Skip to Content
City Quartet (detail)

David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History

February 1, 2021 | Michael Rooks

February 6–May 9

Young Pines Growing

David C. Driskell (American, 1931–2020), Young Pines Growing, 1959, oil on canvas, Clark Atlanta University Art Museum. © Estate of David C. Driskell.

Born in Eatonton, Georgia, David Driskell (1931–2020) was a revered American artist whose work inspired generations of artists and audiences alike. Icons of Nature and History reveals the artist’s aesthetic inheritances from home, family, the South, and his formative education—at Howard University, Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and the Catholic University of America—as well as the influence of his sojourns to Europe, Africa, and South America. His artistic evolution is marked by distinctive eras, experiences, and experiments with media. What remains steadfast in his paintings and collages is a commitment to a symbolic form that elevates the mind and the spirit above that which exists in the physical world: these are Driskell’s icons.

Spanning seven decades, this survey of Driskell’s art moves the center of critical art history to Driskell’s arenas: Washington, DC; Talladega, Alabama; Nashville, Tennessee; Hyattsville, Maryland; and Falmouth, Maine. In so doing, it invites us to see American art more comprehensively and to appreciate the contributions of historically Black colleges and universities to this canon. Artists have the vision to see beyond the ordinary, Driskell tells us. Among the many gifts he bequeaths to us is the delight of seeing the world through his eyes, and it is a journey of immeasurable beauty and grace.

See it first and free! Register today for the David Driskell Member Preview Day on Friday, February 5. Visit for details.

Exhibition Catalogue
David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History is available for purchase at the Museum Shop and at Members receive 10% off Shop purchases.


Banner image: City Quartet (detail), 1953, oil on canvas, David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, College Park. © The Estate of David C. Driskell.

City Quartet reflects the influence of Jack Levine, with whom Driskell studied at Skowhegan, as well as Loïs Mailou Jones, who first encouraged Driskell to experiment with using both brush and palette knife. Some art historians see the figure on the left as Driskell, whose cityscapes visualize his meditations on his place in the world. At this time, he was a twenty-something art student from Southern Appalachia making his way in the creative metropolis.

Behold Thy Son

David C. Driskell (American, 1931–2020), Behold Thy Son, 1956, oil on canvas, collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC. © Estate of David C. Driskell, courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York.

Young Pines Growing, 1959, oil on canvas, Clark Atlanta University Art Museum. © Estate of David C. Driskell.

Driskell entered Young Pines Growing into the eighteenth Atlanta University Annual, a juried competition established in 1942 by Hale Woodruff at Atlanta University, now Clark Atlanta University. The entry received the John Hope Purchase Award for best landscape. Driskell’s award-winning composition, more totemic than topographical, traces the agile slim trunks of the pines and their pale new growth against a bright, open sky. The competition provided critical exposure for African American artists and a national stage for artists in the region, such as Driskell, who was then on the faculty of Talladega College.

Behold Thy Son, 1956, oil on canvas, Smithsonian, National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC. © Estate of David C. Driskell, courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York.

Behold Thy Son pays homage to Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old boy whose brutal murder in Mississippi in 1955 brought national attention to racial violence and injustice in America and especially the South. Driskell’s symbolic rendering brings Till’s death in communion with Jesus’s sacrifice as the man of sorrows. Painted in dark hues, the central figures, and the nearby sarcophagus and candelabra, instill the painting with the somber but sacred quality of a pietà or a Crucifixion. The painting’s title refers to a biblical account of the Crucifixion (John 19:26): “Woman, behold thy son!” Drawings Driskell completed the same year, Behold Thy Son, I and Study for Behold Thy Son, expand our understanding of the artist’s approach to this iconic Christian subject.

Self Portrait as Beni (“I Dream Again of Benin”), 1974, egg tempera, gouache, and collage on paper, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase with David C. Driskell African American Art Acquisition Fund, 2015.74. © Estate of David C. Driskell, courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York.

Self-Portrait as Beni brings the artist and the ancient Benin kingdom together as one. Driskell visited Benin City (formerly Edo, capital of the Kingdom of Benin) in 1970. Here he combines a modern self-portrait (on the right) with an ancient, ornamental Benin hip mask (on the left). Annotations on the back of the painting include the date of its completion and a poem, “I Dreamed Again of Benin.” With both art forms, poetry and collage painting, Driskell pays homage to the ancient people of an empire whose countenances evoke dignity and pride.

Self-Portrait as Beni (“I Dream Again of Benin”)

David Driskell (American, 1931–2020). Self-Portrait as Beni (“I Dream Again of Benin”), 1974, egg tempera, gouache, and collage, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase with David C. Driskell African American Art Acquisition Fund, 2015.74. © Estate of David C. Driskell. Courtesy DC Moore Gallery, New York.


Free for Museum members. Preregistration required for all programs. Please go to for details.

Driskell Prize Lecture: Jamal Cyrus—“Phylacteries to Repel Ghosts”

Don’t miss this program featuring 2020 Driskell Prize winner Jamal Cyrus. Cyrus will cover the important role autodidacticism plays within his work and in Black American culture at large.

