This fall, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
, brings together the only two extant quilts made by Harriet Powers (18371910), displaying the iconic works together for the very first time since they were made by the artist in the 19th century. The famous Pictorial quilt (189598) from the MFAs collection and the Bible quilt (188586), on loan from the Smithsonians National Museum of American History, are being featured in Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories. Uniting the only two surviving quilts by Powersa formerly enslaved woman from Athens, Georgiawill shed new light on her extraordinary artistic and storytelling talents.
Powers, an African American woman who was born into slavery in Georgia in 1837, exhibited the Bible quilt at the Northeast Georgia Fair in 1886, where it was spotted by Jennie Smith, a white art teacher at a girls school. Smith unsuccessfully tried to purchase the quilt from Powers for $10. Several years later, she managed to buy it for $5 from a reluctant Powers, who was forced to part with the darling offspring of her brain due to financial hardship. Smith arranged for it to be exhibited at the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta in 1895, where it received attention and was noted in the presspossibly setting the stage for the commission that later became the MFAs quilt, though the specific origins remain unclear.
The Pictorial quilt is thought to have been commissioned by a group of faculty ladies at Atlanta University, and giventogether with Powerss descriptions of each of the 15 squaresas a gift to a retiring trustee, a Presbyterian minister who later passed it down to his son. For much of the 20th century, the Pictorial quilt was tacked to the wall of the stairway landing in their family's summer cottage in Westport, Massachusetts. It entered the MFAs collection in 1964.
The works are among the highlights of Fabric of a Nation, which explores how the quilt, which is often seen today as a timeless, quintessentially American art form, has in fact continuously evolved alongside the U.S., shaped by a broadly underrecognized diversity of artistic hands and minds. Dating from the 17th century to 2021, the 50 masterpieces on view reveal a richand richly complicatedstory of the nations shared history, contributing to the evolving conversation about what defines the American experience.