The Fanciful and Poignant “French Collection” of Faith Ringgold

Faith Ringgold
Faith Ringgold, c/o Sartle.

This Sunday marks exactly one year since I learned of the American artist Faith Ringgold while roving around Paris. After returning home, I wrote about the special exhibit at Le Musée Picasso that introduced me to her work. She died last week at age 93. So this week, I thought I’d revisit a small slice of her visual storytelling opus, The French Collection, that brilliantly connects France to her aspirations and struggles as a young artist.

A Pioneering Artist and Activist

I say “small slice” because Ringgold’s decades of dedication to her craft have produced an extraordinarily rich and abundant body of work. Born in Harlem, in 1930, she grew up amidst an impressive milieu of Black activists and artists including James Baldwin, Sonny Rollins, Langston Huges, and W.E.B. Du Bois. Still, very few of these iconic sources of inspiration were female. Ringgold, however, seems to have never been slowed by the deluge of dismissals and ubiquitous racial and gender barriers she encountered. In an interview for the CBS Sunday Morning Show, an ebullient Ringgold explained, “If I asked and they said no, it didn’t bother me because I expected to hear no.”

In the late 1950s, Ringgold earned B.S. and M.A. degrees in visual art from the City College of New York. There, she studied and imitated the works of European masters like Dégas, Cézanne, and Picasso. In 1961, she traveled to France for the first time, accompanied by her mother and two daughters. Ringgold wanted to experience the venues that had inspired so many of her creative predecessors, hoping the trip would help nourish and further define her budding style.

Since then, she has sculpted, painted, written books, and taught. She is best known, however, for her Story Quilts, which combine African American history, identity, storytelling, and quilting to produce works of fine art that often address matters of injustice, violence, feminism, and equal rights.

American People Series #20, Faith Ringgold
American People Series #20, by Faith Ringgold, 1967. Inspired by Picasso’s Guernica.

Faith Ringgold’s French Collection Story Quilts

In the 1990s, Ringgold drew upon that first trip to France to create a series of quilts that mingles elements of her and her mother’s personal stories with prominent influences of 20th-century Western art. The result is The French Collection, a whimsical yet poignant portrayal of a young, Black female artist coming into her own as she explores a reimagined version of France’s Années folles.

The quilts tell the fictional story of Willia Marie Simone, a native of Harlem, who travels to Paris in the 1920s to find work as an artist and model. There she encounters many famous creatives, intellectuals, and activists, some of whom, but not all, lived in Paris at the time. Each quilt contains a scene from Willia’s journey bordered by the text of a letter home. Many of the letters are to her Aunt Melissa who has financed her trip and looks after her children. The result is a reconstructed art history that violates stereotypes of Black women, challenging the roles they’ve been prevented from playing.

Dancing at the Louvre, #1

In Dancing at the Louvre, Willia Marie befriends a stylish Black woman, Marcia, and her three daughters. Together they visit a gallery of the Louvre. Willia Marie writes to her aunt that Marcia scolded her for not raising her children in Europe. She resents the implication that it is impossible for a Black person to receive a proper education in the United States given that both she and her parents “didn’t come up like no weeds”.

Dancing at the Louvre, by Faith Ringgold
Dancing at the Louvre, by Faith Ringgold

Wedding on the Seine, #2

Below, Willia Marie, dressed in a white wedding gown, leans over a balustrade on the Pont Neuf and tosses a bouquet into the Seine. She’s fleeing her marriage ceremony to a white Frenchman, Pierre, fearful that the union will interfere with her artistic ambitions. “Oh God, don’t let me sink like those flowers. I want to live a life of making art, not babies and dinners and beds.” She chooses to stay with her new husband who dies a few years later, but not before the couple becomes parents to two children.

The Picnic at Giverny, #3

The Picnic at Giverny shows Willia Marie painting a portrait of several female friends seated on the grass at Giverny, home of Claude Monet. A nude Picasso poses on a blanket in front of the gathering. Willia Marie explains to her aunt that the work is a play on Manet’s painting Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, which depicts a naked woman casually seated with two fully suited men on a picnic.

