Maria Howard Weeden (1846-1905), known as Howard, was an Alabama artist who gained international recognition for her watercolor portraits of formerly enslaved freedpeople. Weeden also wrote poetry in the regional black dialect and published four books of poetry and accompanying illustrations. Weeden's preferred medium in painting was watercolor. A combination of her extreme nearsightedness and using brushes of only three hairs for painting allowed her to capture delicate details in her portraits.
Weeden was born on July 6, 1846, the youngest child of Dr. William Donaldson Weeden, a physician and cotton planter, and Jane Eliza Books Urquhart Weeden in Huntsville, Madison County. Weeden's father died returning from a trip to New Orleans six months before she was born. She was educated at Huntsville Female Seminary, where she showed a talent for music and art. Recognizing her talents, Weeden's mother hired William Frye, a well-known Huntsville portrait painter, to provide Weeden with private art lessons.
Life for the Weeden family changed drastically with the outbreak of the Civil War and Huntsville's occupation by Union forces. The family home in downtown Huntsville was confiscated by Union troops in 1862, and Weeden, her mother, and her sister Kate moved in with their servants. Later that year, the family and their servants moved to the Tuskegee plantation of Maria's older sister. Weeden enrolled in the Tuskegee Female Methodist College, where she formed a close friendship with college president George Price, who introduced her to the works of important literary figures and would remain an influence in her life.
Returning to Huntsville in 1866, the Weedens found their home plundered and finances depleted. To help with finances, Weeden taught art classes and sold paintings, hand-painted note cards, and mementoes. She began writing inspirational poems and fables and essays that reflected her strong moralistic viewpoints, for the Christian Observer newspaper, under the pseudonym Flake White. She also painted scenes of Huntsville and more than 200 wildflowers found on Monte Sano, a mountain near Huntsville.
In 1872, George Price and his family moved from Tuskegee to Huntsville, where he became president of the Huntsville Female Academy. At this time, Weeden met Price's young daughter, Elizabeth. Although Elizabeth Price was 18 years younger than Weeden, they became close friends, and later Price would become an important promoter of Weeden's art.
As a hobby, Weeden often copied poems of well-known authors onto blank pages and illustrated the margins with her personal drawings. In searching for more poems to illustrate, she discovered "De Massa ob de Sheepfol'," written by Sarah Pratt McLean Greene, first published in Towhead in 1884. Weeden felt a strong connection with the poem, written in black dialect. She produced a hand-bound, illustrated book for the poem, and to indicate that it was written in black dialect, she painted a portrait of a local former slave on the frontispiece. The realistic style of the portrait impressed the people to whom she showed the book.
In 1893, Weeden traveled to Chicago for the World's Columbian Exposition and viewed works of other artists. She was struck at the common portrayal of freedpeople in an exaggerated, caricatured minstrel-show style, such as A. B. Frost's illustrations for Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus tales. Recognizing the inadequacy of such depictions, Weeden was inspired to paint the people she had known all her life. She would spend many years painting the freedpeople that she grew up with, cared for, and respected. When she exhausted her immediate resources, she sought out subjects among the servants of friends and neighbors. Some freedpeople even approached Weeden to have their portrait painted.
Weeden benefitted from her friendship with Elizabeth Price, who owned a music studio in Nashville where she gave private music lessons; Price displayed and sold Weeden's paintings in the studio. In 1895, Price traveled to Germany to study music and took with her seven of Weeden's portraits. The paintings were exhibited in one of Berlin's most respected galleries and were also shown in Paris, where they were well-received. The exhibitions brought Weeden international popularity.
During the last decade of her life, Weeden no longer found poems by others that inspired her and thus began writing poetry based on the stories that she had heard from those freeedpeople whom she had painted. "Too Late," "Beaten Biscuit," and "Mother and Mammy" were among her most notable. Weeden began creating hand-bound books of her poems and portraits.
Through good fortune, Weeden had a select group of her poetry and portraits published. Sometime around 1897, William O. Allison, a new resident of Huntsville, viewed her portfolio of poetry and paintings and offered to consult a publisher on her behalf. In 1898, M. Stolz and Company, a small publishing house in Boston, printed a collection of her work titled Shadows on the Wall. The book was a success, but after a second printing the company's printing press burned, destroying the original plates. In 1899, Weeden's second book, Bandanna Ballads, was published, which combined Shadows on the Wall with new portraits and poems and included a foreword by Joel Chandler Harris. Songs of the Old South followed in 1901, and Old Voices was published in 1904. Her books were well received.
Maria Howard Weeden believed that the common portrayal of freedpeople in her day lacked individuality and character. Her goal
became to record the images of the freedpeople whom she knew with love and respect and also to record the stories she heard
from them for future generations. Weeden died from tuberculosis on April 12, 1905, and was buried in Maple Hill Cemetery in
Works by Maria Howard Weeden
Shadows on the Wall (1898)
Bandanna Ballads (1899)
Songs of the Old South (1901)
Old Voices (1904)
Patrick, Pamela Cowie, and Margo Williams. Maria Howard Weeden: The Gentle Artist. Huntsville: Writers Consortium Books, 1989.
Roberts, Frances C., and Sarah Huff Fisk. Shadows on the Wall: The Life and Works of Howard Weeden. 1962. Reprint, Huntsville, Ala.: Burritt Museum, 1996.
Lost Writings of Howard Weeden as "Flake White." Ed. Sarah Huff Fisk and Linda Wright Riley. Huntsville: Big Spring Press, 2005.
Burritt on the Mountain
Published April 21, 2011
Last updated August 15, 2013