Elijah Cummings’ portrait of the painter finds it a career change


A son from Baltimore painted another.

When Representative Elijah E. Cummings passed away in October 2019 at the age of 68, he became the first African-American elected official to reside in the United States Capitol State, where he served for more than two decades in the Maryland 7th District House of Representatives.

In January, the official portrait of the Congressman, painted posthumously by artist Jerrell Gibbs, will be kept for posterity on Capitol Hill, where less than 20 of the hundreds of portraits of black leaders are housed.

For Gibbs, 33, who only started painting six years ago and received his MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art last year, the commission “changed the way I look at what I do. “, did he declare. “It gave me the courage that people want to support what I bring and believe that I am of value. “

“Elijah was a man from his hometown and we thought it would be poignant and very much like Elijah to have a Baltimore-based artist of color portray him,” said Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, Founder, President and CEO from Global Policy Solutions, who met the congressman in 1997 when she interviewed him for his dissertation and married him in 2008.

The House Oversight and Reform Committee, where her husband was chairman, asked her to lead efforts to commission a portrait. In turn, she enlisted the help of the Baltimore Museum of Art, where she served as a trustee from 2017 to 2019. Its curators identified a large pool of local artists, and a selection committee of museum leaders and of Community Arts unanimously chose Gibbs, who received $ 75,000 for the commission.

“Maya felt there was an opportunity to do something that attests to Elijah’s desire to shine the light on young Baltimore people who make great art,” said Christopher Bedford, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. The committee was looking for “someone with a vocabulary that seems progressive and relevant to the present,” he said, “while also having the gravity to exist in and among the more traditionally designed portraits on Capitol Hill.”

Gibbs’ boldly brushed portrait, which will be on display at the Baltimore Museum from December 22 to January 9 before his permanent move to Washington, embodies the regal port and the striking gaze of the Congressman. Emerging from an aura of golden-brown light, Cummings wields a judge’s hammer and almost seems to come out of the canvas.

Bedford was influenced by Gibbs’ deeply felt way of painting and “the ability to give his subjects a discernible inner life,” he said. “It’s a difficult thing to teach a portrait painter, which made Rembrandt, Titian and Velazquez so successful.”

Gibbs ‘selection to paint Cummings’ portrait for the United States Capitol invites comparison with the National Portrait Gallery painting of Michelle Obama, which in 2017 chose Amy Sherald, another little-known Baltimore-based painter at the time, for the high-profile commission.

“For a young painter, an order like this can be really crucial,” said Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, professor of art history at the University of Pennsylvania. “It sure was for Amy, whose life is totally different now.” The painting of the first lady catapulted Sherald to the center of the art world; she is now represented by the powerful Hauser & Wirth gallery.

When Gibbs learned earlier this year that he was one of three finalists, along with Monica Ikegwu and Ernest Shaw, chosen from over 30 candidates under consideration for the Cummings Commission, he said he felt completely overwhelmed. . “The hardest thing for me was remembering what led me to be chosen, which is that I paint like I paint,” he said.

The nine-member Baltimore-based selection committee, including art historian Lori N. Johnson, artist and curator Jeffrey Kent, and arts attorney and barber shop owner Troy Staton, made tours in the studio with each of the three finalists (for Gibbs, it took place in his garage). Rockeymoore Cummings remembers he stood out.

“Jerrell was naturally curious about Elijah and spoke knowingly about the job he did for a living,” she said. The committee were impressed with the three artists and invited each to submit a drawing of what their portrait might look like.

After making many drawings that Gibbs was not happy with, he submitted an actual painting to the committee, using a photograph of Justin T. Gellerson on the cover of Cummings’ book, “We’re Better Than That,” as a model. .

“Jerrell captured Elijah’s expressiveness, his sadness, his majesty in just a few strokes,” Rockeymoore Cummings said. The group’s decision was almost immediate.

While the figure of Cummings in the painted study is similar to the end result, Gibbs’ preliminary concept shows the congressman flanked by the flags of the United States and Maryland and standing in front of a desk with a statue of a lion roaring, which the artist had included as a symbol of Cummings’ presence in the courtroom. Yet during the months of working on the portrait itself, the artist described getting distracted by these foreign objects and throwing or covering up a series of failures.

“I realized what I wanted to capture was his voice, his presence, his temper, his strength and everything else just took him away,” said Gibbs, who simplified the background and cropped and enlarged the figure. by Cummings. “I thought of Rembrandt and the atmosphere he created for the characters using light and texture. Once I figured this out, I got really excited.

Rockeymoore Cummings was initially uncertain. “I was like, Jerrell, what happened to my business?” She laughs. “Every portrait on Capitol Hill of every president that ever existed has a flag behind them and Elijah did not have a flag.”

She asked Gibbs to reconsider, but he stuck to her vision. Rockeymoore Cummings now embraces the way her husband stands alone in the portrait. “The last years of her life were focused on the fight to protect and defend our democracy,” she said. She interprets the aura behind him as “an open question mark on what our country will choose for its future”.


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