While Nell Choate Jones did not take up her brush until mid-life, she nonetheless became an international success and pivotal to the promotion of the visual arts in her native Georgia and in her adopted home of Brooklyn, New York. Between 1925 and her death at the age of 101, Jones’ paintings were exhibited in museums, galleries, and expositions in this country and abroad. Throughout her career, Jones supported various women’s art organizations and worked to make art more accessible to Georgians. Although she left the South when still quite young, Jones always considered herself a Southerner. When asked about her reliance on the region as a source of inspiration in a 1979 interview, Jones stated, “I was born here. I am a Southerner and that’s all there is to it.”
Born in Hawkinsville, Georgia, Jones was only five years old when her father, who had served as a captain in the Confederate forces, died and her family relocated to Brooklyn. Following graduation from Adelphi Academy, she taught elementary school. But Jones’ career objectives changed in the 1920s, when her husband, the etcher and painter Eugene Arthur Jones, encouraged her to focus on art. Prospect Park, replete with gardens and convenient to her Brooklyn residence, became her muse, and she was soon accompanying her husband to artist colonies in Woodstock, New York, and Old Lyme, Connecticut, during the summer months. Her thickly painted impressionistic landscapes appeared in the Southern States Art League’s 1925 exhibition in Atlanta and, two years later, at the Holt Gallery in New York City. Encouraged by favorable reviews, Jones traveled to Paris in 1929, where she was awarded a scholarship to the Fontainebleau School of Art, located in the heart of the French countryside made famous by the Barbizon painters. She also studied in England and spent time painting in Italy and New Mexico.
In 1936, Jones returned to Georgia to bury her only sister alongside her parents. She took in the Southern landscape with fresh eyes, finding inspiration in the lush green foliage, red clay dirt, and rugged landscape. This subject matter triggered a shift in Jones’ aesthetic, and her paintings from this time forward are characterized by simplified forms, bold colors, and sinuous lines that are a notable departure from her comparatively static Impressionist work. She began to make periodic trips to the South, where she created landscapes as well as genre scenes of regional traditions. Frequently, her paintings depict African Americans at labor and in moments of leisure. Although Jones’ preference for provincial subjects suggests her awareness of the emerging American Regionalist school of the 1930s, her employment of a more modern, expressionistic technique distinguishes her from this movement.
These were the paintings that earned Jones entry into important regional and national exhibitions—including the 1939 New York World’s Fair—and also garnered commercial attention. An avid supporter of the arts, Jones served as president of the National Association of Women Artists and, simultaneously, as the first female president of the Brooklyn Society of Artists. She did not forget her Southern home, however. In 1941, Jones initiated efforts to establish an art museum at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, to which she donated twelve paintings. As Jones neared her centennial birthday, she was named Woman of the Year by the National Association of Women Artists and was honored with a Distinguished Citizen Award from the Brooklyn Museum. Upon her death, Jones’ family honored her request that her ashes be placed in the Georgia clay that had been such a powerful source of artistic inspiration for her in life.