Pauline Powell Burns was born in 1872, in Oakland, California. She was born to Josephine Turner and William W. Powell who was a train porter. Her great-grandfather was a former slave and blacksmith named Joseph Fossett. He was one of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves but was freed in 1826 once Jefferson died.
Powell’s grandmother, Isabella Fossett, was also a former slave. As a child, Fossett was sold to a different slave owner. She eventually escaped bondage and settled in Boston. Powell’s parents moved to Oakland, California where she was born. Her grandmother died that same year.
As a child, Powell exhibited remarkable artistic talent. She taught herself how to paint, as well as how to play the piano. She often gave piano recitals in the surrounding area, specifically San Francisco. A talented singer as well, she later sang in a quartet in Los Angeles, California. A Bay Area writer praised her as a bright musical star of California.
Powell is said to be the first Black artist to exhibit her work anywhere in California. It is believed that she began exhibiting her artwork at the age of 14. However, her first known public exhibition was held at the Mechanics’ Institute Fair in San Francisco in 1890. Her work received great praise but she had already established herself as a pianist and piano teacher.
For the next 22 years, Powell continued working on her art. She created a myriad of paintings that have since been lost, contributing to the scarcity of her work. The scarcity of her work can also be attributed to her short-lived career and early death. Pauline Powell Burns died in 1912. She was 40 years old.
Although her painting career was short, she greatly impacted other artists and art enthusiasts. Today, her artwork can be found at the Oakland Museum of California, as well as the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Recently, one of Burns’ paintings, Violets (1890), appeared in an auction and sold for 175% above estimate.
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