Nancy Elizabeth Prophet
Nancy Elizabeth Prophet
Negro Head, before 1927
52.1 x 27.9 x 35.6 cm (20 1/2 x 11 x 14 inches)
Gift of Miss Eleanor B. Green 35.780
Nancy Prophet modeled this realistic wooden portrait after her husband, Francis Ford, employing the purposeful exposed tool marks that are distinctive to her body of work. A Rhode Island native, Prophet carved the sculpture when she was living in Paris and working primarily in dark hardwoods, a material which here allowed her to enhance the stern, meditative, bold lines of her husband’s face. Prophet described this piece as representative of her own “determination and aggressiveness” as an artist.
In 1918, Prophet became the first woman of color to graduate from the Rhode Island School of Design.(June 20 –August 31, 2003)
About the work
The artist who made this powerful portrait updated the form of the classical bust on a pedestal through her innovative use of materials. By choosing to use wood instead of the more expensive and commonly used marble, and by leaving her tool marks visible, Nancy Elizabeth Prophet made the physically demanding work of carving apparent. Through the expression depicted on the face and the choice of materials and process, Negro Head conveys hard work, struggle, and determination, reflecting the African American experience in the 1920s, a time when racial segregation and discrimination were enforced by law or by practice in many parts of the United States.
The bust may also tell us something about the artist, a woman of Native American and African American ancestry born in Warwick, Rhode Island. The first black graduate of RISD, Prophet won the Harmon Foundation’s prestigious Otto Kahn Prize for Negro Head in 1929. She enjoyed recognition for her work during her travels in Paris and as a member of the faculty at Spelman College in Atlanta, yet she struggled to secure financial support at crucial times and spent a significant amount of time sick, hungry, and poor. Prophet herself noted that the stern, unwavering, and focused expression in Negro Head represented her own “determination and aggressiveness” as an artist.
Describe this sculpture. What clues suggest this man’s age, status, and personality? What does this tell us?
Discuss the style of the sculpture and the materials Prophet used. How does her choice to work in wood, revealing her carving, affect how we perceive the subject she portrays? Imagine if Prophet had chosen marble or another stone and polished away the visible marks. How would the work’s appearance and meaning be different?
Discuss the title of this sculpture. What did the word negro mean in the 1920s? What does it suggest today? What does the title tell us about the man depicted? What does his anonymity add to our understanding of the artist’s decision to make his portrait in the form of a bust?
When Prophet sculpted this piece, racial segregation was enforced by law in many parts of the south, while other forms of discrimination affected people of color elsewhere in the United States. How does this knowledge of the social and political climate in America during the 1920s inform your interpretation of this sculpture?
Speaking about another of her sculptures, Prophet explained that everything she had done “embodied an experience, something she had lived or its result.” What struggles might Prophet have encountered as a woman artist of African American and Native American ancestry in the 1920s? How might this sculpture reflect those challenges?
Prophet’s husband of 15 years, Frances Ford, was the model for the sculpture, although Prophet chose not to use his name in the work’s title. Having looked at the work closely and thought about Prophet’s life and times, consider what might have shaped her decision about the title. To explore the importance of a title in the interpretation of a work of art, ask students to propose other titles for this sculpture, then discuss how their suggestions reflect their understanding of the work and might shape others’ perceptions.
To investigate the expressive nature of portraiture, ask students to write a monologue from the subject’s point of view, set in the 1920s in New England and based on their interpretation of Prophet’s depiction.
Amalia K. Amaki. “Nancy Elizabeth Prophet: Carving a Niche at Spelman College and Beyond,” in Hale Woodruff, Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, and the Academy. Atlanta, Georgia: Spelman College Museum of Fine Art: 2007.