Shirley Graham Du Bois – Political Activist, Composer, Playwright, and Author

Shirley Graham, Carl Van Vechten Photographs, Library of Congress (source)

Shirley Graham, Carl Van Vechten Photographs, Library of Congress (source)

I wrote a short piece for the Facebook page last week on Shirley Graham Du Bois, but feel that this remarkable woman deserves more attention. Not only was she a well-established political activist before she married her famous husband, W.E.B. Du Bois, in 1951, she was also a composer , a published playwright, a lecturer and an author. Taught as a child to stand up to injustice, she wrote her first editorial when she was 13 and never looked back.

Born November 11, 1896, Shirley was the oldest of five children born to David A Graham, an African Methodist Episcopal minister and his wife Elizabeth Etta Bell Graham. The family moved frequently because of her father’s assignments. Living in both northern and southern states such as Indiana, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Colorado, they ended up in Spokane, Washington, where Shirley graduated from Lewis and Clark High School. Her father officiated at her first marriage to Shadrach McCants in 1918. The couple had two boys, Robert (1923) and David (1925), before obtaining a divorce in 1927.

After the divorce, Shirley left her two boys with her parents and traveled extensively, studying and teaching. She studied at Howard University School of Music, the Institute of Musical Arts in NYC, and at the Sorbonne before entering Oberlin College in 1931 where she received her undergraduate degree and a Masters in Music. She taught music and fine arts during this time to support herself. Later, she took classes toward a doctorate in English at Yale and New York University.

During her time at the Sorbonne, she met many people of African descent and developed a desire to express African and African-American themes through her music. In 1932, her opera, Tom Tom: An Epic of Music and the Negro, premiered in Cleveland, Ohio to great acclaim, making her the first African-American woman to write and produce an opera with an all-black cast. It told the story of Africans’ journey to North America as enslaved people, their struggles, and finally their freedom.  It took place in a stadium setting and attracted 25,000 people to the first two performances. She wrote other musicals, as well as comedic and tragic plays, including Deep Rivers (1939), It’s Morning (1940), Track Thirteen (1940), and Elijah’s Raven (1941).

After her time at Oberlin, Shirley served as a director of a unit of the Chicago Federal Theater, the YWCA-USO Director at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, and founded the Graham Artists Bureau in Chicago with her brother Bill to secure bookings for African-American artists. Dismissed after defending men who were protesting the deaths of three black soldiers at Fort Huachuca, she was hired by the NAACP as a field secretary to organize new branches across the country.

Shirley was a prolific writer having written her first editorial at the age of 13, after being barred from a YWCA swimming pool. She wrote in several genres, but is particularly known for her biographies for both adults and children. Her first book, George Washington Carver, Scientist, was published in 1944, followed by Paul Robeson, Citizen of the World (1946), and Your Most Humble Servant: Benjamin Banneker (1949), among others. She focused not only on famous African-Americans, but also on international individuals such as Gamal Nassar and Julius Nyerere. She also wrote two novels, Zulu Heart (1974) and a historical novel about the life of Frederick Douglass, There Once Was a Slave (1947) which won the Messner Prize.

W.E.B. Du Bois c. 1946, Carl Van Vechten Photographs, Library of Congress (source)

W.E.B. Du Bois c. 1946, Carl Van Vechten Photographs, Library of Congress (source)

Politically active throughout her life she wrote and delivered many speeches and published articles on a variety of topics related to minorities, women, and peace. Her focus was not confined to issues in the United States, but was global. In 1961, she was one of the founders of Freedomways, a civil rights magazine, and became its first general editor. She was also one of the founders of the Progressive Party and in 1948 gave the keynote address at the convention in Philadelphia which nominated former Vice President Henry Wallace for President.

Shirley’s second marriage was to W.E.B. Du Bois on Feb 27, 1951, about six months after the death of his first wife. Thirty years his junior, she had known him since she was a child and as an adult had worked as a colleague on many common causes.

After their wedding, he was indicted for “un-American” activities, but there was insufficient evidence for a conviction. For the next 10 years, they fought legal battles with the government and continued to be harassed by US officials because of their left-leaning stances.  Finally, they decided to emigrate to Ghana in 1961. They became citizens and even after W.E.B.’s death in 1963, Shirley remained in Ghana until the coup d’etat in 1966.

A woman of many talents, after her husband’s death, Shirley worked with Ghana Television, developing studio space, training staff, and helping to develop the national infrastructure. In 1966, with the overthrow of the government led by Kwame Nkrumah, she moved to Cairo, Egypt to live with her son David who was working as a journalist.

