Jules Arthur: Historical narratives in art

By Christine O’Donnell

The Resilient Sisterhood Project and the artist

A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Jules Arthur’s artworks (usually paintings, but straying into mixed media and beyond) are often focused on figures from the past.

Artist Jules Arthur - Harriet Tubman - The sisterhood project

“Harriet Tubman – Portrait painted in oil on canvas panel – 28″ x 40”, 2017

Mounted on distressed wood, rusted metal railroad rails, antique brass frame, 1800’s bible, civil war revolver, and post document memorabilia. The box window showcases narrative aspects depicting her journey, the dangerous mission, and the threats of the times. The window box is lined with fabric representing the quilts made by artisans of the era.(All credit for the image and caption below to Jules Arthur and his website)

Jules Arthur has been partnering with the Resilient Sisterhood Project (RSP) for years, lending his name and talent to art-focused events which drive education and fundraising. The works, featured here and owned by RSP, have only been rarely available for viewing in person or online. Don’t miss this opportunity to check them out!

What is the Resilient Sisterhood Project?

The Resilient Sisterhood Project is a Boston-area group dedicated to reproductive equality. This New York Times article explains how the US is full of inequality in the health system: particularly for black women.

The cruelty of Dr. Marion Sims

Did you know that the creator of the speculum, Dr. Marion Sims believed that Black women didn’t feel as much pain as white women and thus did not use anesthetic when operating on them? For 2019’s “A Celebration to Remember Our Foremothers in Gynecology” The Resilient Sisterhood Project commissioned three original paintings by Jules Arthur. All three works strive to honor Sims’ female subjects and to refocus the narrative away from Sims and his cruel and unethical medical practices.

A Narrative of reverence to our foremothers in gynecology

RSP is now planning a new groundbreaking exhibition featuring a viewing of all six Jules Arthur paintings commissioned by RSP. Arthur will create three new paintings to complement the works from 2019, again working to capture these complex Black historical narratives. It will also feature artists Vinnie Bagwell, Michelle Browder, Michelle Hartney, and Jeremy Daniel. The exhibition is being curated by Dell Marie Hamilton, an artist, scholar, and curator at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center, where the exhibition will be on view from March 30th through the autumn.


A formal analysis of Jules Arthur’s art

Jules Arthur “Mothers of Gynecology”

Jules Arthur - Mothers of Gynecology
Jules Arthur, Mothers of Gynecology

A few details to note when looking at the piece (to appreciate Arthur’s work more)

  • Lace, or a worn wallpaper, embellishes the top of the piece, masking the distressed wooden planks.
  • The blue in the wallpaper echoes the same color found in the kerchief adorning the head of one of the women in the portraits.
  • The scalloped edge of the lace worn by another seems to echo the lace wallpaper background as well.
  • The women’s gaze, serious and piercing, is directly at the viewer. This engagement between the viewer and the subject invites contemplation into the humanity of these victims of Dr. Sims.
jules Arthur - Mothers of Gynecology - detail

A painted cabinet of curiosities

The bottom of the first piece shows a portrait of Dr. Sims, samples of the original Sims Speculum and other gynecological tools, and the painting “The History of Medicine,” by Robert Thom, painted circa 1952 which purports to show the slave Anarcha. This sort of “box” that could exist in a cabinet of curiosities serves to ground Arthur’s painting in reality, reminding the viewer of the reasons for which the portrait above was painted. The sharp edges of the square box, and of the items painted to look pinned inside give it a chaotic look. It parallels the questionable manner in which Sims completed his medical experiments.

Jules Arthur, “A bond of sisterhood”

The second piece to be unveiled is pictured below. In the dying light of dusk, we see two female slaves looking after a third, with Sims standing in the shadows. The dynamic placement of the three main figures suggests a religious nature to the work, where one could argue the purple and red-clothed woman takes the role of a quasi-Jesus figure attempting healing laying her hand on the bedridden figure. The triangular nature with an ill woman on her left and the woman in blue on her right also brings a religious scene to mind.

Jules Arthur - A Bond of Sisterhood

Jules Arthur, A Bond of Sisterhood

Classical allusions in Arthur’s work

The draping of the figures in traditional blues and purples suggests the virgin mary and royalty. The triangular placement is lit by a lamp that casts them in a warm glow but leaves a dark figure lurking in the background.

Female empowerment

Despite the classical themes of the second piece, it’s also important to recognize it as innovative as well. Sims’s slaves, in this painting, were also acting as his midwives and nurses. These strong women in Arthur’s work nursed each other through moments of extreme suffering wrought by their creator, over and over again. For example, Anarcha underwent at least 30 (!) surgeries at the hand of Sims before her fistula was repaired, all without the benefit of any type of anesthesia.

A historical moment captured

With such odious medical experiments now associated with Sims, it’s no surprise that the 21st century brought a desire to remove his statue from Central Park, where it had stood for 124 years, as depicted in Jules’s third painting.

Jules Arthur Sisterly Resilience

Jules Arthur, Sisterly Resilience

The three named women are shown looking down as the statue is removed, women and men of all races and from all time periods contribute to its destruction. This piece represents the culmination of many years of hard work to bring the truth of Sims’ story to light.

Past and present collide

This painting brings together a portrait of the three sisters, and women (based on their attire) from a variety of ages. In fact, the Sims statue was only pulled down on April 17, 2018. The reevaluation of his legacy came part and parcel with that of the Confederate soldiers for whom so many monuments still stood at that time.
It’s only been in the last few decades that the US has started to grapple with some of its most shameful unethical medical practices. These include Sims’s work, as well as the use of Henrietta Lacks’s cells for research, and the Tuskegee syphilis experiments.

Collective awareness

Hopefully, with the continued work of the Resilient Sisterhood Project and so many other groups dedicated to the reproductive rights of women of color, this piece of the larger story will grow in our collective awareness. We cannot turn back the clock: women do benefit from what was learned by the horrific non-consensual medical experiments. However, what we can do is sing the praises of the brave women who underwent these procedures – over and over again – rather than lionizing the perpetrator.

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