An exquisite portrait miniature of Rose Prentice, a domestic worker in her Sunday best, painted around 1837, joins the constellation of proud, self-possessed Black women to have served as muse to the artist Mickalene Thomas.
Since her first solo museum show in 2012 at the Brooklyn Museum, Thomas has been widely known for her bold and bedazzled paintings and photographs in which she centers images of her mother, herself, her friends and lovers in sumptuous or art-historical tableaus as a celebration of Black femininity and agency. Now, in “Mickalene Thomas/Portrait of an Unlikely Space,” opening at the Yale University Art Gallery on Sept. 8, she has created context and community for the museum’s sole portrait miniature of an African American that was acquired in 2016.
For a loan exhibition revolving around a tiny work in watercolor on ivory, Thomas has designed an immersive domestic environment throughout four galleries that spotlight Prentice’s portrait in the company of other rare miniatures, daguerreotypes, silhouettes and engravings of Black people from the pre-Emancipation era.
It is Thomas’s first curatorial foray into early American history. Collaborating with the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art, Keely Orgeman, Thomas has also integrated works by herself and eight other present-day artists including Betye Saar and Sula Bermudez Silverman, around themes of home, intimacy and labor.
“It’s creating an archetypal family,” said Thomas, who received her M.F.A. from the Yale School of Art in 2002 and returns frequently to work with students. Now 52, she views her inclusion of emerging artists into her own projects as one form of mentorship and hopes that providing this framing to the Prentice miniature will inspire more connections, “something that could continue like a family tree.” Through this project, artists including Lebohang Kganye and Adia Millett, two little-known talents, have become new branches.
So who was Rose Prentice and why was this precious portrait, painted on expensive ivory, originally made?
It was known that the picture had been created by a prominent miniaturist named Sarah Goodridge, working in Boston at the time.
But it was left for Orgeman to piece together how Goodridge came to receive the commission to commemorate a domestic worker then in her mid-60s — the only Black sitter she is known to have painted.
Yale acquired the miniature from Caroline A. Phillips, in whose family it had descended for multiple generations. Eliza Tucker MacGregor is believed to be the person who asked Goodridge around 1837-38 to paint Rose, a beloved caregiver who had helped raise her while working for the Tucker family in Londonderry (Now Derry,) N. H.
Rose Prentice (formerly Tufts) spent her early and middle age as a laborer for John Prentice. In an 1889 letter to her niece, Anna Tucker Phillips, MacGregor said Rose was “bought & made free by Mr. Prentiss [sic] of Derry.” The Tuckers were the subsequent owners of the property and Prentice started working for them as a freedwoman. After MacGregor’s marriage, Prentice moved with the couple to Boston.
“This is not an image that Prentice herself owned,” said Orgeman, who surmised that MacGregor wanted the portrait as a keepsake at the time of her parting from her former nanny.
In 2020, Orgeman invited Thomas to Yale to see the portrait and envision a setting for its display alongside loans of more than two dozen other historical portraits by mostly unknown artists of both free and enslaved Black individuals.
“Mickalene seemed the ideal artist to imagine what the sitters might have wanted if they, or their families, had been able to own their portraits at the time,” Orgeman said of the exhibition that experiments with the methodology of “critical fabulation” — blending fact and speculation about the lives of Black Americans whose stories have largely been lost.
At the entrance to the exhibition, Thomas sets the scene with a 19th-century photograph of the elegant parlor in the home where Prentice worked, mounted on sepia-toned wallpaper of the artist’s design that collages enlarged fragments of architecture, furniture and textile motifs from that era.
“The idea is you feel like you’re walking into someone’s home,” Thomas said. She has chosen to paint the gallery walls, as well as mantels punctuated with period objects like vases and candlesticks, all a dark monochromatic blue gray. “It reminds me of the color of skin on a Black body, bringing a physical relationship of who I am,” she said.
In her hand-sized portrait in a case on a table, Prentice wears a rosebud-print dress with crisp white shawl and ruff at the neck, a plaid head scarf and glinting pearl earring. She holds the viewer’s gaze with a steadfast, slightly weary expression.
“These are definitely garments Rose took great pride in and put on specifically for this,” Thomas said. Imagining that Prentice would have seen many portraits of others throughout her employer’s home, Thomas added, “I feel there’s full awareness that she’s posing and appreciation for having her portrait done that might have made her feel incredibly seen.”
