The cultural awakening known as the Harlem Renaissance extended far beyond the boundaries of New York City. Two hundred miles to the South, the campus of Howard University in Washington, DC, was fertile ground for the intellectual and aesthetic investigations led by African Americans in the 1920s and 1930s. Howard’s remarkable roster of faculty and students played a seminal role in these explorations, including those associated with the pioneering art department, the first such dedicated division at any HBCU. As an undergraduate and visiting professor, Delilah Pierce is part of the Howard legacy. Historically less celebrated than her colleagues and close friends Loïs Mailou Jones and Alma Thomas, Pierce is nonetheless revered for her contributions to art education in addition to her own paintings.

Pierce grew up in Washington, DC, where she attended acclaimed all-black secondary schools and obtained her teaching certification before graduating from Howard in 1931. She later earned a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Teachers College and pursued advanced studies at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Chicago, and New York University. As a teacher in the district’s public school system until 1952, where she earned a reputation as an exemplary educator. From 1953 through 1971, Pierce taught art education at the college level, preparing students to train the “next generation of black artists and art teachers.”

When she began to exhibit her work more regularly in the 1950s, Pierce enjoyed immediate success, starting with the Atlanta University Art Annuals. Over the next several decades, her paintings were included in important museum presentation shows across the country and abroad. Pierce’s subject matter ranged from early still lifes, to figures, to increasingly abstracted landscapes. These scenes depicted settings in Washington, DC, Martha’s Vineyard (where her family regularly summered), and Africa. Her interest in African themes intensified following travel on the African and Asian continents in 1962, a trip funded by an Agnes Meyer Traveling Fellowship. Where the Blue and White Nile Meet’s title and robed figures presages her later emphasis on African motifs, while the fluid verticality of the trees is similar to several works depicting the Massachusetts shoreline.

Delilah Pierce characterized her art as “inspired by nature and the world around us, colors, patterns, forms and spaces.” Her paintings, she noted, were “an exploration of developing a visual language to communicate what I see and feel.”