Sylvia Snowden’s Portraits of Humanity
Advisory Perspective

Sylvia Snowden’s Portraits of Humanity

By Rory Mitchell | Wakefield, Yorkshire, 14 March 2024 | Exhibitions

Beverly Johnson, Elueeta Johnson, Julia Shepherd, and Steven Thornhill were residents of M Street in the Shaw district of Washington D.C.

Now, their names adorn the walls of the Hepworth Wakefield in the U.K. thanks to American expressionist painter Sylvia Snowden.

Snowden titled her paintings of the late 1970s after her neighbours, commemorating those whose presence enriched her daily life as a young single mother surviving in the 'ghetto'. These 'portraits of humanity', as Snowden has described them, are monumental in scale and will stop visitors in their tracks with their intensity of colour and form.

Portrait of Sylvia Snowden. Photo: Ellie Smith

Portrait of Sylvia Snowden. Photo: Ellie Smith

Last year Laura Smith, Hepworth Wakefield's collection and exhibitions director, included Snowden in Whitechapel Gallery's celebrated group show Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940–70. Now, aged 81, Snowden has her first solo exhibition in a European museum.

We are living in a period ripe for the rediscovery of previously overlooked artists, and Snowden's paintings have been starved of a wider audience for too long. While she received some support from her hometown, Washington D.C., with a solo show at the National Museum Of Women In The Arts in 1992, and more recently at the Rubell Museum DC in 2022, the lack of attention further afield has increasingly been remedied.

Last year, the London gallery Edel Assanti hosted a solo exhibition of Snowden's work during Frieze, to rapturous responses from collectors, curators, and critics.

Coming of age during the civil rights movement during the 1960s in Washington D.C., Snowden relied on guidance from her Howard University teachers, who were distinguished African American artists and art historians, such as, James Porter, Lois Maillou Jones, James Well and David C. Driskell. Although, her primary inspiration and support came in the form of her academic parents who enabled her to work as an artist as a young single mother.

Sylvia Snowden, Steven Thornhill (1979). © Sylvia Snowden.

Sylvia Snowden, Steven Thornhill (1979). © Sylvia Snowden. Courtesy Edel Assanti and Franklin Parrasch Gallery. Photo: Andy Keate.

In conversation with Laura Smith, Snowden remarked that her mother 'always dressed in wonderfully colourful clothes' and 'without my parents, I wouldn't be a painter'.

Earlier works, produced in the 1960s, reveal an interest in expressionist painters such as Emil Nolde and Chaïm Soutine with their groups of figures painted with heavy brushstrokes, often exaggerating physical features.

The 1970s gave way to Snowden's more abstract compositions in colourful acrylic impasto—now considered her signature style. The four residents of M Street, on view at the Hepworth Wakefield, are all from this period. Contorted figures with large, lumpy limbs push up against the edges of the composition, rendered in oil pastel and thick daubs of acrylic that in some areas glisten with bright colour; in others, rich, darker tones contrast against flat white backgrounds.

'They look just the way human beings look to me. I'm trying to get into the whole guts of a person; I paint the person without the packaging,' Snowden explained to painter Joe Bradley for BOMB Magazine.

Sylvia Snowden, Elueeta Johnson (1978). © Sylvia Snowden.

Sylvia Snowden, Elueeta Johnson (1978). © Sylvia Snowden. Courtesy Edel Assanti and Franklin Parrasch Gallery. Photo: Andy Keate.

Snowden honed her technique early on and remained committed to an approach involving a marriage of thought and feeling.

'To create your signature style as an artist,' she said, 'You have to make use of your intellectual self and your emotional self in a practice that you develop over time'.

This combination is surely what most artists aim to achieve, and for Snowden, results in images that startle instantly, and are left to linger in our minds. The enlarged, expressive hands of Steven Thornhill (1979) and the provocative pose of Elueeta Johnson (1978) float above the canvas like ghosts. Snowden's paintings bristle with energy and psychological intensity. They deserve an international audience.

Main image: Sylvia Snowden, Beverly Johnson (1978). © Sylvia Snowden. Courtesy Edel Assanti and Franklin Parrasch Gallery. Photo by Andy Keate.


Selected Artworks

Green III by Sylvia Snowden contemporary artwork painting
Sylvia Snowden Green III, 2020 Acrylic on canvas
72 x 48 inches
Gratin
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Green V by Sylvia Snowden contemporary artwork painting
Sylvia Snowden Green V, 2021 Acrylic on canvas
274.3 x 121.9 cm
Andrew Kreps Gallery
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Green I by Sylvia Snowden contemporary artwork painting
Sylvia Snowden Green I, 2019 Acrylic on canvas
243.8 x 121.9 cm
Andrew Kreps Gallery
Request Price & Availability
Green II by Sylvia Snowden contemporary artwork painting
Sylvia Snowden Green II, 2020 Acrylic on canvas
182.9 x 121.9 cm
Andrew Kreps Gallery
Request Price & Availability
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