In 1927 Laura Knight was given access to the ‘coloured wards’ at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore where she produced a sequence of impressive depictions of the patients she encountered, amongst them this striking portrait.
Knight’s husband, Harold had travelled to Baltimore to paint staff at the hospital; the generous fee enabled him to bring Laura to America. The Knights stayed with Dr William Baer, the orthopaedic surgeon and his wife, and it was through his influence that Laura was able to paint patients at the hospital. Knight described her experiences in Baltimore in her autobiography, Oil Paint and Grease Paint, published in 1936: it is an account that betrays the prejudices of her time and belies the sensitivity of her work. This intelligent and subtle portrait study of a male patient is one of the more powerful from a sequence of depictions of black sitters that Knight produced.
Knight’s interest in black patients, as Rosie Broadley has noted, was part of a wider fascination in Britain in the 1920s with what was called ‘Negro’ culture. Knight wrote in Oil Paint and Grease Paint: ‘Dr Baer took me to the famous Johns Hopkins Hospital, where I was allowed to wander at will through the darkie wards with a view to making studies… one young man propped with pillows was a fine type. He did not appear to be very ill, and was most anxious to be drawn. The nurses said it would be kindness to interest him.’
This may be the patient represented in the present frank study. In the drawing Knight has suggested a white hospital gown with a sweep of watercolour under the sitter’s head; the head itself is boldly modelled in black and red chalk carefully lit from the left. In her autobiography Knight goes on to describe a vignette of the patient in the next bed ‘such as Rembrandt might have delighted in: the negro, stripped to the waist, lay back, his eyes closed, his big arms inert, hands palm upwards stretched out on the sheets, the muscles of his perfectly proportioned torso cleanly modelled in the strong light, his gigantic chest heaving laboriously, a picture of might strength and primitive beauty in complete abandon to fate. Round and bending over him were white-coated figures, their flesh pale rose in contrast.’ Despite the evocation of Rembrandt, Knight’s account of her ‘wanderings’ through the segregated wards is unsettling in its tone. Whilst praising the beauty and strength of her models, she consistently underlines her view of racial superiority.
This problematises our viewing of her Baltimore work. Recent scholarship has sought to present Knight as a liberal figure, whose actions, once stripped of the divisive language of the period, suggest her sensitive approach to the problems of mid-twentieth century Maryland. In the recent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery Rosie Broadley praised ‘Knight’s open-minded outlook and undoubted sympathy with people of different backgrounds to her own’ pointing to a 1927 interview she gave to The New York Times in which she drew attention to her work stating that: ‘to the artist there is a whole world of beauty which ought to be explored in negro life in America.’ In her autobiography, Knight describes her friendship with Baer’s nurse and secretary, Ireen and Pearl Johnson, her visit with them to a concert and a ‘social at the office of a negro newspaper’ where she heard a speech of ‘amazing eloquence… exhorting his audience to remember that they were a great race.’ The present drawing demonstrates Knight’s interest in the people she encountered, whilst the somewhat wary gaze of the sitter suggests his equivocal response to being drawn. Knight’s Baltimore drawings are some of her most powerful and this bold head study stands as one of her most forceful.
- See Rosie Broadley, Laura Knight’s Portraits, exh. cat., London (National Portrait Gallery), 2013, p.46.
- Laura Knight, Oil Paint and Grease Paint, New York, 1936, pp.288-289.
- Laura Knight, Oil Paint and Grease Paint, New York, 1936, p.289.
- Rosie Broadley, Laura Knight’s Portraits, exh. cat., London (National Portrait Gallery), 2013, pp.46-47.
- Laura Knight, Oil Paint and Grease Paint, New York, 1936, p.290