Norman Lewis at the McNay

There were two paintings that particularly caught my eye in one of the American art galleries during my visit to the McNay Art. Museum in San Antonio a couple of weeks ago. They featured ordinary people in everyday situations, clearly belonging to the Social Realism school of painting. I liked the subject matter, the slightly simplified forms of the people portrayed and the flat, bright colours.

The artist was Norman Lewis, an African-American painter who was born in Harlem. In his early work he concentrated on painting the things he saw around him in the working class communities of New York. In the Dispossessed he shows a family being evicted from their home, their possessions on the street.

The second painting portrays a more positive image with an African-American woman being given a reading lesson by a white woman. Given attitudes towards race in America at that time, I wonder whether the white woman is a member of the Communist party who were active amongst the black community in New York and other American cities

In the late 1940s, his work became increasingly abstract and he became a leading exponent of the Abstract Expressionist movement. One of his best known paintings, Migrating Birds (1954), won the Popular Prize at the Carnegie Museum’s 1955 Carnegie International Exhibition. However, his work did not sell nearly as well as other Abstract Expressionists, his ethnicity no doubt being the reason for this, and he supported himself and his family through teaching.


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