A French manicure in Walter Ellison’s 1937 painting
The red candy-striped fingernails were transfixing. They held me in place there in the auction house, willing me to stop my casual stroll among the other artwork and pay attention to them.
If that was what artist Walter W. Ellison had in mind when he painted this oil on canvas, he had succeeded. There was no way for you to walk right past this painting, with a woman’s fingertips massaging another’s temples, the recipient with her eyes closed, her mind probably millions of miles away from whatever was troubling her this day in 1937. Click on the photo below for a fuller view.
I wondered where Ellison had seen these lovely nails. On the hands of women he saw on the street? On his wife or girlfriend’s fingers? In magazines? What about this image stirred or inspired him to put it to canvas?
The woman in the painting was well made-up as she laid back in her beautician’s chair, a cover over her shoulders, her face rouged, her lips painted and her eyebrows trimmed. I’m sure it was a ritual she looked forward to each time she visited – one that many of us experience today.
Ellison deliberately left out the owner of the hands, forcing us to focus on the painted nails. They appeared to be done in a French manicure with their red center, and white moon and tips. Since this nail style captivated the artist, I can only assume that it must have been popular at the time.
There is some debate on when and where the French manicure came into being. Some say Max Factor started the trend (he created a white chalky liquid that was applied to the nails and left to dry), some say the French. Beauty-products maker Orly created a French Manicure collection in the 1970s. It obviously was around way before then, as evidenced in Ellison’s painting.
I came across the painting, which was titled “Untitled,” at an auction of African American art recently at Swann Auction Galleries in New York. I had driven to the city with friends, and we had arrived early to preview the artwork. As I stood there studying the painting, one friend suggested that I consider writing a blog post about hands in paintings. I walked over to where she was looking at a painting with hands, took a photo, but soon returned to Ellison’s fingernails and the long slender fingers they were attached to.
Ellison seemed to be that type of artist, one who made a bold but simple statement that grabbed you and held on. One of his famous paintings “Train Station (1935)” showed African Americans headed North in the Great Migration – that mighty flow of people escaping the South for better lives. I first saw it at the Art Institute of Chicago some years ago, and was impressed with its subject matter, its images and that it was identified as a station in Macon, GA (my hometown). According to the museum site, it may have been the station in Macon where Ellison took a train to Chicago.
The painting showed the great divide between blacks and whites: White travelers were on the left, boarding trains to Miami and destinations south for vacation, with porters helping them with their luggage. Blacks were on the right, bound for freedom in places like Chicago and Detroit in the “Colored” section, with no porters offering assistance.
The artist himself was all over the painting: His initial “W” formed the floor layout of the station. His initials “WW” were on the suitcase of a traveler at the bottom right. He may have left clear messages of himself in his paintings, but his background is sketchy.
Ellison was born in Georgia (one site said it was Eatonton, others did not specify) around 1899 or 1900. He attended classes at the Art Institute and worked for the easel division of the Illinois Art Project at the South Side Community Art Center in the 1930s, according to the Swann catalog. The project was part of the Works Progress Administration, which put many artists to work during the Depression.
Ellison participated in the Tanner Art Galleries’ “Exhibition of the Art of the American Negro (1851-1940)” in Chicago in 1940. It was part of the American Negro Exhibition celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Works by African American artists were displayed in the gallery in the South Hall of the Chicago Coliseum. Two years later, he was among the artists in the first “Negro Annual Exhibition” at Atlanta University, according to Swann. He also exhibited at the Library of Congress in 1943.
His works are in the Art Institute, the St. Louis Art Museum and the Chicago Public Library (which included his work in an exhibit of Chicago and New York WPA artists in 1978). Some of his papers – including exhibition catalogs, illustrations, press clippings and brochures – are in the Smithsonian Libraries.
At auction, the Ellison painting of the fingernails sold for $9,000. Apparently, someone else was as enamored with it as me.