Imagine your family rediscovering the beautiful talents of one ancestor after more than eighty years. That was the case for the family of artist Ruth Starr Rose.
Rose was from a progressive family. She was a Vassar graduate as well as student at the New York Art Students League where she worked with other left-leaning artists, including Mabel Dwight and Harry Sternberg. New York friends spent time at her family’s isolated Maryland plantation along with Dubose Heyward, Roland Hayes, and Alexander Smallens (Gertrude Stein’s conductor to her all-black opera); all gathering to enjoy the Chesapeake Bay, and encouraging her to pursue her artistic work involving portraits of black life. She continued to live her life through her art, which possibly explains her compassion to focus on bringing to life the incarcerated and members of what were at the time marginalized African American communities.
Hearing spirituals from childhood, Rose was moved by their dissonant beauty, and illustrated the songs as the congregation envisioned them. Alain Locke selected two of her African American spirituals for his pioneering work, The Negro in Art in 1940. She worked for Viking Press in 1941 on a book of Negro spirituals with Paul Robeson writing the introduction. (The book was never published as printing costs were prohibitive.) Howard University’s James Porter credited Rose as being responsible for the most comprehensive and most sympathetic visual representation of African American spirituals in 1956. Due to her subject matter and venues at traditionally black universities, most assumed she was black.
Miraculously, the artist’s studies, notes, and genealogies associated with spirituals and portraiture of black families on the isolated Wye Peninsula have survived. Without knowing it, Nathan Kernan, great nephew of the artist, and his partner Thomas Whitridge played a large part in the story. They rescued and conserved dusty old photograph albums and guest books from a doorman in a New York City apartment building. The material was originally from Hope, the property belonging to Nathan’s forebears. In these volumes were pieces of unknown African American history that proved the vital link to the paintings, and to telling an important history of black founding families.
It was exhibit curator and art historian, Barbara Paca and New School Dean, Nina Khrushcheva, who discovered the compelling portrait of a black Mona Lisa in a conservator’s studio. Recognizing the skill of the artist who used a palette of autumnal colors to portray a young woman, she began a quest to discover the true identity of the portrait, discovering her identity as Anna May Moaney of Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
This journey has led to unraveling the histories of some of Maryland’s proudest African American matriarchs. Genealogists Paulette Albury and Jeffrey Moaney, who had been studying their forebears for decades, were pleasantly surprised by the respectful way in which their ancestors were represented. Fueled by the revelations they were motivated to discover more of their own family histories through Ancestry.
As I gazed at the portrait of Anna May Moaney, one of the first paintings I discovered of my family through Barbara Paca, I immediately felt a sense of pride that my ancestor Anna May displayed. Several family friends always talked about how mother would sit “with her head held high.” This characteristic of honor and being proud has descended through our family. We always learned who we are from the previous generations and were taught to be respectful and honorable in our actions and deeds. The work of Ruth Starr Rose has captured that part of my family.
Jeffrey Moaney, descendant of Anna May Moaney.
What does a fine suit mean to you? Did you ever wonder what your grandfather looked like when he was young and dapper? High fashion of the Eastern Shore was documented in the 1920s and 1930s by master portrait artist, Ruth Starr Rose (1887-1965). She labored to portray community members of all ages on Maryland’s Eastern Shore with a level of compassion that had never been seen in the region.
Suited Man was celebrated as one of the portraits exhibited at New York City’s Weyhe Gallery in 1931. While his identity remains a mystery, his portrait reveals a stately urban gentleman. His countenance and nicely tailored suit show a person of substance and integrity.
Additional comments from African American Founding Family member, Jeffrey Moaney:
In the Suited Man back in the 1930s, I see of man of distinguished and prominent character. When I see a man in finely tailored suit, I see a man of success in his career, well-respected in his community and confident in his demeanor. He carries himself with pride and dignity as he is shown in the painting. My grandfather was just born in the 1932, however, I imagine his father was well-appointed and sure of himself.
After 80 years, Rose’s massive paintings are being presented along with the artist’s original notes including fascinating histories of those whom she portrayed. Rose documented members of African American founding families of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, who include descendants of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Union soldiers, revealing a rare representation of black life during the Jim Crow era. She saw her art as a form of political activism, portraying the nobility of black families in her community and the common connections of humanity during a time of spectacle-based stereotypes.
We look forward to sharing more history and stories from the Ruth Starr Rose exhibit now featured at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum open from October 10, 2015 thru April 3, 2016.