A son from Baltimore painted another.
When Representative Elijah E. Cummings died in October 2019 at age 68, he became the first African-American elected official to represent the state in the U.S. Capitol, where he served for more than two decades in the United States House of Representatives from the 7th district. of Maryland served.
In January, the Congresswoman’s official portrait, painted posthumously by the artist Jerrell Gibbs, will be preserved for posterity in the Capitol, which is home to fewer than 20 of the hundreds of portraits of black leaders.
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 has “changed the way I look at what I do,” he said. “It gave me courage that people want to support what I bring to the table and believe I have value.”
“Elijah was a boy from his hometown, and we thought it would be poignant and very Elijah-esque to have a Baltimore-based colored artist do his portrait,” said Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, the founder, president, and CEO of Global Policy Solutions, who met the congressman in 1997 when she interviewed him for her dissertation and married him in 2008.
She was asked by the House Oversight and Reform Committee, chaired by her husband, to commission a portrait. She, in turn, enlisted the help of the Baltimore Museum of Art, where she curated from 2017 to 2019. The trustees identified a broad pool of local artists, and a selection committee of museum and community arts leaders unanimously chose Gibbs, who received $75,000 for the commission.
“Maya felt there was an opportunity to do something that reflected Elijah’s desire to shine a positive light on young people in Baltimore making great art,” said Christopher Bedford, the director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. The committee was looking for “someone with a vocabulary that seems forward-thinking and relevant to the present,” he said, “while also having the gravitas necessary to exist in and among more traditionally conceived portraiture in the Capitol.”
Gibbs’ boldly brushed portrait, which will be on display at the Baltimore Museum from December 22 to January 9 before being permanently installed in Washington, embodies the congressman’s regal demeanor and arresting look. Emerging from an aura of golden brown light, Cummings wields a judge’s gavel and almost seems to burst from 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. “That’s hard to teach a portraitist — the thing that made people like 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, who in 2017 chose Amy Sherald, another little-known Baltimore painter, for the high- profile committee.
“For a young painter, such an assignment can be very important,” said Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, a professor of art history at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s definitely been for Amy, whose life is completely different now.” The painting of the first lady catapulted Sherald to the center of the art world; she is now represented by the powerhouse gallery Hauser & Wirth.
When Gibbs learned early this year that he was one of three finalists, along with Monica Ikegwu and Ernest Shaw, chosen from more than 30 candidates eligible for the Cummings commission, he described feeling completely overwhelmed. “The hardest thing for me was to remember what prompted me to be chosen, which is that I painted the way I paint,” he said.
The nine-member Baltimore-based selection committee, which included art historian Lori N. Johnson, artist and curator Jeffrey Kent, and art attorney and barbershop owner Troy Staton, made studio visits with each of the three finalists (before Gibbs, it took place in his garage). Rockeymoore Cummings remembers how he stood out.
“Jerrell was naturally curious about Elijah and spoke knowledgeable about the work he was doing in life,” she said. The committee was impressed by all three artists and invited each to submit a drawing of what their portrait might look like.
After making many drawings that Gibbs wasn’t happy with, he submitted a real painting to the committee, featuring a photo of Justin T. Gellerson on the cover of Cummings’ book, “We’re Better Than This,” as a model. .
“Jerrell captured Elijah’s expressiveness, his gloom, his majesty in just a few strokes,” Rockeymoore Cummings said. The group’s decision was almost instantaneous.
Although the figure of Cummings in the painted study is similar to the final result, Gibbs’ preliminary concept shows the congressman flanked by the US and state of Maryland flags and standing in front of a desk with a statue of a roaring lion, which the artist as a symbol of Cummings’ presence in the courtroom. But during the months he worked on the actual portrait, the artist described being sidetracked by these strange objects and discarding or covering up a series of failures.
“I realized what I wanted to capture was his voice, his presence, his character, his strength and everything else that just took him away,” said Gibbs, who simplified the background and cropped and enlarged Cummings’ figure. “I thought of Rembrandt and the atmosphere he created for the figures by using light and texture. Once I realized that, I got really excited.”
Rockeymoore Cummings was initially unsure. “I thought, Jerrell, what happened to my stuff?” she said with a laugh. “Every portrait in the Capitol of every president that ever was has a flag behind it and Elijah had no flag.”
She asked Gibbs to reconsider, but he stuck to his vision. Rockeymoore Cummings now embraces how her husband stands alone in the portrait. “The last years of his life were devoted to fighting to protect and defend our democracy,” she said. She interprets the aura behind him as “an open question mark about what our country is going to choose for its future.”