William Edouard Scott (SAIC 1904–07) redefined the ways African Americans were portrayed in art.
William Edouard Scott, visionary African American painter, was born in Indianapolis in 1884. Before moving to Chicago in 1904 to attend SAIC, he studied under impressionist painter, Otto Stark. While at SAIC, he won the Frederick Mangus Brand prize for pictorial composition and painted murals at sites across the city of Chicago, as part of the Public School Art Society initiative. Scott graduated from SAIC in 1907 but continued to take classes there until 1909.
Scott continued his education in Paris under Henry Ossawa Tanner, entering work in salons across France and England. During his time abroad, he received a grant to travel to Haiti for a new body of work, portraying a culture that embodied characteristics of his African heritage, before returning to Chicago to continue his mural work.
Among his surviving murals are his works at the Wabash YMCA in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, which has been designated a National Historic Landmark. The canvas piece for Commerce (1909), one of Scott’s earliest murals, is on view at Lane Tech High School. In addition to his murals, Scott is famous for his portraits of Fredrick Douglass, portrayed in the 1943 mural, Douglass Appealing to President Lincoln, commissioned for a government office in Washington DC.
While Scott was traditional in formal technique, his approach to subjects was progressive. Known as the “dean” of black artists in Chicago, he gave agency to the African American population he depicted. He redefined black portrayal in art, painting subjects in roles and scenes that were not limited to the context of slavery’s plight—a portrayal that African Americans seemed to be confined to at the time. Because of this, many prominent figures in the movement sought out his work. In 1915 Booker T. Washington advocated for Scott to come to Tuskegee to study and portray black life in the rural South. W.E.B DuBois requested he illustrate the covers of Crisis magazine, published by the NAACP.
Through his imagery, Scott humanized and ennobled a people, paving the way for African American artists to follow.