellow and the recipient of awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center, Kress and Luce Foundations, and the Smithsonian Institution. At UC, Leininger-Miller received the Diversity Ambassador Award and the Dean’s Award for Outstanding Research, among others. She also has served as Chair of the Association of Historians of American Art. She will be a Tyson Scholar at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in August, 2023.