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In the groundbreaking anthology, The New Negro (1925), educator and philosopher Alain Locke wrote of the need for African American visual artists to raise “the Negro subject from the level of trivial or sentimental genre to that of serious type study . . . and furnish the fullest and most revealing portrayal of Negro life.” Citing the work of Henry O. Tanner, Hale Woodruff, and William Eduoard Scott, Locke hailed the “advent of a representatively racial school of expression, and an important new contribution, therefore, to the whole body of American art.”

Fifteen years earlier—following six years of training at the Art Institute of Chicago—William Scott had left his native Indiana to study in France. There, he 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 encouraged Scott’s interest in extolling the achievements of African Americans in his canvases. During a residency in Paris, Scott enrolled in classes at the Académie Julian and the Académie Colarossi. This rigorous training was rewarded when his work was displayed at the Paris Salon in 1912 and 1913, and at the Royal Academy in London. 

While encouraged by his success abroad, Scott returned to the United States as the European theater of war expanded in 1914. He established a studio in Chicago and, despite the growing popularity of abstract art, remained true to his representational style. Scott’s determination to depict African Americans not as subservient menial laborers or stereotypes, but as fully realized and wholly unique persons of dignity, eventually earned him the title of the “dean of Negro Artists.” In 1915, Scott made his first of many trips to the South when he was invited to the Tuskegee Institute by its founder of Booker T. Washington. He would later execute a double portrait featuring Washington and faculty member George Washington Carver.

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, which he applied toward a year-long sojourn in Haiti. Scott later 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 and its multiple complications. 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 artists of his generation, Scott’s work is included in such prestigious collections as the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and the Tate Gallery in London.