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My Father

On view

My Father

Artist: Joe Jones (American, 1909 - 1963)

Date: 1932
Medium: Oil on canvas
Framed: 38 1/2 x 44 1/2in. (97.8 x 113cm)
Overall: 30 x 36in. (76.2 x 91.4cm)
Signed: Lower right: 'Joseph Jones / 1932'
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 83.13
Text Entries

The decade of the 1930s was a period of catastrophic economic distress, which fostered a social and cultural climate marked by fervent political activism, factionalized ideological debate, and aesthetic controversy. Never before in this country had artists participated on such a scale in an economic and political struggle, or focused their creative energy on subjects born of their contemporary situation. Federal support of thousands of artists under the auspices of the Public Works of Art Project, the Federal Art Project, and the Treasury Relief Art Project directly contributed to the development of groups of artists working primarily in representational styles more precisely defined as Regionalism, Social Realism, Urban Realism, and Social Surrealism.

Joe Jones’s interest in the industrial urban landscape and the social injustices of the racially and economically oppressed, alongside his paintings of more traditionally regionalistic subjects of farmers laboring in the drought-stricken Midwest, encompasses a broad range of the iconographic and stylistic interests developed during this period. When his first one-man exhibition opened in May 1935, at the ACA Galleries in New York City, Jones was critically acclaimed as establishing social content as a dominant factor in the contemporary art scene.(1) Soon after, Lewis Mumford wrote: “Coming at the close of the season, Jones’s exhibition brings it to an end not with a whimper but with a bang,” and he proclaimed Jones the year’s most promising young artist.(2)

Portrait of the Artist’s Father was painted in 1932, at a time when Jones was first gaining recognition in his native St. Louis for his outspoken attitudes about art and for paintings with socially potent subjects, innovative uses of color, and unorthodox compositions. Self-taught as an artist, Jones studied the paintings of the old masters in reproductions and at the St. Louis Art Museum. Pablo Picasso and George Grosz were the contemporary artists he most admired, as well as the Mexican muralists José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera.(3) Painting for Jones was both an opportunity to present contemporary social ills—to “paint things that will knock holes in the walls”(4)—and an exploration of formal and aesthetic issues. In Portrait of the Artist’s Father, tensions created by the subject are played against the formal beauty of the painting.

In a St. Louis newspaper interview about this and two other family portraits, Jones emphasized his desire to present the personality of the sitter through pose and setting, relying less on likeness.(5) The image of his father is most striking for its unorthodox positioning of the man with his back to the viewer, selected so as not to reveal a missing right arm. The result of this arrangement is ananonymity of subject that suggests the universal. Jones’s father, resting head in hand beside an empty gin bottle and glass, facing an empty corner, transcends the everyday to symbolize the isolation, struggle, and emptiness of the individual during a period of crisis.

The Cubist paintings of Picasso and Braque are stylistic sources for Jones’s handling of form and painting technique. The subject itself, of a half portrait seated at a table with still-life accessories, had been investigated two decades before by the Cubists. While Jones quotes early modernist European painting (itself a subject of controversy at this time), his exploration of color and form evolve into a personal style that does not dominate his subject, but rather adds an expressive depth to it. In this painting, Jones’s careful placement of the red baseboard and the circular composition that the artist himself considered “violent”(6) further amplify the underlying tensions of the image.



1. Herman Baron, “History of the ACA Galleries,” Herman Baron Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., reel D304, frame 600.

2. Lewis Mumford, “At the Galleries, In Capitulation," The New Yorker, vol. 11 (June 1, 1935), p. 57.

3. John Selby, St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat, September 11, 1938, p. 4a.

4. “Joe Jones Tries to ‘Knock Holes in Walls‘,“ Art Digest, vol. 7 (February 15, 1933), p. 9.

5. “A St. Louis Artist Discusses His Family on Canvas,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch Sunday Magazine, undated clipping, artist’s scrapbook, courtesy of D. Wigmore Fine Arts, Inc., New York.

6. Ibid.


Presumed copyright: the artist or the artist's representative/heir(s).