Samuel Albert Countee, artist and contributor to the national New Negro Movement, was born in Marshall, Texas, in 1909 to laborer and businessman Thomas Countee and school teacher and dormitory matron Nannie Salina (Yates) Countee. Sam Countee, who emerged as one of the nation’s most inspiring young artists of the 1930s, developed his passion for painting and sculpturing as a child. While a student at Houston’s Booker T. Washington High School, from 1924 to 1928, he began to garner a reputation as a gifted young artist. Largely influenced by the Harlem Renaissance, Countee’s work displayed the heartfelt passion for African-American self-reliance, sensuality, and spirituality.
A year after graduating from high school, Countee entered Bishop College and majored in art. He paid his way through school as the portrait artist of faculty and administrators. In 1933 Bishop College named him “Artist in Residence,” a title of distinction made possible by the prestigious William E. Harmon Award. Between 1933 and 1935 he presented his work at numerous exhibits around the country, including one sponsored by the Harmon Foundation in 1933 that featured the piece Little Brown Boy, a painting critics called a monumental achievement “deserving” of the coveted distinction. He graduated from Bishop College in 1934.
His work also attracted the attention of the mainstream art community in Houston. Emily Langham of the Museum of Fine Arts of Houston trained and mentored Countee for years and introduced him to the established New England art world. He continued to win prizes for his work. In 1934 he earned a scholarship to study at the Boston Museum of Arts (currently the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), even serving as an “Artist in Residence.” He also trained for a brief time at Harvard University, probably in a summer workshop as an in-resident artist or fellow.
By the late 1930s, his paintings and sculptures portraying African-American life could be seen at Howard University, Atlanta University, Smith College, Institute of Modern Art in Boston, and Hall of Negro Life at the Texas Centennial in Dallas in 1936. Countee’s work was among several murals, paintings, photographs, books, essays, reports, and studies on display at the Hall of Negro Life. A historic tribute to African-American culture and life in Texas as well as in the United States, the exhibit marked an important first for people of color worldwide. It featured the works of artists, scholars, poets, physicians, military heroes, scientists, reformers, former slaves, as well as other dignitaries of influence. Countee’s exhibit particularly dramatized African-American cultural history. My Guitar celebrates the popular instrument’s treasured reputation in African-American folk life and music, especially as an instrument of autonomy and resistance. Noted Harlem Renaissance philosopher Alain Locke recognized Countee in his The Negro Genius (1937), referring to the emerging artist as someone who “bears watching.”
During World War II he was drafted into the United States Army in 1942 and ultimately received a promotion to staff sergeant. Sgt. Samuel Countee of the 436th Engineer General Service Dump Truck Company was commissioned the next year by the U.S. military to paint a mural in the brand new African-American Officers’ Club at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. The painting portrayed a young African-American couple enjoying each other’s company while picnicking; the piece has been called a subliminal portrait of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. A celebration of black love and beauty, the painting also challenged the widely-held notion of white superiority and black inferiority.
After the war, Countee, who settled in Long Island, New York, earned a respected reputation for his portraits of the African-American elite and entertainers. He also earned a living as a private instructor. Artist Countee never forgot where he came from and routinely recognized his art instructors at Booker T. Washington and Bishop. He also taught art classes at narcotics anonymous meetings in the New York City area.
Countee married Mary Miner in 1955, six years before his untimely death on September 11, 1959, the result of complications from cancer. Through his visual art he asked the world to reconsider existing generalizations about African Americans.