Bessie Smith Close Up, 1920s
Oil on rice paper, 16 ¼ x 12
Gift of David Eliscu and Peter Eliscu 2001.1.1
Stella Bloch loved the art of the dance and the arts of painting and drawing. In the 1920’s she did both, but painting the denizens of New York’s uptown nightclubs soon took precedence over dancing. It was during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s that Bloch first sketched and painted pieces that would later be hailed as her best work. Her subjects include Josephine Baker, Thelonious Monk, and Bessie Smith (her favorite) as well as Harlem street scenes. Bloch biographer Michael Coleman has identified that Bloch painted Smith in dozens of drawings and paintings that stylistically fit into one of two categories. One is a full-length portrait standing on stage, the other is a close-up of her head, eyes slightly closed with a face full of emotion. Bessie Smith, the “Empress of the Blues,” was a dramatic performer and Bloch portrays the singer’s passion.
After spending the 1940s and 1950s in Hollywood with her lyricist husband, Edward Eliscu, Bloch returned to New York and began painting genre scenes of black and Hispanic residents along the north end of Central Park where they made their home. Stoop life, as she called it, was most interesting to her. In 1966, the family moved to Newtown, Connecticut. Stella and Edward were then in their seventies. During her later years, Bloch was an activist for artists’ rights and women’s rights. Her husband was dedicated to his wife and her paintings and worked the latter part of his life making sure her work was seen.