The Resurrection of Nancy Elizabeth Prophet

A black female sculptor from Warwick died penniless and without recognition. The RIBHS and RICH hope to change that.

A Warwick maid-turned-RISD student, a Parisian sculptor, an honorary member of the Newport Art Association, a college art instructor, a maid once more, living in poverty before her death by heart attack: it’s hard to believe one life could contain such multitudes.

Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, an African American sculptor from Rhode Island who was born in 1890 and died in 1960, lived through it all. Only now, after enduring years of racism and destitution sprinkled with bits of success, does Prophet get the recognition she deserves.

Her “Negro Head” is displayed in the twentieth-century gallery at RISD Museum and “The Freeze,” which is owned by the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society [RIBHS], is now on view at the Newport Art Museum. More recently, her “Untitled (Head)” sold for $35,000 at a New York auction in February.

Another piece, unknown to the art world until mid-March, was discovered amongst the belongings of Sarah Carleton, the late antiques dealer from Providence who lived with Prophet towards the end of her life. The piece, an unnamed folk art portrait of a woman with a cat and lilies, was unveiled at a talk on Prophet at the Newport Art Museum on March 13 led by Rhode Island Council for the Humanities’ [RICH] Robb Dimmick.

Learn more about Prophet and her work at a series of events in April, sponsored by the RIBHS and RICH:

“Calm Assurance and Savage Pleasure”

April 13, 2 p.m., RISD Museum, 20 North Main St., Providence, risdmuseum.org

Actress Sylvia Ann Soares portrays Prophet as she shares entries from the artist’s 1920s Paris diaries. The performance offers a window into a black, female expatriate's life in France and is followed by a gallery talk on three Prophet sculptures, including RISD’s “Negro Head.”

“Delicious Sensations of Rightness”

April 17, 5 p.m., John Brown House, 52 Power St., Providence, ribhs.org

The Rhode Island Historical Society hosts an opening reception featuring never-before-seen art, photographs and memorabilia belonging to Prophet.

“Struggle, Strength and Dignity”

April 18, 5 p.m., Providence Athenaeum, 251 Benefit St., Providence, providenceathenaeum.org

Providence art dealer and Bert Gallery owner Catherine Bert discusses Prophet's sculptures in the marketplace as well as its rarity and desirability for private collectors, galleries and museums.

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