FRITZ WILHELM WINOLD REISS (1886–1953)
Portrait of Sari Price Patton, 1925
Pastel on Whatman board, 30 x 21 1/2 in.
Signed (at lower left): WINOLD / REISS
RECORDED: “German Painter’s Harlem Exhibit of Colored Subjects: Reiss Seeks to Stir Art Interest in Negroes," New York Evening Journal, March 30, 1925, illus. // Jeffrey C. Stewart, Winold Reiss: An Illustrated Checklist of His Portraits [Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Portrait Gallery, 1990], p. 40 illus. as “Seated Woman” // Teresa A. Carbone, Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties, exhib. cat. [Brooklyn New York: Brooklyn Museum, 2011], pp. 105, 108 fig. 81 illus. in color
EXHIBITED: 135th Street Branch, New York Public Library, March 1925, Recent Portraits of Representative Negroes // Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York; Dallas Museum of Art, Texas; Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio, 2011–12, Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties
EX COLL.: the artist; to his estate until the present
Portrait of Sari Price Patton is one of a series of large-scale pastels that Reiss created in connection with his work for the special Harlem issue of Survey Graphic magazine, March 1925. The magazine, published from 1921 to 1952, was an offshoot of The Survey, a progressive professional social work journal. Editor Paul Kellogg had commissioned the journalist (and later, novelist) Katherine Anne Porter, who had traveled in Mexico, to guest edit a special Mexico number of Survey Graphic. Porter had met and traveled with Winold Reiss in Mexico in 1920, and she enlisted him to provide illustrations for her edition of Survey Graphic. The following year, when Kellogg engaged Dr. Alain Locke, a Harvard-educated Howard University professor of philosophy to create a focused number on Harlem, Reiss presented a natural choice for the graphic component. In all, Reiss contributed five of his “imaginatives” and thirteen portraits, which were included two illustrated features, “Harlem Types” (pp. 651–54) and “Four Portraits of Negro Women” (pp. 685–88). In the introductory text to “Harlem Types” Locke introduced Reiss as “a master delineator of folk character by wide experience and definite specialization. . . . He is a folk-lorist of the brush and palette, seeking always the folk character back of the individual, the psychology behind the physiognomy” (p. 653). Survey Graphic’s “Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro” sold out two printings and was such a resounding success that later in the year Locke edited his own anthology, The New Negro: An Interpretation. A founding and defining document of the Harlem Renaisance, Locke’s book featured a cover designed by Reiss as well as “imaginatives” and seventeen portraits inside. In a letter of December 31, 1925, Reiss wrote to Locke:
I have to tell you again how much I liked to work with you and I only wish that we will have once an occasion in which we can prove just to all our ideals . . . It would make me very happy if my effort in helping your noble work would really be a small seed in the vast land that still has to be ploughed Do not forget that you can always find me ready if you need help in your idealistic undertakings (as quoted by Stewart, p. 62 from Locke Papers, Howard University).
Reiss’s relationship with Survey Graphic (and with Paul Kellogg in particular) continued to be a valuable source of patronage. Reiss published work in the magazine again in 1926 for a special issue on Asians in America; in 1927 for a discussion of the Georgia Sea Island Gullah population; in 1929 for an issue on Germany; and again in 1931 and 1936. In 1941 and ’42 he contributed cover illustrations, the latter in November of 1942 revisiting the issue of race, “Color: The Unfinished Business of Democracy,” with an essay by Alain Locke. Reiss’s work appeared in Survey Graphic again in 1945 and 1948.
Portrait of Sari Price Patton is very much of a piece with Reiss’s work for the 1925 Survey Graphic. Little is known about the sitter. Reiss’s portrait of her is, in fact, the best source of information. She is the epitome of chic—a strikingly attractive, light-skinned young lady, tastefully coiffed and elegantly dressed in keeping with the latest standards in refined jazz-age beauty. In this portrait Patton presents to the world a serious and self-possessed mien, very much a representative of the elite strata of Negro society, a group that was widely expected to generate the leadership that would lead the American Negro to an approaching future of legal equality and equal economic opportunity. The little more that is known about the sitter offers a contrast to the mood of the portrait. She has been identified as the “social secretary” (Beverly Lowry, Her Dream of Dreams [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003], p. 437) to A’lelia Walker, daughter of Madame C. J. Walker. Madame Walker, born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 into rural southern poverty, took the name of one of her husbands, Clarence Joseph Walker, added Madame for the exalted sound of it, and raised herself from abused orphan to multimillionaire through the discovery and marketing of hair products designed for Negro woman. Madame Walker was a tirelessly energetic entrepreneur who built a beauty empire, led civic and political activities and funded numerous philanthropic endeavors before her death in 1919. She left behind her adopted daughter, Leila, who took the name A’lelia in the early 1920s. A’lelia’s salon ambitions had nothing to do with entrepreneurship and everything to do with society. She spent her considerable inheritance in establishing herself as the doyenne of an alcohol-fueled (this during Prohibition) social salon that attracted uptown and downtown artists, writers, musicians, professionals and assorted society folk to a glittering good-time circle that revolved around her. A’lelia Walker was a large woman who commanded attention through her famous fortune, good nature, generosity, flamboyant lifestyle and exotic dress. Reiss’s Portrait of Sari Price Patton suggests a young woman with a much more measured approach to the business of life. Teresa Carbone (p. 105) identifies Patton as the “hostess” of A’lelia Walker’s salon, and quotes Bruce Nugent (writer, artist, actor, friend of Langston Hughes, 1906–1987) to the effect that Patton lent the premises a “stiff dignity.” It is not clear how long Patton worked for Walker, nor are there any verified details about her personal or professional life, particularly after Walker’s death in 1931.