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Black Virgin by Thelma Johnson Streat

Art Review by Robin Tovey

The painting Black Virgin by Thelma Johnson Streat is on display at the Portland Art Museum as part of the exhibition Black Artists of Oregon, which runs through March 31. This intriguing portrait is just one of many remarkable pieces in a collection of Black diasporic experiences particular to the Pacific Northwest that includes 69 artists and more than 200 objects. Streat was the first Black woman artist to exhibit and have her work collected by the Museum of Modern Art when MoMA bought one of her paintings in 1942. She was a real triple threat in her time, as an artist, dancer, and educator. In the curator statement Intisar Abioto offers this biographical sketch:

“Streat was born in 1911, only 11 years after Oregonians voted to keep language excluding Black people in the state constitution. She moved to Portland with her family when she was in her teens and later attended the Museum Art School, which eventually became the Pacific Northwest College of Art. She created works inspired by Black history and culture, and painted grand murals for the Works Project Administration during the Depression.”

The Women Out West blog by Viki Sonstegard notes that as a “talented singer and modern dancer, Streat gave live performances, sometimes as accompaniment to her murals at their completion. In addition, she performed at New York's Interplayer's Theater in Carnegie Hall, and before audiences in Paris, France, and London, England before Queen Elizabeth.” Also, she worked with textiles and created fabric designs for Koret, a women’s sportswear label, in 1948.

For the Portland exhibition, Abioto writes about the featured image, “She’s painted herself as a Black Virgin Mary all in white.” Indeed, my first impression is that this painting contains elements of allegorical representation in keeping with a religious tradition, and yet Streat uses space, color, light to create an image filled with incongruities that disrupt our expectations of a formal portrait. Her intent may have been to invest the traditional motif with psychological nuance beyond sentiments of the spiritual, but we cannot know the work’s intrinsic meaning, only our perception of it and response to it.

To me, the most striking aspect of this portrait is the way in which the gaze of the Virgin draws our attention and holds it. Her eyes are averted to the side, looking back at us with an intensity that feels quite earnest. Because the placement of her face is to the right of center,

when her eyes shift left they return the focus to the middle of the composition. Turning to face the viewer directly, with such a captivating stare, echoes a practice of portraiture going back centuries, and yet, iconographically speaking, her “side eye” glance is a far cry from the depictions of the Virgin Mary with eyes turned upward to heaven or downward in adoration of the Christ Child.

This impression of dissonance is reinforced in other ways. The Virgin’s face has a pleasing fullness, yet the shadow cast by it is triangular in nature; this triangle is all the more noticeable in contrast to the horizontal plane of her collarbone. That leads our eye to the neckline of her dress, which is not a perfect square, nor is it even symmetrical within its own design. Behind each shoulder, there are spots of green, and tree branches curve upward and point toward the sky in a warm brown color that complements the richness of her skin tone. Offering the hint of landscape situates this composition in the naturalistic tradition, yet the suggestion of a horizon on a dark night, not to mention the faintest wisps of white clouds, is confusing and unsettling. The branches are almost cartoonish and certainly not in proportion to her head, and for this reason they feel a bit menacing. It is not a believable backdrop that Streat has created, and I’d suggest that is the point, to draw the viewer to consider the whole perceptual field and her place in it.

Streat’s use of light in the painting reinforces the unreality of this in-between realm where the Virgin resides, and this background serves to offset the liveness and variability of the glow surrounding her. Is she emanating light, as figures in saintly portraiture often do? Or is atmospheric light cast upon her by the moon, the sun, or something artificial? I’d assert it is not a glow from within, rather the reflection of external light focused on her face, thus creating the shadow under her chin and across her right shoulder and that side of her veil. Also, there is a shine on her nose and lips, and an odd reflection on her forehead that appears to represent the panes of a window. This suggestion returns us to the practical reality of a studio setting, and possibly one in which Streat made use of a mirror to capture her own image.

The use of light is most apparent and otherworldly in the way it plays upon the Virgin’s veil and dress. Her unadorned veil and the simplicity of her dress could be read to telegraph a sense of purity and innocence characteristic of virginal figures in art history. However, the contours of her face are outlined by a blue glow that creates unexpected intrigue, and the underside of her veil is purple not white, as if colored by the reflection of that mysterious blue. Again, we wonder, is she radiating goodness and light outward or is her inner power being revealed? One final and unexpected place in which the play of light introduces curiosity is around her neckline where one can detect the slightest silver in the rick-rack trim, a subtle flourish that reminds me of illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages. This silver is echoed in Streat’s signature at the bottom of the painting, a delicate lettering that almost blends in, not unlike the way in which her own identity is (nearly) subsumed by the persona of the Virgin.

Streat’s artistic vision for Black Virgin is unknowable to us, yet in testing the conventions of traditional portraiture and making unusual compositional arrangements she opens this work to thought-provoking questions for our consideration: Who sits for portraits? Who creates portraits? Who buys portraits? Who selects the portraits for exhibitions like this? And what is the relationship between all of them?

By Robin Tovey

If you go:

Notice the painting next to Black Virgin is a contemporary work, Hue (Streat), done by Jeremy Okai Davis in 2021 to celebrate Thelma Johnson Streat. Additionally, on the other side of Black Virgin is a series of pieces by Streat that are more folkloric, abstract, and strikingly different from her self portrait.


Black Virgin by Thelma Johnson Streat, ca. 1948, Reed College art collection Larger version: 

Learn more about the exhibit here:


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