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Thelma Streat, Girl with Bird

Thelma Johnson Streat, Girl with Bird, 1950, oil and collage on paper, 51.4 x 36.8 cm (Georgia Museum of Art, Athens), a Seeing America video. Speakers: Dr. Shawnya L. Harris, Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Curator of African American and African Diasporic Art at the Georgia Museum of Art, and Dr. Beth Harris

Key Points

- Streat’s small portrait of a young girl exhibits her abstracted style featuring simplified forms and bold, flat areas of color. This style is influenced by a number of sources, including her experience with mural painting and her study of the art of various indigenous cultures from around the world.

- Streat was a visual artist, singer, dancer, choreographer, and ethnographer. Throughout her work, she celebrated and defended African American identity. She also addressed the universality of humans through references to the specificity of shared qualities of people across cultures, particularly people of color.

More to Think About

Consider how this portrait feels both universal and specific at the same time. Share and debate your ideas with classmates.


Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(gentle piano music) - [Dr. Beth] We're in the Georgia Museum of Art looking at a portrait. This is called "Girl with Bird," by Thelma Streat. And this is a young girl, I would say maybe 10, 12 years old. - [Dr. Shawnya] And it's an interesting painting because it emphasizes this whole idea of imagination. If you think about the way that she looks not directly at the viewer, but averts her eyes in a look of wonder or curiosity. - [Dr. Beth] Yeah, and that bright, yellow bird looks in the opposite direction than the one that she looks in. When I look at it, my thinking is that that bird may not really be sitting on her head, or maybe it is. But, in any case, it does suggest that idea of a child's imagination and engagement with the world of nature and with animals. - [Dr. Shawnya] There's a sense of stillness, even with the bird position on top of her head, the little feet are so wispy. They're so lightly planted on her head, but yet it's a very steady portrait. - [Dr. Beth] She is mostly frontal and symmetrical. She's painted in a way that is very abstract. In other words, that oval of her face, the shape of her hair, her neck, even the bird, these very simplified forms. - [Dr. Shawnya] Even the outline of the face and the fact that it's a little bit darker than her neck and her ears, it almost forms a mask-like appearance. - [Dr. Beth] The way that it's painted without any shading from light to dark, makes it also appear very flat and adds to that sense of it being like a mask. - [Dr. Shawnya] Streat was a dancer, but also a painter. She worked under Diego Rivera for a while with a few of his projects, actually a mural that he did for the Pan American Unity Project. - [Dr. Beth] And so we're looking at this period in art history, although this dates from 1950, the '30s and the '40s, when artists were very intentionally engaging on the idea of art for the public, art for the people. And Streat, working with Rivera on murals, but also painting her own murals. - [Dr. Shawnya] She was really interested in people. In fact, one could also call her a type of anthropologist. She loved studying different cultures, whether it be African cultures, Polynesian, Native American, she was very interested in cultures, but also this sense of universality. - [Dr. Beth] This idea, I think that was important to her to work through her art to eradicate racism and bigoted ideas, and to emphasize the way that human beings are the same across cultures. - [Dr. Shawnya] Capturing the innocence of youth, the pliability of the curiosity of the imagination was something that was really important to her. Paintings like this remind us she traveled and studied many of the cultures native to Hawaii, as well as Native American cultures. Creating the specificity of a person of color was really important to our whole sense of the unity of man. - [Dr. Beth] If we look at the stripes on the shirt, they're so loosely painted. The background, too, around the head of the figure is loosely painted. There's a way in which she is intentionally not making this perfect finished portrait of a child in that traditional sense. - [Dr. Shawnya] Around her head is this rainbow of sorts. So this becomes this eclectic haloing effect around this child. - [Dr. Beth] And it really draws us into her face. What a great portrait by the first African American woman whose work entered the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. (gentle piano music)