The Picnic at Giverny, by Faith Ringgold
The Picnic at Giverny, by Faith Ringgold

Sunflowers Quilting Bee at Arles, #4

In the quilt below, Willia Marie joins eight important African American women from the past. All are members of the fictional National Sunflower Quilters Society of America, including Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Madam C. J. Walker, Ida B. Wells, Mary McLeod Bethune, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Ella Baker. Vincent Van Gogh looks on awkwardly as if grappling for the right moment to present them with a vase of sunflowers, similar to those featured in several of his still lifes. Willia Marie writes that when the women are finished with the quilt, they’ll move on to the “real art [of] making this world piece up right.”


Sunflowers Quilting Bee at Arles, by Faith Ringgold
Sunflowers Quilting Bee at Arles, by Faith Ringgold

Matisse’s Model, #5

In Matisse’s Model, Willia Marie poses for Henri Matisse, reclining beneath the artist’s famous painting Dance. The writing explains that she’s always wanted to be a dancer and to be beautiful—not like an anonymous woman in a painting but like the painting itself. “Something that pleases not only the eye but the soul.” Now in Matisse’s studio, Willia Marie feels she’s attained that stature and points out that it doesn’t matter what Matisse thinks, “a woman has to think for herself”.

Matisse's Model, by Faith Ringgold
Matisse’s Model, by Faith Ringgold

Matisse’s Chapel, #6

In this quilt, Ringgold uses the Chapelle de Rosaire in Vence, France, designed by Henri Matisse, as the backdrop. The nave is filled with many of Ringgold’s dead relatives, dressed in their Sunday best. The image appears to be an orderly celebration of African American religious piety and European modernist culture. But the text tells us that the parishioners are listening to Grandma Betsy who recounts a horrifying story about meeting a white man whose grandparents once witnessed and recoiled from the stench of a passing slave ship in distress.

Matisse's Chapel, by Faith Ringgold
Matisse’s Chapel, by Faith Ringgold

Picasso’s Studio, #7

In Picasso’s Studio, Willia Marie poses for Pablo Picasso beneath his Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. She writes to her aunt, “You asked me once why I wanted to become an artist and I said I didn’t know. Well I know now. It is because it’s the only way I know of feeling free. My art is my freedom to say what I please.” Willia Marie notes the influences of African art in Picasso’s work and suggests that Picasso’s white-male status has allowed him to deny this source of inspiration. “But art is the truth, not the artist. Doesn’t matter what he says about where it comes from. We see where, every time we look in the mirror.”

Picasso's Studio, by Faith Ringgold
Picasso’s Studio, by Faith Ringgold

On the Beach at St. Tropez, #8

In the quilt below, Willia Marie sunbathes with her son Pierre in St. Tropez, France. The text conveys a plea for her son’s understanding. She explains her reasons for dedicating her energies to her art instead of her children. In France, she’s been treated like a Black princess and given a chance to exhibit her work, something that would have been impossible in America. Despite her absences, she loves her children deeply and hopes her son can forgive her. “You are such a beautiful boy, my son, and if you want to judge me it is your choice to do so. But it will only make us both sad. I cannot change my past or yours.”

On the Beach at St. Tropez, by Faith Ringgold
On the Beach at St. Tropez, by Faith Ringgold

Dinner at Gertrude Stein’s, #9

Here, Willia Marie joins a group of prestigious artists and writers at one of Gertrude Stein’s famous Paris salons. The text of the quilt describes conversations of the evening but also explores people’s identities. Willia Marie writes as if each attendee is playing a part that they’ve chosen for the occasion. “Of the six men being and talking with Gertrude, three of them (Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Langston Hughes) were being colored, and three of them were not….”