In Cairo, Egypt, she traveled throughout the world speaking and promoting the cause of liberation for Africans, African-Americans, and women. In 1971, she also published her memoir of W.E.B., His Day Is Marching On. In 1977, Shirley traveled to Beijing, China, for cancer treatment, where she died on March 27th.

Shirley Graham Du Bois was a very talented and versatile woman who had a passion for justice that wouldn’t be denied.


Shirley Graham Du Bois Papers, Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

DuBois, Shirley Graham (1896-1944) at Black Past Remembered & Reclaimed

Shirley Graham Du Bois at Wikipedia

“Les Trois Grandes Dames” of Impressionism – Part 3 – Berthe Morisot

"Berthe Morisot Painting" (1865) by Edma Morisot (source)

“Berthe Morisot Painting” (1865) by her sister Edma Morisot (source)

The Salon de Paris was the official annual exhibition of the Académie des beaux-arts in Paris. Sponsored by the government (until 1881) and judged by academicians, it was the place to be recognized as an artist in France of the 19th century. As time went on the juries became more conservative, specifically they were not receptive to the artists who came to be called Impressionists. So these artists broke away and held their own exhibitions beginning in 1874. Three of the women, dubbed “les trois grandes dames” of Impressionism by Gustave Geffroy, were among these artists: Mary Cassatt, Marie Bracquemond, and Berthe Morisot.

Unlike Cassatt and Bracquemond, Berthe Morisot’s artistic aspirations were supported by her family. Her parents were even warned by Joseph Guichard, the artist who gave Berthe and her sisters lessons, “Given your daughters’ natural gifts, it will not be petty drawing-room talents that my instruction will achieve; they will become painters.” Of the three daughters two of them did just that, Edma and Berthe. Although Edma gave up painting after her marriage to a naval officer, Berthe went on to an illustrious career. Edma always supported Berthe’s decision to continue painting, even after her marriage, and they remained close throughout their lives.

Born on January 14, 1841, Berthe was the third child of an affluent bourgeois family. After the daughter’s initial instruction, and in spite of Guichard’s warning, Edma and Berthe followed in the footsteps of other artists and registered as copyists at the Louvre where they met and became friends with other artists. Both are thought to have studied under Camille Carot, who encouraged them to begin painting outdoors (plein air) and under Achile Oudinot, both painters of the Barbizon School. Berthe also briefly studied sculpture as well, but none of her pieces are known to survive.

"The Mother and Sister of the Artist" (1869/70) by Berthe Morisot (source)

“The Mother and Sister of the Artist” (1869/70) by Berthe Morisot (source)

Berthe’s first acceptance in the Salon was in 1864 when she was 23 years old. Edma was also accepted and they both exhibited together until Edma married in 1868. Berthe continued to exhibit regularly at the Salon until 1873, and beginning in 1874 exhibited with the Impressionists. By 1872, her career was firmly established when a private dealer, Druand-Ruel, purchased 22 of her paintings.

"The Cradle" (1872) by Berthe Morisot (source)

“The Cradle” (1872) by Berthe Morisot (source)

Edma wasn’t the only one to fall in love in the 1860s. At some point (sources vary) the sisters became acquainted with Édouard Manet. The families became close with Manet and Morisot influencing each others painting over time. Through Édouard, Berthe met his brother Eugène Manet. They married in 1874 and had one daughter, Julie, born in 1878.

"Eugène Manet à l'Ile de Wight" (1875) by Berthe Morisot (source)

“Eugène Manet à l’Ile de Wight” (1875) by Berthe Morisot (source)

Berthe worked in oil, watercolor and pastel and tended to paint domestic life and portraits. She frequently used family and friends as models, including her daughter Julie. Her selection of subjects was somewhat hampered by her gender and social status, although she did eventually paint nudes later in her career. But what was appreciated by many and in fact made her work stand out, were her feminine subjects and style.

"Child Among the Hollyhocks" (1881) by Berthe Morisot (source)

“Child Among the Hollyhocks” (1881) by Berthe Morisot (source)

Eugène Manet died in 1892 and Berthe’s own health wasn’t good. She followed him in death on March 2, 1895. Julie was just 15 years old and was left in the care of Stéphane Mallarmé, the French poet and critic, and good family friend.

