Museum acquires painting of Lead Belly


The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art has acquired a new painting of Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter that once belonged to Harry Belafonte,

Image credit: Charles White, American, (1918–1979). Goodnight Irene, 1952. Oil on canvas, 47 x 24 inches (119.4 x 61 cm).

Image credit: Charles White, American, (1918–1979). Goodnight Irene, 1952. Oil on canvas, 47 x 24 inches (119.4 x 61 cm).

The painting called Goodnight Irene is the work of Charles White, a Chicago-born artist who was part of the American Realist movement. Around 1940, he joined the Works Progress Administration (WPA) where he painted murals and portraits of everyday people.  The Nelson-Atkins says that even after many artists abandoned social realism, White still drew working men and women, often in heroic proportions.

“White painted his engaging portrait of Lead Belly while the musician was still in his prime, but instead of a suit and tie, he wears an open-collared shirt and suspenders, a style consistent with a common laborer. His guitar provides simple accompaniment as he expectantly sings, ‘Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene, I’ll get you in my dreams.’ Rather than paint Lead Belly surrounded by admirers, White presents him performing for an adoring audience of one. Although solidly painted, the woman with eyes closed in reverie who intimately rests her head near the singer’s own might not really even be there. She could simply be a figment–the elusive Irene conjured by the singer’s longing lyrics,” The Nelson-Atkins says in a press release.

Belafonte bought the painting from White and used it as the cover image for his multi-CD anthology of African American music, The Long Road to Freedom.

Stephanie Knappe, who was recently promoted to be the museum’s Samuel Sosland Curator, American Art, gathered community support to acquire Goodnight Irene by bringing potential donors to take a look at the painting as it hung, off view, in the painting conservation office. Goodnight Irene is Knappe’s first major acquisition for the Nelson-Atkins, the museum says.

Leave a Comment