"In God's Image": Religious Imagery by Ruth Starr Rose

Growing up in Maryland, Ruth Starr Rose (1887-1965) focused her artistic attention on the vibrant African American community around her. A white woman with enormous wealth and education, Rose’s choice of subjects shocked and confused Maryland’s high society during the first half of the 20th century. She was determined to portray the typical life and spirituality of her African American friends and neighbors in a true fashion, not the racial stereotype and caricature that was so prominent for the era.


During a period of segregation, Rose attended an integrated African American church and drew inspiration from the Negro spirituals she heard, earning the praise of James A. Porter (1905-1970), the “father of African American art history”, in 1956. Choosing to illustrate these spirituals, along with various stories from the Bible, with black figures instead of white figures, the community who welcomed her was able to see themselves in God’s image.

Although our primary collection of Fine Art is African American, the Hampton University Museum’s collection comprises of several artists, such as Ruth Starr Rose, who are not African American artists. This virtual exhibit, highlighting a rarely seen selection from our collection, is made possible by the Museum Grants for African American History and Culture program through the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

Ruth Starr Rose and Harlem Renaissance artist Prentiss Taylor at a picnic in Middlesburg, VA, 1955. (What's Up? Media)

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