"Reading" (1873) by Berthe Morisot (source)

“Reading” (1873) by Berthe Morisot (source)

“Only one woman created a style, and that woman is Madame Morisot. Her pictures are the only pictures painted by a woman that could not be destroyed without creating a blank, a hiatus in the history of art.” ~ George Moore


Berthe Morisot“, The Famous Artists
Edma and Berthe“, Women in the Act of Painting

“Les Trois Grandes Dames” of Impressionism – Part 2 – Marie Bracquemond

Marie Bracquemond (source)

Marie Bracquemond (source)

I know little about art with the exception of a passing acquaintance with the Impressionists from taking French in school. Sadly, as in many other areas of my education, it was the male Impressionists we learned about not the women. Although left out of our books, they weren’t absent and today we look at Marie Bracquemond who, with Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot, has been called one of “les trois grandes dames” of Impressionism.

Marie Anne Caroline Quivoron was born on December 1, 1840 near Brest in northwestern France. Her father died shortly after her birth and her mother’s second marriage resulted in frequent moves before they finally settled in Étampes, south of Paris. As a girl, she first painted a birthday present for her mother using pigment from crushed flowers. A family friend, impressed by her efforts, gave her a box of watercolors.

Beginning instruction in her teens under M. Wasser, she was accomplished enough by 1857 to have a painting accepted by the Paris Salon. This led to an introduction to Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and work in his studio. Her exposure there led to commissions for original work as well as making important copies in the Louvre.

"Woman with an Umbrella", 1880, by Marie Bracquemond (source)

“Woman with an Umbrella”, 1880, by Marie Bracquemond (source)

She didn’t stay in Ingres’s studio for long, considering him a “despot” with “low esteem of women artists.” In a letter in 1860, she said of M. Ingres: “He wished to impose limits. He would assign to them [women] only the painting of flowers, of fruits, of still lifes, portraits and genre scenes. . . . I wish to work at painting, not to paint some flowers, but to express those feelings that art inspires in me.”

It was in the Louvre that Marie met Félix Bracquemond. Félix was a prolific printmaker, painter and ceramist. He was prominent in both literary and artistic circles and friends with many Impressionists, although he didn’t share their preference for color over line or working outside the studio. He was also loud, arrogant, and some would say obnoxious. Marie was always properly chaperoned by her mother and sister, Louise, and Félix asked a friend to arrange an introduction.

For two years Marie and Félix were inseparable in the Louvre. They analyzed masterpieces and surely discovered their differing tastes, but Marie found herself submitting to his dominant personality. Their engagement lasted for two years, but finally they married in 1869 in spite of her mother’s opposition. Their only son, Pierre, was born the following year. Always in delicate health, Marie’s health began to decline after the birth.

Their relationship was tempestuous. Félix had no prejudice against women as artists, but according to Pierre, no one, male or female, could change his staunchly held opinions. However, he did teach Marie quite a lot. He introduced her to many other artists as well as new media. Working together at the Haviland studio in Auteuil, Marie designed dinner service plates and created faience tile panels and became very accomplished.

"On the Terrace at Sèvres", 1880, by Marie Bracquemond (source)

“On the Terrace at Sèvres”, 1880, by Marie Bracquemond (source)

In the late 1870s, Marie’s style began to change under the mentorship of Monet and Renoir.  This was more than Félix could tolerate. According to Pierre, he only grudgingly allowed her to exhibit a few of her pieces, three in a private gallery in rue Lafitte and five at the Dudley Gallery in London in 1881. A further influence on Marie was Gauguin, who came to stay with the Bracquemonds in 1886 at Félix’s invitation.

Félix became increasingly critical of Marie’s work and called her ambitions “incurable vanity.” She also tired easily trying to work in addition to keeping up her household responsibilities, which she prioritized. Marie always attended Sunday mass, which gave Félix one more thing to criticize.

Weekly gatherings on Sunday at the Bracquemond home frequently ended in arguments. According to Gustave Geffroy, Félix was “both augumentative and authoritarian. He adored debate . . . but his weakness was that he always wanted to be too right, and if anyone disagreed with him ever so little it would end with growing rage.”

"Under the Lamp", 1887, by Marie Bracquemond (source)

“Under the Lamp”, 1887, by Marie Bracquemond (source)

Marie finally gave up the struggle, painting only a few private works after 1890. One of her last paintings was The Artist’s Son and Sister in the Garden at Sèvres. Most of what we know about Marie’s life comes from an unpublished memoir written by Pierre, La Vie de Félix et Marie Bracquemond. In it he fails to describe Marie’s last years. Evidently, Félix never stopped railing against the Impressionists, but Marie never stopped loving them.

Marie Bracquemond died in Paris on January 17, 1916. Three years after her death, 156 of her works were assembled for a show at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in Paris. Only four of those works are now on public display.

