Though he lacked any formal art training, artist-minister William Arthur Cooper used his paintings and his pastorate to alleviate racial prejudices he believed were often caused by the perpetuation of hurtful stereotypes in black caricatures. Convinced of art’s potential to educate, Cooper sought to depict truths about the black experience by painting portraits of African Americans in a way that conveyed the unique character of each subject.
Born on his family’s farm in Hillsboro, North Carolina, Cooper had a humble childhood. He attended local schools, including the Normal and Industrial School at High Point, until he was able to enroll in the National Religious Training School in Durham, North Carolina (now North Carolina Central University). After earning a bachelor’s degree in theology in 1914, Cooper was bivocational, selling insurance and ministering in various local churches; he also studied law and was admitted to the North Carolina bar in 1922. He was appointed pastor of the Clinton Metropolitan A. M. E. Zion Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, in the 1930s, a decade that proved to be the most important of Cooper’s artistic career. Not only did he create his memorable portrait series, but he also began exhibiting his work, attracting national attention.
In 1931, Cooper’s painting, The Vanishing Washerwoman, was awarded honorable mention at the annual Exhibition of the Work of Negro Artists sponsored by the Harmon Foundation, (which continued to show his work periodically throughout the decade). Three years later, he was commissioned by the newly formed state program known as the Division of Cooperation in Education and Race Relations to paint one hundred portraits of North Carolinian African Americans. Inspired by Millet’s depictions of French farm laborers, these likenesses of a diverse variety of black citizens—educators, clergymen, business leaders, musicians, and homemakers, including men, women, and children—were accompanied by biographical captions written by the artist and were subsequently published in 1936 as A Portrayal of Negro Life. At a time when blackface dominated visual and theatrical representations of African Americans, Cooper’s portraits were not only documentary, they were considered radical. Cooper believed that popularized burlesque and sentimental images of African Americans (including stereotypes such as “Sambo” or “Mammy”) contributed to poor race relations by depriving young African Americans of same-race role models and by perpetuating a false image of racial difference that seemed to validate prejudice. In the volume’s preface, Cooper made his intention clear: “my hope is that this little book may make its silent contribution to Race appreciation, Race development, Race adjustment and interracial good will . . . and [that] the pure spirit of brotherhood control our social order.”
Cooper organized North Carolina’s first African American art exhibition in conjunction with the publication of his 1936 book. As a member of the North Carolina Interracial Commission, he then made a “good will” tour of colleges and universities throughout the state, exhibiting his portraits and lecturing on art and black culture. Before relocating to St. Louis, Missouri, in 1940, Cooper inexplicably hid twenty paintings beneath the floorboards of a shed on his Charlotte property. These pictures, along with personal papers, were discovered decades later by the new tenant who described feeling drawn to explore the abandoned shed by an unknown spirit. Although Cooper continued to enjoy a successful artistic and ministerial career until his death in 1974, the Portrayal of Negro Life portraits created in the 1930s remain his most acclaimed work. His paintings are held by institutions across the country, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Harmon Foundation Collection, and North Carolina Central University.