SAMUEL A. COUNTEE (American, 1909-1959). The Longshoreman (African-American Dock Worker), 1940. Oil on canvas. 42 x 33 i...
The Longshoreman (African-American Dock Worker), 1940
Oil on canvas
42 x 33 inches (106.7 x 83.8 cm)
Signed and dated lower right: S. Countee / 40
Samuel Albert Countee - The Longshoreman
by James Graham Baker
Once in a while, souls escape the confinements imposed by history and society, and they let their inner light shine forth in spite of all constraints. Such a soul was Samuel Albert Countee. Countee was born 1 April, 1909, to Thomas and Nannie Countee in Marshall, Texas, where his mother worked at Bishop College. Countee hails from a distinguished Houston family and counts among his forbearers the Rev. Jack Yates, who in 1866 became pastor of the Antioch Baptist Church in the Freedman's Town section of downtown Houston. Countee's portrait of Rev. Yates was among the objects displayed in the 1986 exhibit commemorating the Yates/Countee family and their contributions to Houston held at the Houston Library.
As a youth, his family moved to Houston where Countee attended Gregory Elementary and Booker T. Washington High Schools. In 1929, he returned to Bishop College as "Artist in Residence", receiving a Harmon Foundation scholarship in 1933 and his A.B. Degree in 1934. During his time at Bishop, he painted many portraits of the faculty, administration, and board of directors to cover his expenses. In October of 1934, he received a scholarship to study at the Boston Museum School and moved to Boston. And again, he was given the title of "Artist in Residence", and he helped younger artists while taking courses in drawing, painting, and fresco painting. In addition, he took courses at Harvard University in 1940-41.
During the 1930s and 1940s Countee exhibited his works widely including: Bishop College, Marshall (1933, 1934); Negro Library , Houston; (1933); Harmon Foundation (1933, 1935, 1936); The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, Paintings and Sculpture by American Negro Artists (1936); Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas (1936); Howard University (1933, 1937); American Negro Exposition (1940); Atlanta University (1940); Smith College (1943); and at the Institute of Modern Art, Boston (1943). Fisk University Museum has a painting by him entitled The Lamp. In 1952, Countee won a $100 prize for his painting Brown Girl at Atlanta University's 11th Annual Exhibition of Paintings, Sculpture, and Prints by Negro Artists. Samuel Countee's record of production and exhibition would have been the envy of any artist. The Hampton Institute's Southern Workman's April 1933 review of the 5th Harmon Exhibition praised Countee's entry: "Little Brown Boy by Samuel Albert Countee is distinctly deserving and represented a newcomer at the Harmon shows..."
African-Americans were not allowed to participate in the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts exhibition at the 1936 Texas Centennial, so Samuel Countee's painting My Guitar was shown in the Hall of Negro Life, where it was the most popular painting at the exhibition of African-American artists, which also included works by well-known black artists such as Hale Woodruff, James L. Wells, Archibald J. Motley, Laura Wheeler, and Aaron Douglas. To have been chosen above that distinguished group of African-American artists speaks volumes about Countee's skills.
World War II altered the trajectory of Countee's life as it did for everyone alive at that time, but even the war could not prevent him from producing art. By 1943, following basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, Countee served as a Staff Sergeant in the 436th Engineer General Service Dump Truck Company stationed in Iran where they were involved in the effort to ferry war supplies to Russia. During his service in Iran, Countee was enlisted to paint and restore murals in the Shah of Iran's palace. After the war, Countee was again stationed at Fort Leonard Wood where he painted a 4 foot by 10.5 foot mural of a black couple picnicking. Located in the Black Officer's Club, the mural was restored in the 1990s and is one of the attractions drawing those who tour the historic fort. In 1945, while at Leonard Wood, Countee also painted theater sets for the USO performances including Goldbrickers of 1944 written and staged by playwright, actor, film director, and author Ossie Davis while he had been stationed in Liberia during the war.
After mustering out of the Army, Countee moved to New York City and continued his career as an artist. He was a popular and well known artist in Harlem and taught art classes at the Harlem YWCA. He painted portraits of famous black artists and entertainers including Lucille Armstrong, Harry Belafonte, and Marian Anderson. In a way, Samuel Countee followed the Rev. Jack Yates in ministering to those in need, as he volunteered to teach art lessons to heroin addicts confined on North Brother Island in the East River between Bronx and Manhattan. Sadly, Samuel Countee's life and career were cut short by cancer, and he died September 11, 1959, at the age of 50.
