Indiana artist William Edouard Scott promoted the positive depiction of African American life through his murals, portraits and urban landscapes. He chose to paint scenes infused with optimism and hope for black Americans and rejected the more common images of them as laborers and slaves. Scott was born in Indianapolis in 1884 and displayed a great talent for art from an early age. He studied with Otto Stark, a Hoosier Group artist, during high school and later became Stark’s teaching assistant. Scott studied at the Art Institute of Chicago for six years before continuing his training in Europe.
Scott arrived in France in 1910 and sought out fellow African American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner at the artists’ colony, Trépied-par-Etaples. Tanner was a generation older than Scott and racial prejudice had forced him to flee the United States in 1891. Tanner welcomed the young artist and encouraged Scott’s interest in painting the achievements of African Americans. In Paris, Scott enrolled in classes at the Académie Julian and the Académie Colarossi. His rigorous training paid off when his work was displayed at the Paris Salon in 1912 and 1913, and at the Royal Academy in London.
Encouraged by his success in Europe, Scott returned to Chicago just before France declared war on Germany in 1914. He established a studio and though modern and abstract art was gaining popularity, he remained true to his representational style. During this time, African American scholars and activists were attempting to gain equal rights and promote self pride within the black community. Scott’s commitment to these goals and his association with the New Negro Movement earned him the title of the “dean of Negro Artists.” In 1915 he made his first trip to the South when he was invited to the Tuskegee Institute by George Washington Carver and was the guest of Booker T. Washington. In the years to follow, Scott made several more trips to the South. He chose not to show the plight of Southern blacks to elicit sympathy, but instead chose to showcase their resilient spirit and capacity for overcoming adversity.
In 1927, Scott was honored with a Distinguished Achievement award from the Harmon Foundation, an organization formed to promote the arts in the black community, and four years later he was the recipient of the Julius Rosenwald Fine Arts Fellowship. He used his award money to travel to Haiti for thirteen months where his art was very well received. Once back in the United States, Scott painted a mural for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair and worked for the Federal Arts Project Mural and Easel division during the Depression. In 1955, the artist set off for another painting expedition, this time to Mexico. However, his trip was cut short by the onset of diabetes which led to him being confined to a wheelchair and vision problems shortly thereafter. Scott returned to Chicago and continued to paint until he passed away in a nursing home in 1964. Now considered one of the most important African American artists of his generation, Scott’s work is included in such prestigious collections as The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Guggenheim in New York, the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis, and the Tate Gallery in London.