It is perhaps the most famous quilt in America; certainly one of the best ever produced. During a recent visit to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston's new Art of the Americas wing I encountered for the first time in many years. It is Harriet Powers' great Pictorial Quilt (done between 1895 1n3 1898), recently conserved and just put on view in a special folk art gallery at the MFA.
Recognition of Powers' work came very early. In 1886, a young artist of Athens, Georgia, Jennie Smith, went to the Athens Cotton Fair. There she saw Powers' other great quilt, the Bible Quilt (now in the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, below). She wrote: "I have spent my whole life in the South, and am perfectly familiar with thirty patterns of quilts, but I had never seen an original design, and never a living creature portrayed in patchwork, until the year 1886....in one corner there hung a quilt which 'captured my eye' and after much difficulty I found the owner, a negro woman, who lives in the country on a little farm whereon she and husband make a respectable living....The scenes on the quilt were Biblical and I was fascinated. I offered to buy it but it was not for sale at any price."
Harriet later sold the quilt to Ms. Smith, and hard times compelled the latter to only offer five dollars. Harriet and her husband, facing financial trouble themselves, readily accepted the money. But before leaving Ms. Smith's she explained all of the panels in the quilt.
In recent years another great quilter, Kyra Hicks, has done extensive research on this extraordinary artist who was born a slave in 1837 and became a landowner after the Civil War. Kyra's book, "This I Accomplish," broke new ground in the study of Powers and her work. The most startling find for many was that Harriet was actually a literate woman and a quilter of some local renown prior to her "discovery." Other surprises await in Ms. Hicks' volume, but I would rather have her tell you what they are.
For now, you can view another national treasure of textile art at the MFA. As you look at the fifteen squares, each a different story (mostly Biblical), pay particular attention to the brilliance of Powers' improvisational style. There is very little like it anywhere, except in her other quilt at the Smithsonian.
And look closely at the blue square in the center. It depicts the Leonid Meteor Shower that took place in 1833, a few years before Powers was born. The stories told by the slaves of this phenomenon must have left a deep impression on the young Harriet. By placing this image at the heart of her quilt, I think Harriet was connecting the spiritual with the physical. Her lively and profound affirmation of the presence of God on Earth is now on view in a spectacular new venue every bit the equal of the Athens Cotton Fair.