Snapshot: Nancy Elizabeth Prophet’s “Negro Head”

The early twentieth century sculptor was the quintessential tortured artist.
Nancy Elizabeth Prophet
"Negro Head” by sculptor Nancy Elizabeth Prophet. Photograph by James Jones.

Around the time “Negro Head” — a stunning bust carved in wood circa 1927 and on view in RISD Museum’s twentieth century gallery — was completed, sculptor Nancy Elizabeth Prophet wrote in her diary: “The bust is done, sitting on its pedestal covered with a black cloth…to hide it from my own eyes that seek so much a beautiful thing and it is not there.” Prophet, the first black graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, was the quintessential tortured artist. Plagued by creative and financial insecurity and rejected by her white peers, Prophet embarked on a decade-long artistic exile in Paris. There, she sculpted “Negro Head” — which shares a likeness with her estranged husband, Frank — and her best-known bust, “Congolais.” She eventually returned to the States to teach at Spelman College in Georgia, but Prophet, who dressed in black and was known for manic moods, was derided for her eccentricity. She returned to Rhode Island, saw short-lived recognition in Newport’s small art community and took a job as a maid in Providence until her death at seventy. Many of Prophet’s works were lost in a fire, but “Negro Head” and other surviving pieces, all haunting and graceful like the artist herself, evoke the creative martyrdom of a poor black female sculptor working in segregated America. As the artist wrote in February of 1929: “Beauty is conceived in paradise, but found in the depths of hell.”