The Driskell Prize, named for the renowned African American artist and art scholar, was established by the High in 2005 as the first national award to celebrate an early- or midcareer scholar or artist whose work makes an original and important contribution to the field of African American art or art history. Since the prize’s inception, the funds have supported the acquisition of fifty works by African American artists for the High’s collection.

Curatorial Conversation: Julie McGee and Michael Rooks

Mark your calendar for a special curatorial conversation examining the High’s exhibition David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History. Art historian and exhibition curator Julie McGee will join Michael Rooks, the High’s Wieland Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, to discuss the work and Driskell’s lasting contributions to the art world.

Julie McGee, an art historian with specialties in African American art and contemporary African art, has published widely on contemporary African American art and South African art, with particular focus on artist and museum praxis. She is Associate Professor of Africana Studies and Art History at the University of Delaware and director at the Interdisciplinary Humanities Research Center College of Arts & Sciences.

Watch an interview with David Driskell.

This exhibition is co-organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, and the Portland Museum of Art, Maine.

Bank of America

Henry Luce Foundation
National Endowment for the Arts
Brenda and Larry Thompson

Delta Air Lines

Northside Hospital

Sarah and Jim Kennedy
wish Foundation

Anne Cox Chambers Foundation
Robin and Hilton Howell

The Antinori Foundation
Corporate Environments
Louise Sams and Jerome Grilhot

Farideh and Al Azadi
Sandra and Dan Baldwin
Lucinda W. Bunnen
Marcia and John Donnell
Mrs. Fay S. Howell/The Howell Fund
Mr. and Mrs. Baxter Jones
The Arthur R. and Ruth D. Lautz Charitable Foundation
Joel Knox and Joan Marmo
Margot and Danny McCaul
The Ron and Lisa Brill Family Charitable Trust
The Fred and Rita Richman Fund

Special thanks go to the Patrons of David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History for providing additional funds to support this exhibition.
Billye and Hank Aaron, Alton Adams, Lucy and Raymond Allen, Andreane and Michael K. Anderson, Spring and Tom Asher, Lisa and Joe Bankoff, Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, Veronica and Franklin Biggins, Dennis L. Boyden and Linda M. Washington, Susan and Gregg Branham, Scarlet Pressley-Brown and Wendell Brown, Kirsten Pai Buick, Nancy and Randall K. Burkett, Mary Schmidt Campbell, Willie Cole, Huey Copeland, Donna and Timothy Crim, Richard Deane, Jr., Jennifer and Curley M. Dossman, Jr., Brooke and Rod Edmond, Helen and Howard Elkins, Peggy Foreman, Bonnie and Larry Frazier, Margaret and Scotty Greene, Ayonna Hammond, Stephanie Johnson Hardy, Lyle Ashton Harris, Venessa Harrison, Sara and Jeff Hehir, Elsie and Jim Henderson, Sivan and Jeffrey Hines, Charlene Crusoe-Ingram and Earnest Ingram, Jane and Clay Jackson, Rashid Johnson, Kellie Jones and Guthrie Ramsey, Naima J. Keith, Judy and Scott Lampert, Joe B. Massey, Rhonda and Chris Matheison, Sally and Allen McDaniel, Sheyda Mehrara, Janine and George Monroe, Bridget Moore—DC Moore Gallery, Sally and Jim Morgens, Valerie Cassel Oliver, Vicki and John Palmer, Monica and John Pearson, Sr., Peterson/Compton Family, Wanda Yancey Rodwell, Shayla and Chip Rumely, Lovette and Michael Russell, Sylvia A. Russell, D. Jack Sawyer, Jr., and William E. Torres, M. Alexis Scott and Brian McKissick, Amy Sherald, Robyn and Frank Sims, Xaviera Simmons/David Castillo Gallery, Franklin Sirmans, Arthur G. Smith, Margaret and F. Terry Stent, Renee Stout, Lisa Cannon Taylor and Chuck Taylor, Carla and Cleophus Thomas, Jr., Krista A. Thompson, Hellena H. Tidwell in memory of Isaiah Tidwell, Henrie M. Treadwell, Cindy and Bill Voyles, April Watkins, Sue and John Wieland, Carolyn and Ambassador Andrew Young

Alfred and Adele Davis Exhibition Endowment Fund, Anne Cox Chambers Exhibition Fund, Barbara Stewart Exhibition Fund, Dorothy Smith Hopkins Exhibition Endowment Fund, Eleanor McDonald Storza Exhibition Endowment Fund, The Fay and Barrett Howell Exhibition Fund, Forward Arts Foundation Exhibition Endowment Fund, Helen S. Lanier Endowment Fund, Isobel Anne Fraser–Nancy Fraser Parker Exhibition Endowment Fund, John H. and Wilhelmina D. Harland Exhibition Endowment Fund, Katherine Murphy Riley Special Exhibition Endowment Fund, Margaretta Taylor Exhibition Fund, and RJR Nabisco Exhibition Endowment Fund