Guest curator at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History & Culture, Barbara Paca, has brought together one of the most significant and comprehensive art shows of early 20th century African American life on Maryland’s Eastern shore. Artist Ruth Starr Rose (1887-1965) has captured an historical perspective of Maryland Eastern Shore activities to include multi-generations of families, visual interpretations of spiritual hymns, portraits, and other images of her travels that include Native Americans and Haitians.
The dignity of her portraits, and the closeness she must have felt to her friends and neighbors, come through in every piece on display. Her depictions of everyday African Americans in the 1930’s were completed at a time when racism and hatred against black families was still rampant throughout the South.
In 1956 Baltimorean James Amos Porter, the father of African American art history and a professor at Howard University, praised the artist’s visual interpretation of Negro Spirituals as “the most comprehensive, and probably the most sympathetic work yet to appear in the United States.” During her lifetime, Rose was part of group exhibits that featured Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Salvador Dali, and Georgia O’Keeffe. She even had a solo show at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1933.
Rose is also credited to be the first white artist to produce a work of art for a black church. She was a graduate of Vassar College and was brought up in a wealthy family that had several houses, one of which was on the Eastern Shore where she spent time getting to know her neighbors and those who worked around the estate.
She, reportedly, would get feedback from her subjects regarding her interpretations of spirituals and include their ideas. One of the paintings on display depicts an allegorical parting of the Red Sea, as a symbol of black freedom, and includes the entire church congregation. The work was made to honor Copperville’s Reverend C. T. Wilson’s son, Private Norman E. Wilson, who died in World War II.
The exhibit at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum is one of the best art shows in the area and includes for the first time nearly 90 of her oil paintings, lithographs, drawings, and historic documents. There is even an early handmade baby crib on display that is included in some of her drawings.
The “Ruth Starr Rose (1887-1965): Revelations of African American Life in Maryland and the World” runs through April 3, 2016 at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture. The museum is located at 830 E. Pratt Street, Baltimore, Maryland. General Admission is $8.00, seniors and students are $6.00. Tickets and hours can be found at lewismuseum.org