Faces of the Arts: Ruth Starr Rose— An activist through art, she explored Maryland’s cultural and historical diversity
Mar 04, 2016 09:00AM ● Published by Melissa Lauren
Girl with Zinnias, 1930, oil, 19” x 23”
The creative work of Ruth Starr Rose is fine art and revolutionary. Her masterpieces are works paving the way toward social justice with each brushstroke; with each print advancing toward positive change. Ruth Starr Rose was an activist through art. She leaves us with pictures that serve as visual cues for progress, offering boundless experiences for generations to come, teaching lessons about people united as one race—humankind. This comprehensive exhibit debuted at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in October 2015, and is on view through April 3rd, 2016. Annapolitan Theodore ‘Ted’ Mack has served on the Historic Annapolis Board, is Former Chair of the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture, and serves on the board of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum. He is a member of the visionary team of people who helped Barbara Paca, Ruth Starr Rose Exhibit Curator, open the landmark exhibition. Mack proudly affirms, “Most exhibits are either white or black. We were never separate, just reported separate or excluded when convenient. This is one Maryland you see here. We are trying to get to one history and when we get to one history, we’ll be one happy family.” This traveling exhibition will teach the world a valuable lesson about seeing and portraying all people with grace as Ruth Starr Rose did so thoughtfully with her life’s work.
Paca agrees, as she wrote in her prelude, which appears within Ruth Starr Rose (1887–1965): Revelations of African American Life in Maryland and The World, the accompanying exhibit book:
“One can never be prepared for the shock of a truly beautiful discovery. Such was the case with my first encounter with the Black Mona Lisa—a striking oil portrait of Copperville resident Anna May Moaney…an attractive Black woman who had dignity, refined features, inherent strength, and a sense of self-worth, all while revealing a mutually respectful connection between artist and sitter.
…this painting contained secrets that made me curious about how a White woman could have painted Moaney as possessing a raw power that exceeded her limited status as a domestic servant. By working in archives throughout the country, concentrating on local history, and slowly and respectfully interviewing the local Black population on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, I have been able to tell the true story of Ruth Starr Rose – and perhaps more importantly, of the members of the African American communities whom she loved and respected. This [article] chronicles her fascinating journey across the color line as an artist and a leader in the nascent American Civil Rights Movement.”
Rose’s StoryExcerpted from Ruth Starr Rose (1887–1965): Revelations of African American Life in Maryland and The World written by Barbara Paca, Leslie King Hammond, and Nina Khrushcheva. Edited by Melissa Lauren with permission from the authors.
Rose was an American woman of European ancestry caught in the complex crossfire of a nation coming to grips with its identity in the first half of the 20th century. A privileged, well-traveled, and highly educated White woman from an accomplished family, she came of age during the relentless “maleness” of the modern period. Her bold character and clear vision enabled her to become a visual artist in an era that rarely noticed, recognized, or supported women who sought to establish themselves in the male-dominated art world of the United States and Europe. Undaunted by the limitations of her time, Rose tirelessly forged ahead, working as a prolific painter and printmaker who exhibited both nationally and internationally.
At a young age, Rose’s family moved to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where they purchased Hope House, in Talbot County, once the seat of a tobacco plantation. Living in rural Maryland, she developed meaningful long-term friendships with African American families in the nearby town of Copperville. Inspired by these relationships, Rose dedicated much of her art practice to depicting the unique culture and experience of the African American people at a time when, as today, race was one of the most contentious subjects on the social, political, economic, and moral agenda of the United States. She created thoughtful, sensitive portraits and landscapes of the people and settings of this quiet, off-the-beaten-track Black community.
Rose became an active participant in Copperville society, and she developed a profound respect for and understanding of Black life and culture. From the 1920s through the 1940s, Rose was a member of the DeShields United Methodist Church, where she worshipped and taught Sunday school…she was drawn deeply into the compelling intellectual and spiritual world of the Black church. As its student, she came to understand the crucial role the church played as a safe haven in which the community could find spiritual support and counsel while practicing its religion. Her print interpretations of Negro spirituals present a positive imagery that disputed the crass representations of African Americans that were then widespread.
Following her artistic intellect and imagination, she passionately embraced and explored Black life in all its rich variety—participating in and witnessing the spiritual and social interactions of her neighbors. These brilliant experiences became her muse—empowering her to interpret and express the vision of a people who had only just escaped slavery some 50 years earlier. Rose was at the forefront of a cutting-edge movement that explored new ways of conceptualizing Blackness and sought to present the American public with poignant, diverse, and meaningful representations. She was careful to approach her work under the direction, critique, and counsel of the citizens of Copperville.