Much of Countee's life work was devoted to portraiture, which makes the genre scenes such as The Longshoreman even more exceptional. Paintings are particularly revealing social and personal documentaries, and as such, they tell us much about the time and place they were created. Samuel Countee's paintings in a way chart the course of the 20th Century American experience for those of African heritage. His earliest known works are tentative in the expression of those depicted, wary and almost fearful, reflecting the troubled times for blacks in east Texas. The Longshoreman represents a coming of age to full personhood. The Longshoreman is dignified and fully present. This bold statement no doubt owes much to Joe Louis and his victories in the boxing rings of the late 1930s and through the 1940s which gave blacks a great sense of pride and new visions of what was possible. Even the longshoreman's bearing seems a bit like a boxing stance.
The painting also exhibits the sophistication and training that Countee had acquired in Boston. It can stand proudly with the best works of his Texas contemporaries like the Dallas Nine and is an exemplary expression of one Texan's Regionalism. It is likely that the scene derives from the Houston docks, which would have been familiar to Countee from growing up in Houston. The cotton bales are like iconic symbols of the life led by many African Americans prior to World War II. It is interesting that at about the same time, Jerry Bywaters (Loading Cotton, 1939) and Alexandre Hogue (Houston Ship Channel - Early History, 1941) also painted scenes from the Houston docks. Samuel Countee's painting The Longshoreman holds its own beside either of those works; though it is more powerful and psychologically charged than either. It is a work of great presence. Indeed, The Longshoreman, in its excellence, size, and historical importance, is a museum quality painting.
When a soul such as Samuel Albert Countee escapes from the cages that society and history imposed on him and shines forth his inner light, we are privileged to have glimpses into realities that are too often closed to us. While those glimpses delight our eyes and charge our being with energy, they also leave us with a profound sense of loss for the creativity and expression that was long repressed and therefore denied, not only the caged ones, but humanity as a whole. Samuel Countee was one of the finest early Texas artists active in the twentieth century, and his works deserve the recognition they are beginning to receive.
Alonzo J. Aden, Educational Tour Through the Hall of Negro Life, The Southern Workman, Hampton Institute, Vol. LXV, no. 11, November 1936, p. 334;
William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris, The Concise Oxford Companion to African-American Literature, Oxford Reference Online, entry for Ossie Davis, 2012;
Theresa Dickason Cederholm, editor, Afro-American Artists (Boston: Trustees of The Boston Public Library, 1973), pp. 62-63;
Betty Ewing, Houston's Yates Family Focus of Library Exhibit¸ Houston Chronicle, Lifestyle Section, February 2, 1986, p. 8;
Rose Henderson, Negro Artists in the Fifth Harmon Exhibition, The Southern Workman, Hampton Institute, Vol. LXII, no. 4, April 1933, p. 181;
Obituary for Samuel A. Countee, The New York Times, September 13, 1959;
Lynn Moody Igoe, 250 Years of Afro-American Art: An Annotated Bibliography (New York, R.R. Bowker Company, 1981), pp. 582-583;
Memphis World newspaper, Samuel A. Countee Wins Award for "Brown Girl; April 29, 1952;
New York Age, newspaper, S. Countee Conducts Harlem Y Art Classes, June 20, 1953, p. 6;
New York Age, newspaper, Plans Fall Art Class at YWCA, August 15, 1953, p. 5;
Deborah and John Powers, Texas Painters Sculptors & Graphic Artists, Woodmont Books, Austin, 2000, p.111;
Stephen D. Smith, A Historic Context Statement For A World War II Era Black Officers' Club At Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, U.S. Army Construction Engineering Research Laboratories Cultural Resources Research Center Technical Report 99/02; South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, Research Manuscript Series 227, November 1998. This is a comprehensive and excellent source of information on Samuel Countee;
Stephen D. Smith, Cultural Resource Division Archaeologists Uncover an Artist, Legacy, South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of South Carolina, Vol.3, No.3, December 1998, pp. 20-22;
Glenn Tanner, The Paris Post-Intelligencer, newspaper, Paris, Tennessee, Former Henry Countian's Hattye Mae Thomas Yarbrough 's) Camp Tyson scrapbook accepted by Smithsonian, Paris, Tennessee, February 29, 2012;
Jesse O. Thomas, The Negro Participation in the Texas Centennial Exposition, Boston, Massachusetts, Christopher Publishing House, 1938, pp. 101-103, 110-113, 132-133.
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