Artist John Biggers has been called, “a canvas master of the human condition.” He was born to a poor family of nine in Gastonia, North Carolina. By age 13, Biggers had lost both his father and sister to diabetes. As the youngest, Biggers and his brother were sent away to study at Lincoln Academy to release some of the burden endured by his widowed, single mother.
It was in 1941 that Biggers met his mentor, Victor Lowenfeld, a Jewish refugee from Germany, at Hampton University. Lowenfeld encouraged his students to study and paint African culture. Soon Biggers would be a part of one of the most prestigious exhibits at the Modern Museum of Art, but then he was drafted in the U.S. Navy in 1946, where he served before returning to get his PH.D. by 1954.
It was Biggers who used his experience and education to found an art department at Texas Southern University in 1949. In 1950, Biggers’ work was honored by the Houston and Dallas Museum of Art. However, he was banned from attending his own reception. But seven years later, he was granted a trip to Africa with a UNESCO fellowship, setting a precedent for other black artists. From his trip, he painted “The Web of Life in Africa” in 1962.
Biggers’ most famous piece was called the “Upper Room,” which recreates the Last Supper in a southern shotgun house, carried by strong black women. One interpretation is that females provide the strength on which faith is based, a faith that holds African American families together. Most, if not all of his paintings, would depict black life and struggle over the decades.
John Biggers was the father of 27 public murals, several of which were painted at Texas Southern University, but have since been demolished. His work has been displayed in Houston, Dallas, Hampton University and Penn State. His painting broke one gallery’s record in 2009, selling for $216,000. John Biggers died in 2001.