The historical time frame of Rose’s work was particularly crucial for the small, rural community. The World Wars and the Great Depression had created dire economic circumstances. Compounding this, Black people were often targets of horrific racial violence. Clearly moved by her friendships with her neighbors, Rose saw a very different view than mainstream America, and she dedicated her art practice to illustrating it. Rose worked on subjects, themes, sites, and environments that celebrated the beauty of humankind.
To understand Rose’s exceptional story, it is necessary…to start at the beginning. It was unheard of for a woman living in privilege in the early 20th century to create a sweeping visual record of the daily life of the African American and indigenous communities she encountered. Rose’s ability to be different was due to several key influences early in her life—namely, her liberal family, their Eastern Shore plantation, Hope, and the nearby African American communities.
The Starrs dedicated themselves to the restoration of Hope’s house and gardens, and Rose’s life on the farm was defined by her forward-thinking parents. The extended Starr family had a long history of supporting Black Civil Rights, as well as Black artists, on a national level. Rose’s grandfather, William Starr, was an active abolitionist who was placed under house arrest in Ripon, Wisconsin, in 1860 by U.S. Marshals for his refusal to comply with the fugitive slave laws. As enlightened artists, Rose’s family created a kind of integration that even extended out into the community.
Ruth Starr Rose graduated from the National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C., in 1906 and continued her studies at Vassar College. Upon graduating from college, she immediately enrolled in classes at the Art Students League of New York. She worked alongside artists including Will Barnet, Edward Dufner, Mabel Dwight, Victoria Hutson Huntley, Hayley Lever, James Michael Newell, William Palmer, and Harry Sternberg. They were some of the most liberal artists of their time, and their work tackled social issues of poverty, gender, and race. Rose formed a close circle of progressive, left-leaning artist friends, including printmakers Mabel Dwight, Victoria Hutson Huntley, Wanda Gag, Rockwell Kent, William Palmer, Harry Sternberg, and Prentiss Taylor. She and her friends often spent summers and holidays in rural Maryland on her family’s farm, Hope. This compound became an unconventional rural salon for leading writers, musicians, artists, curators, and critics of the day.
Rose approached her rural Eastern Shore life with an optimistic vision of the future and a universal spirituality anchored in recognition of the past. She and other members of the Starr family used their position to establish a refuge from the atrocious racial persecution of the time—seeking out progressive staff interactions and engagement with the local African American community at Copperville. Hope represented a singular way of life. The racial injustice of the early 20th century was one of the key problems Rose grappled with. In response to the problems of her time, Rose chose to live by her own personal code of ethics. She created a kind of racial equality in her art by giving honest visual presence to a largely marginalized population. It was remarkable that Rose applied portraiture— historically a documentary genre of the wealthy upper classes — to impoverished local acquaintances and friends working for her family or living in Copperville, the African American village near the entrance to Hope. Rose’s portraits of Black people were painted with an immediacy and a refreshing dignity that separated them from the work of many of her peers.
“Rose’s paintings were featured alongside the work of internationally acclaimed artists such as Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, and Salvador Dalí, in addition to a handful of leading American artists, including Thomas Hart Benton and Georgia O’Keeffe.”
In 1932 the portrait of Ruth and Pauline Moaney and Mark Asleep were entered into a juried show at the Albright Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, and, in 1936, in an international exhibition at the same institution. The show, The Art of Today, presented cutting-edge art from a variety of Modern stylistic movements. Rose’s paintings were featured alongside the work of internationally acclaimed artists such as Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, and Salvador Dalí, in addition to a handful of leading American artists, including Thomas Hart Benton and Georgia O’Keeffe.
By 1939, now largely working in the print medium, Rose had labored for a decade to visually document the many African American trades found on the Eastern Shore.
