Intimate Subject Matter In A Living-Room Design

New Exhibit At Yale University Art Gallery Connects Renowned Contemporary Artist With Pre-Emancipation Era Portraits

The first thing you notice is her eyes. A steady gaze meets the viewer, but the expression remains inscrutable. “Tell me,” I want to ask her, “please tell me everything. I’m listening.”

But Rose Prentice isn’t talking. Her portrait, painted circa 1837, was acquired by The Yale University Art Gallery in 2016. The painting is a unique example of a miniature portrait of a Black American sitter painted in pre-Emancipation United States.

Dr. Keely Orgeman, the Seymour H. Knox, Jr., Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Yale University Art Gallery, recalls contemplating the portrait of Rose Prentice shortly after she started in 2019, and she immediately thought of contemporary artist Mickalene Thomas, who earned her M.F.A. at Yale in 2002. Orgeman was hopeful that Thomas might be interested in collaborating on an exhibition to contextualize the Rose Prentice portrait with contemporary works.

Mickalene Thomas is renowned for her mixed-media paintings, photographs, films and installations exploring Black femininity. Her dynamic works are frequently informed by classical genres of portraiture and landscape, celebrating the female form with embellishments of rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel. Thomas’s multi-layered visual art often includes spaces specifically informed by her subject matter: richly textured fabrics, furniture, and hangings create a depth of dimension, inviting the viewer into the very space inhabited by the sitters themselves.

On a visit to Yale in January of 2020, Thomas was able to hold the portrait of Rose Prentice in her hands and “that’s when our collaboration really locked into place” says Orgeman.

The exhibition, Mickalene Thomas / Portrait of an Unlikely Space, on view through Jan. 7, 2024, is a culmination of nearly four years of work by Thomas and Orgeman, who are co-curating the exhibit. Their collaboration has materialized in the form of the immersive, three-dimensional spaces designed by Thomas especially for the 45 pieces (30 historical and 15 contemporary) on display.

Transported To Years Past

Upon entering, visitors are transported by dropped ceilings and lowered lights to the domestic, candlelit spaces of years past. A cozy circular rug invites an approach to the table upon which the miniature of Rose Prentice is displayed upright in its original leather case, allowing viewers 360 degree access to the portrait. The “Prentice interior” is inspired by that of the Tucker family home in Derry, Vermont, in which Rose Prentice worked for many years after her emancipation from enslavement.

When Yale acquired the portrait, a partial gift of Caroline A. Phillips, a Tucker family descendant, it came with a letter from one Eliza Tucker MacGregor. The letter explains that MacGregor had commissioned Rose Prentice’s portrait to be painted by Boston artist Sarah Goodale and describes Prentice as a “beloved member of the family.”

But Rose Prentice was not the recipient of the resulting portrait. In fact, it seems that she never owned the image of herself at all. It became the property of white patrons. Orgeman hopes that the exhibition will explore questions that she herself grapples with regarding the Prentice miniature and other historical pieces displayed.

The portrait opens up so many questions about other Black Americans in this period. How many other images like this one are out there? When and for whom were they created? There are histories of agency and ownership embedded in these images.”

Further into the gallery, one encounters three portraits from Mickalene Thomas’s Courbet series (2011). The luxuriously draped, dynamically patterned fabrics that form the backdrop of the sepia-toned photographs are echoed in the wallpaper that Thomas herself created for this section of the exhibition. The thematic resonances of intimacy and the private lives of Black Americans are seamlessly woven between each historic and contemporary piece exhibited.

In fact, the histories of Black American women are quite literally woven into the immersive spaces in each gallery as well. Thomas designed and created upholstery for the furniture drawing upon period-specific textile patterns in clothing and quilts hand sewn by Black women.

An Invitation To Linger

As Thomas writes in the exhibition catalog, “I created my previous domestic settings primarily for fellow Black women—my ‘muses’—to spend time and have new experiences in familiar surroundings, perhaps resembling their mothers’ or grandmothers’ living rooms. The interiors I have constructed for this exhibition address the same group but of an entirely different generation, those who came of age before slavery was fully abolished in the United States. The sitters [in the historical works] are my muses here. I dedicate this space to them.”

Indeed, the meticulously designed spaces cultivate a space for the visitor to consider the historical pieces and their sitters in detail. An embellished golden ring on the hand of a stunning young woman…the delicately tinted blue of a lady’s cuffs and collar…the colors and patterns chosen by both subject and artist become points of contemplation as one views each work.

“Mickalene and I hope the exhibition will make people want to linger and spend time with each work,” says Orgeman. “Every aspect of what a visitor sees was chosen very deliberately to allow space and time for the experience.” Thomas notes in a press release, “The meanings of Prentice’s portrait unfold the longer you sit with it, and that’s the kind of engagement that I hope to facilitate with the other works, too, by enveloping [visitors] within the transformed galleries where [they] will want to linger.”

And one is compelled to linger over the faces of the women portrayed within. Within the careful context of this immersive exhibition, perhaps Rose Prentice’s story, along with those of so many other Black women, may be understood in an entirely new light.

On Thursday, Oct. 26 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.,  Yale University Art Gallery and NXTHVN are hosting a day of panel discussions related to the exhibition “Mickalene Thomas / Portrait of an Unlikely Space.” The program–featuring artists, curators, and scholars–will be followed by a celebration of the release of the accompanying catalog. To find out more and register, visit artgallery.yale.edu/calendar/events/panel-discussions-and-book-launch-mickalene-thomas-portrait-unlikely-space.

Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel Street between York and High Streets in New Haven, is free and open to the public from Tuesday through Sunday. Visitors can park in metered spaces on nearby streets or in the Chapel-York Garage, at 150 York Street. To find out more visit https://artgallery.yale.edu/visit .

Sarah Goodridge, Rose Prentice (1771–1852), ca. 1837–38. Watercolor on ivory. Yale University Art Gallery, Partial gift of Caroline A. Phillips and purchased with the John Hill Morgan, b.a. 1893, ll.b. 1896, hon. 1929, Fund

Unknown artist, Portrait of a Seated Young Lady Holding a Nine-String Banjo, ca. 1860–65. Ambrotype. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, Randolph Linsly Simpson African-American Collection. Photo: Courtesy Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Unknown artist, possibly after Scipio Moorhead, Phillis Wheatley (ca. 1753–1784), frontispiece to Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773. Engraving. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Photo: Courtesy Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Mickalene Thomas, Courbet #3 (Sleep), 2011. Polaroid. Pizzuti Collection, Columbus, Ohio. © Mickalene Thomas

Curtis Talwst Santiago, What you doing? Just chilling with some friends, 2017. Mixed-media diorama in Edwardian silver jewelry box. Collection of Molly Creamer, Philadelphia. © Curtis Talwst Santiago. Photo: Dirk Tacke. Courtesy the artist

Sula Bermúdez-Silverman, Repository I: Mother, 2021. Isomalt sugar, epoxy resin, wood, Plexiglas, Himalayan salt, and LED light. Courtesy the artist and Josh Lilley Gallery, London

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