Mary A. Bell (July 2, 1873 - September 20, 1941) was an African-American artist and illustrator.
Bell was born on July 2, 1873 in Washington, D.C., to James F. Bell and Susanna County. Bell received no formal training in illustration, instead working various domestic jobs until her 60s. In the 1920s, Bell worked for Edward Peter Pierce, justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, as well as for the sculptor Gaston Lachaise and his wife, Isabel. During this time, Bell would spend her evenings in her room, drawing simple images, many of women. Isabel Lachaise described these drawings as "miracles" and recommended them to Bell's later patron Carl Van Vechten.
Mary Bell American Mixtures of the Ethiopian Race n.d. Crayon on paper 20.5 x 15.5 inches Carl Van Vechten Papers. Describing the women in American Mixtures of the Ethiopian Race, Bell wrote, “The girl in the center is octoroon, the girl on the left the Creole type, [the girl on] the right is the so called chocolate type.”
Mary Bell The Lost Chord n.d. Crayon and pencil on paper 20.5 x 15.5 inches Carl Van Vechten Papers
Mary Bell Oh, What Lovely Apples n.d. Carl Van Vechten Papers
Mary Bell Gratitude n.d. Carl Van Vechten Papers
In the mid-1930s, Bell left regular employment to focus on her artwork. She created over 150 known works between 1936 and 1939. Bell primarily worked in crayon and colored pencil on the type of tissue paper used in dressmaking. Her drawings were elegant scenes from the everyday life of the rich, as well as Creole or African-American subjects. Her artwork became known to the general public thanks to patrons such as author Gertrude Stein, writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten, publicist Mark Lutz, critic Henry McBride and artist Florine Stettheimer. Van Vechten alone commissioned roughly 100 drawings from Bell.
Troubled by mental illness, possibly schizophrenia, Bell was admitted to Boston State Hospital in 1940. She died in the hospital the following year from heart failure.
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