“Instead of using oils, which make large pictures needing frames and costly to ship, I decided to become a printmaker, and to do my work in lithography. It was larger than etching and freer in execution. It was very dramatic, very Black-and-White. It should be perfect for modern subject matter.”—Ruth Starr Rose
“Ruth Starr Rose’s visual interpretation of Negro Spirituals is the most comprehensive, and probably the most sympathetic work yet to appear in the United States. Although Negro Spirituals have been interpreted by numerous artists in many different media of the visual arts, no single artist has approached the extensive treatment accorded by this artist to this theme.” These words of praise, written in 1956, came from James Amos Porter, Father of African American Art History and Professor at Howard University. He judged Rose’s work on the theme of Negro spirituals to be unrivaled. Rose’s own efforts to challenge the debilitating preconceptions of race in her time enabled her to defy categorization. Of the many shows organized throughout Rose’s career, her ability to elude labels is most evident in her aforementioned 1956 exhibition at Howard University, organized with the Director of the Art Department, James A. Porter. Her interpretations of Negro spirituals were so thoughtfully executed that many assumed that Rose—like the student population—was Black.
Above all, it was undoubtedly Rose’s lifelong belief in a divine power that allowed her to connect to the spirituals and to give them visual expression. African American soldiers who joined the armed forces to fight overseas during World War II left families behind and made personal sacrifices all the more remarkable in the context of America’s continued struggle with racial equality and the reality of a segregated military. Rose recognized their profound service to their nation and—in no fewer than 11 prints—commemorated the bravery of African American soldiers who risked or lost their lives. These prints were some of Rose’s most powerful interpretations of spirituals. Done in Black and White, their lack of color emphasizes the gravity of their subject matter. “The soldier in the South Pacific is trying to contact his outfit, all around him are the noises and confusion of battle—overhead the forces of evil are coming down to battle with him from the skies. Here all alone deserted he listens desperately and ‘He Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray’,” which Rose describes above, she continues to demonstrate her keen ability to relate the unflinching faith expressed through spirituals.
In this instance, we see the soldier’s dedication to his role as a radio operator, even at the moment when he knows he is destined to die alone in a South Pacific battlefield. The soldier is shown at his station, hands locked solemnly in prayer. He kneels at the radio, abandoned, isolated, outnumbered, and without hope. We learn that this particular spiritual is intended to express the fundamental and inevitable loneliness of war. Rose illustrates the soldier’s calm bravery in the ultimate moment of his life—its ending.
Rose’s progressive and positive representation of Black life was a direct challenge to the inequality and bigotry of the Eastern Shore. Her portraits confronted the White art audience with dignified, complex African American individuals—a reality that society was violently rejecting at the time. In her unpublished papers, Rose described how her painting and lithography were linked to the vanguard movement to chronicle the lives of African Americans and to accurately portray their belief in the spirituals that helped them to survive centuries of slavery. Rose defended the originality of her vision, describing how her work resulted from a genuine interest in the lives of her neighbors.
Rose’s art bore witness to a diversity of people and religious practices around the world. She presented people of color in a radically positive and realistic way through the lens of a private spirituality that transcended the prejudice of her time. Although born into a socially established, wealthy family, she chose to look beyond the comforts of her own privilege. Backed by a Vassar education and nurtured by a supportive community of artists at the center of New York’s liberal creative community, Rose established a rigorous intellectual framework for her work, while remaining guided by her innate talent and sensitivity.
…Rose quietly passed away at her home in Alexandria, Virginia, on October 25, 1965...Her obituaries, printed, among other places, in her local Alexandria Gazette and the New York Times, recounted a distinguished and award-winning career. While Rose achieved some recognition in her lifetime, it eluded her after her death because she defied the strict categories of race, class, and gender that seem to populate widely accepted narratives. However, the importance of Rose’s decades of work during a key moment of American history—spanning the Jim Crow laws to the Civil Rights Act of 1964—is now being fully realized.
She exceeded all expectations during her lifetime, striking the core of faith, hope, meaning, purpose, redemption, empathy, and compassion. Her belief in a progressive and universal humanity took hold in her long before the rest of the United States had the capacity or vision to comprehend it. Ruth Starr Rose’s work is a profound celebration of the dignity and integrity of Black life.
Ruth Starr Rose: Revelations of African American Life in Maryland and the World Exhibition Tour ScheduleReginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History and Culture
830 E. Pratt Street, Baltimore
Now through April 3, 2016
Presented by the Dock Street Foundation
Waterfowl Festival Building
40 South Harrison Street, Easton
April 29–June 19, 2016
The Academic Commons and the Fulton Art Gallery at Salisbury University
1101 Camden Ave, Salisbury
August 29–October 29, 2016
The Mitchell Gallery at St. John’s College
60 College Avenue, Annapolis
January 11–February 26, 2017