"The Artist’s Son and Sister in the Garden at Sevres", 1890, by Marie Bracquemond (source)

“The Artist’s Son and Sister in the Garden at Sèvres”, 1890, by Marie Bracquemond (source)


Jean-Paul Bouillon and Elizabeth Kane, “Marie Bracquemond“, Woman’s Art Journal Vol. 5, No. 2 (Autumn, 1984 – Winter, 1985), pp. 21-27


“Les Trois Grandes Dames” of Impressionism – Part 1 – Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt, self-portrait c. 1878 (source)

Mary Cassatt, self-portrait c. 1878 (source)

In 1894 in La Vie artistique, Gustave Geffroy, the art critic, listed three women who had contributed significantly to the history of impressionism: Mary Cassatt, Marie Bracquemond, and Berthe Morisot. Bracquemond and Morisot were both French, and although Cassatt was an American, she spent much of her professional life in France eventually making it her permanent home.

Mary Cassatt was born in Pennsylvania to an upper middle-class family on May 22, 1844. Her parents were well-educated and viewed travel as an essential part of education. During her childhood, she spent several years in Europe, visiting all the great cities and learning to speak French and German.

Although her parents were against the idea of making a living through painting, Cassatt began studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. She stayed for four years, during the American Civil War, but became dissatisfied with the instruction and treatment of women students, so she also studied the old masters on her own.

Finally, in 1865, Mary’s mother agreed to go with her to Paris for the purpose of studying. The École des Beaux-Arts didn’t accept women, but Jean-Léon Gérôme agreed to teach her privately. She also spent time copying paintings in the Louvre, where she was able to socialize with other artists. In 1868, Cassatt and Elizabeth Jane Gardner were the first two American women to have work accepted by the Paris Salon.

Two Women Throwing Flowers, 1872 by Mary Cassatt (source)

Two Women Throwing Flowers, 1872 by Mary Cassatt (source)

Home again in 1870, Cassatt became very frustrated. Her father refused to pay for her art supplies and she was unable to sell paintings that she placed in a New York gallery. She briefly considered giving up painting and looking for another way to make an independent living when she was commissioned by the Archbishop of Pittsburgh to paint copies of two of Correggio’s paintings in Italy. Returning to Europe, and her reception there, was very encouraging, especially after her painting Two Women Throwing Flowers During Carnival was exhibited and purchased at the Paris Salon.

A Woman in Black at the Opera c. 1878 by Mary Cassatt (source)

A Woman in Black at the Opera c. 1878 by Mary Cassatt (source)

Cassatt’s relationship with the jury of the Salon and some of her colleagues became strained, and in 1877, for the first time in seven years both of her entries were rejected. At this point, she was invited by Edgar Degas to exhibit with the Impressionists.

The Boating Party c. 1893 by Mary Cassatt (source)

The Boating Party c. 1893 by Mary Cassatt (source)

Cassatt had always admired Degas and said of his art, “It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it.” She enthusiastically joined them and it seemed to set her free. She had always worked inside the studio, but now began to carry a sketch book with her when she went out.

Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge, 1879 by Mary Cassatt (source)

Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge, 1879 by Mary Cassatt (source)

The Impressionist exhibit of 1879 was Cassatt’s most successful to date. Her mother, father and sister Lydia came to join her in Paris and she often painted them, including Woman with a Pearl Necklace of her sister Lydia. She enjoyed a good working relationship with Degas, learning to use pastels and etching from him, but by 1886 Cassatt began to move away from Impressionism and began to experiment with varying techniques.

Mother and Child (Reine Lefebre and Margot) c. 1902 (source)

Mother and Child (Reine Lefebre and Margot) c. 1902 (source)

Cassatt focused primarily on genre painting, often depicting bonds between mothers and their children, although many considered her colors too bright and her figures too accurate to be flattering. After 1900, Cassatt focused primarily on mother and child subjects, which is what she is most well-known for among the general public.

Children Playing with a Cat, 1908 by Mary Cassatt (source)

Children Playing with a Cat, 1908 by Mary Cassatt (source)

Cassatt was always more appreciated in Europe than in America, even among her own family members. In 1915, she exhibited 18 works in support of women’s suffrage. Her sister-in-law, Eugenie Carter Cassatt, along with much of Philadelphia society, boycotted the show. Cassatt responded by selling off the work that she had previously designated for her heirs. She died near Paris on June 14, 1926 and was buried in the family vault at Le Mesnil-Théribus, France.


