A closer look at F. Graham Cootes’ portrait of important Black civil rights activist, historian and author W.E.B. Du Bois

By Daniel Fulco, Ph.D., Agnita M. Stine Schreiber Curator
In recognition of Black History Month, we hope that you enjoy this portrait of W. E. B. Du Bois in the collection.

Cootes 2
F. Graham Cootes (American, 1879–1960)
Portrait of W. E. B. Du Bois, ca. 1940–early 1950s
Pastel on paper
20 7/8″h x 17″w
Collection of Washington County Museum of Fine Arts
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Donald Fidlow, A3807,02.0206

In this captivating work, F. Graham Cootes deftly depicted the renowned African American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, and author, W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963). The artist employed striking highlights on his sitter’s forehead, hair, and tie that subtly reference his age, wisdom, distinction, and determination. Between the 1940s and early 1950s, Cootes and Du Bois met when they were both living in New York. While the exact origin of the portrait remains unclear, it is likely that Cootes’ fame as a portraitist of notable personalities attracted Du Bois’ initial attention and that he possibly commissioned it from the artist.

Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in 1868. He descended from French Huguenot, Dutch, and African ancestors. Throughout his career, he advocated vigorously for equal rights among African Americans and strove to combat racism in America and abroad. Du Bois was one of the most influential Black protest leaders of the world, as well as a major voice for social justice. Among his many accomplishments, Du Bois was the first African American to earn a doctorate from Harvard University (1896), he authored numerous books, including his seminal work Black Reconstruction in America (1935), and was one of the founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). For the majority of his career, he also held the position of Professor of History, Sociology, and Economics at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University).

Staunton, Virginia native Cootes attended Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, and the University of Virginia (Charlottesville), where he received his Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees. In 1902, Cootes studied with Robert Henri at the New York Art School (now Parsons School of Design l The New School, NY). Early in his career, he was involved in advertising and was known for his illustrations in Scribner’s magazine, McClure’s Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, and the Saturday Evening Post. While working in New York, Cootes painted the portraits of many prominent Americans, including President Woodrow Wilson and Helen Taft, daughter of former President Howard Taft. The Woodrow Wilson 7-cent stamp issued in 1956 was based on Cootes’ official portrait of this president.

This WeekendArt is sponsored by the Holzapfel Group, Morgan Stanley Wealth Management