At the same time, Thomas wondered, was it another chore for Prentice?
Orgeman agreed that there would have been “some pressure, if not coercion” from Prentice’s employer for her “to sit for that portrait that was not meant for her.” Yet “there’s a lovingness to this portrait as well,” the curator said. She noted that the artist lived within a block and a half of the MacGregors in Boston and would likely have been familiar with Prentice.
Maybe it was even “the desire from the artist to want to paint her,” Thomas proposed, “because of that proximity and her awareness of the real relationships” between Prentice and the MacGregor family members.
The exhibition goes on to open up possibilities for the other historical portraits about which much less is known. Within the spare dim interior, each is mounted on glowing illuminated shelves for a gemlike presentation that draws attention to the subjects’ self-presentation — their sartorial choices as a reflection of refinement or the objects they hold as tools of their trade.
“I rarely feel so emotional about works,” Thomas said. “You want to just peer into them.”
She has positioned other beacons of light throughout the space, including Bermúdez-Silverman’s 2021 replica of her childhood dollhouse, cast in translucent sugar and lit from within, a reference to her ancestor’s enslavement on a sugar plantation in Puerto Rico. As a bookend to Prentice’s portrait, a 1975 assemblage by Saar, the only late-career artist in the mix, places a Jim Crow-era mammy figurine holding a grenade in a box lined with a bill of sale of an enslaved woman and her children. Saar juxtaposes a delicate drawing on its lid of a Black mother and her own infant.
“I think of it as the punctuation mark on the whole show,” Orgeman said.
The title of the exhibition sprung from Elizabeth Alexander’s 2004 book of essays, “The Black Interior,” referring in part to spaces in the home arranged with precious objects by the family matriarch. “This ‘portrait of an unlikely space’ struck me for its potential double meaning,” Orgeman said, “referring to Mickalene’s creation of this fictive environment but also the use of the museum to highlight the importance of Black life. This is unusual for a place like Yale.”
Thomas, who acknowledged the university’s troubled history of marginalizing Black people and also its impact on her development as a young artist, thinks Yale is ready. “As an institution,” she said, “they are opening themselves for conversation and critique.”
As one of their star alums, she is part of that change.
The collectors Bernard Lumpkin and Carmine D. Boccuzzi, Jr, also Yale graduates, recently endowed an annual scholarship named in Thomas’s honor for an incoming Yale M.F.A. student, whom the artist has committed to mentor. This semester, Thomas is the first visiting artist at NXTHVN, a fellowship program co-founded by the Yale M.F.A. alum Titus Kaphar in New Haven, where Thomas will do studio visits and workshops with resident artists and high school apprentices.
She’s part of a lineage of Black artists giving back, Lumpkin said, pointing also to Derrick Adams, Kehinde Wiley and Mark Bradford, who have formed mentoring organizations, “using their success and visibility to create opportunities for other artists and ensure seats at the table.”
At Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where Thomas attended undergrad, she and the school’s chair, Jane South, founded Pratt>FORWARD in 2021 to give emerging artists professional development and peer advice. “Everyone that comes into the program, whether they are a mentee or art professional, becomes part of the network and support system — another family tree,” said Thomas. (The open call starts this month for the program’s third edition, which will take place in March 2024 at 4 World Trade Center in collaboration with Silver Art Projects.)
For Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter, one of 10 artists selected for last year’s edition of Pratt>FORWARD, the support came at a critical moment when she was being offered a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum. As a formerly incarcerated artist who is largely self-taught, “I have a lot that I’m contending with, trying to find exactly where I belong in the art world,” Baxter said. “Having Mickalene help guide me has been a gift.”
Thomas has included Baxter in the Yale exhibition. In “Consecration to Mary,” Baxter has taken two 1882 photographs by the artist Thomas Eakins that exploit a young Black girl posed naked and inserted herself in the images as a protectress shielding the child.
“I’m from North Philadelphia and Mickalene’s from Camden — two under-resourced communities — and we have a similar background of resiliency in the face of immeasurable odds,” Baxter said. “I think that helps us feel like home to each other.”
Mickalene Thomas / Portrait of an Unlikely Space
Sept. 8-Jan. 7, 2024, Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel Street, New Haven, Conn., 203-432-0601; artgallery.yale.edu.
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