Three Women Painters of the Dutch Golden Age

Vase of Tulips, Rose, and Other Flowers with Insects  Maria van Ossterwijck, 1670

Vase of Tulips, Rose, and Other Flowers with Insects
Maria van Oosterwijck, 1670

The Dutch Golden Age, roughly the seventeenth century, was a time when many aspects of Dutch life and culture were the most acclaimed in the world. Art was one of those areas, particularly painting. Some aspects of Dutch painting during this time were similar to Baroque art in other parts of Europe, but the Dutch were leaders in the areas of still-life, genre painting, and portraiture. Some of the most well-known painters during this time were Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Frans Hals, but there were three women who were significant, well-known and popular during their time: Judith Jans Leyster (1609 – 1660), Maria van Oosterwijck (1630 – 1693), and Rachel Ruysch (1664 – 1750).

Judith Jans Leyster
Judith Leyster was primarily a painter of genre works. She painted a few portraits and only one known still-life. She was born in Haarlem on July 28, 1609, the eighth child of Jan Willemsz Leyster a local brewer. Details of her training are unknown, but she became a student of Frans Pietersz de Grebber at some point. He ran a respected workshop in Haarlem in the 1620s. Judith was also accomplished enough in her teens to be included in a book by Samuel Ampzing, originally written in 1621.

Judith Leyster self-portrait, 1630 National Gallery of Art, USA

Judith Leyster self-portrait, 1630
National Gallery of Art, USA

Because Leyster was not a member of an artistic family, she became a member of the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke so that she could run her own workshop where she took on apprentices. She was the second woman registered through the Guild, the first was Sara van Baalbergen in 1631. Other women were working out of family workshops, but Judith and Sara needed to be members of the Guild in order to sign works and take on apprentices. Within two years, Leyster had three male apprentices.

A Game of Tric Trac  Judith Leyster, 1630

A Game of Tric Trac
Judith Leyster, 1630

Most of Leyster’s work dates from 1629 – 1635, before she had children. She married Jan Miense Molenaer, another artist, in 1636 and they had five children, although only 2 survived to adulthood. The number of works generally attributed to her range from a dozen to 35. Only two are dated after 1635, an illustration in a book about tulips and a portrait from 1643. She was largely forgotten until 1893 when the Louvre purchased a painting that they thought was by Frans Hals, only to find out it was painted by Leyster.

The Proposition Judith Leyster, 1631

The Proposition
Judith Leyster, 1631

Maria van Oosterwijck
Maria van Oosterwijck was a Dutch painter specializing in flowers with rich details. She was born on August 20, 1630 in Nootdorp, and  was a student of Jan Davidsz de Heem. Working in Delft, Utrecht, and later Amsterdam, Maria never married. She taught her servant, Geertgen Wyntges, to mix her paints. Wyntges later became a painter in her own right.

Maria van Oosterwijck, 1671 by Wallerant Vaillant

Maria van Oosterwijck, 1671
by Wallerant Vaillant

Oosterwijck was popular with European royalty including the King of Poland who acquired three of her pieces, Emperor Leopold, Louis XIV of France, and William III of England. In spite of her popularity, she was denied membership in the painters’ guild because she was a woman. She died on November 12, 1693 at the home of Jacobus van Assendelft, her nephew.

Flowers in a terracotta vase Maria van Oosterwijck, 1675

Flowers in a terracotta vase
Maria van Oosterwijck, 1675

Rachel Ruysch
Rachel Ruysch was born in 1664 to Frederik Ruysch and Maria Post. Frederik was a professor in Amsterdam and became famous as an anatomist and botanist. Maria was the daughter of Pieter Post a painter. The connections of both of Rachel’s parents meant that there were often people in the house to inspire Rachel. She helped her father decorate his specimens with flowers and lace and eventually began to paint them.

Portrait of Rachel Ruysch by Godfried Schalcken

Portrait of Rachel Ruysch by Godfried Schalcken

At fifteen, Rachel was apprenticed to Willem van Aelst, a pupil of Marseus van Schrieck. The family was very well-connected in the art world. In addition to her grandfather, Rachel, and two of her sisters married painters or dealers in art. Rachel married the portrait painter Juriaen Pool in 1693. Together they had 10 children.

Still-Life with Bouquet of Flowers and Plums Rachel Ruysch , 1704  Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

Still-Life with Bouquet of Flowers and Plums
Rachel Ruysch , 1704
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

Motherhood did not keep Rachel from painting however. In 1699, she became the first female offered membership in the Confrerie Pictura and a few years later was invited to paint for the court in Düsseldorf as a painter for Johann Wilhelm, Elector Palatine. She worked from her home and took occasional trips to court. Rachel lived a long life and her dated works show she painted from the age of 15 into her 80s. She died on August 12, 1750 at the age of 86.

Flowers on a stone slab Rachel Ruysch around 1700

Flowers on a stone slab
Rachel Ruysch around 1700