Dinner at Gertrude Stein's, by Faith Ringgold
Dinner at Gertrude Stein’s, by Faith Ringgold

Jo Baker’s Birthday, #10

In Jo Baker’s Birthday, Willia Marie proudly informs her aunt that she’s been commissioned to paint a portrait of Josephine Baker, the American born singer and performer who made a name for herself in the cabarets of Paris. She admires Baker’s transformation, “Coming from the poorest of the poor with only her pieds dansants” to becoming a “grande dame Française“. The scene is a reversal of Édouard Manet’s painting Olympia, in which a nude white woman is attended by a Black servant.

Jo Baker's Birthday, by Faith Ringgold
Jo Baker’s Birthday, by Faith Ringgold

Le Café des Artistes, #11

Below, Willia Marie has packed her restaurant, Le Café des Artistes, with artists, writers, and public figures who have influenced her work. Amidst a variety of interruptions, she presents her Colored Woman’s Manifesto of Art and Politics. The gathered crowd admires Willia Marie but also demeans her with comments like “You are a primitive but very pretty.” and “You should learn French cooking”. A debate ensues in which the Europeans imply that Willia Marie’s work is not original, merely inspired by the Impressionists. She rebuts their claims, explaining that all art is inspired by myriad influences and pointing to the impact that African art has had on Western modern art.

Le Café des Artistes, by Faith Ringgold
Le Café des Artistes, by Faith Ringgold

Moroccan Holiday, #12

In Moroccan Holiday, Willia Marie speaks to her daughter Marlena about her choices in life, explaining her reasons for leaving Marlena and Pierre to be raised by Aunt Melissa. The two are vacationing in Morocco, yet portraits of American civil rights heroes serve as the backdrop—Frederick Douglass, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. Marlena isn’t interested in hearing her mother’s rationalizations. She’s heard it all before but Willia Marie persists, saying that she still feels misunderstood. She talks about the burden of being a black woman, the ease with which white women float through life, and the freedom all men (both Black and White) have to pursue their dreams without fear of incriminations when they find little time for their families.

Marlena admires her mother’s accomplishments but isn’t willing to completely let her off the hook. She hopes to be both a better mother and artist. The final statement is delivered by Marlena who says, “it is not just Douglass, Garvey, Malcolm and Martin who should be here with us, but Aunt Melissa also. She is our courage too, Mama. She is up there with you and these men.”

Moroccan Holiday, by Faith Ringgold
Moroccan Holiday, by Faith Ringgold

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, translator, and mother of 3. Avid follower of French media, culture, history, and language. Lover of books, travel, history, art, cooking, fitness, and nature. Cultivating connections with francophiles and francophones.


  1. I like this!! And I liked the last one about Daumier too

    • Thanks Sarah. I can believe this story resonates with you since your artistic style is so uniquely your own—both autobiographical and also drawing from many artistic influences. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. So cool! Ashamed to say, I was not familiar at all with this artist

    • Nor was I until last April. It’s too bad, because there was recently a special exhibit of her work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago that you might have attended. I found her exposition at the Musée Picasso far more appealing than the Picassos on display. The more I learn about her, the more I appreciate her work.

  3. I of course did not know this artist. It immediately reminded me of Les très riches heures du duc de Berry. Do you know about this?
    The purpose of course is very different, but as a collection of meaningful ‘vignettes’ and the way those are made, scenic situations full of details, framed with artful design.

    • That’s an interesting comparison Cat! I’d read about Les très riches heures du duc de Berry before but had forgotten all about them. Thanks for the links!

      I would not have thought to connect the two artists because the images in the les très riches heures seem quite formal and precise by contrast. But, you’re right they have many elements in common. the brilliant colors, the borders, the illustrated messages…

  4. Even the “French Collection” alone covers a rich and abundant range of themes. She was obviously conflicted about the tensions between art and the demands of family, but her explorations of those tensions will perhaps help and enlighten others who struggle with them.

    It’s striking how often backgrounds are used in the quilts to add context or evoke the way history haunts the present, as with the portraits of the great black leaders of the past in “Moroccan Holiday”. Every struggle and decision must be seen in the context of culture and past events.

    The nude Picasso in “The Picnic at Giverny” is a great touch. Nude female figures among fully-clothed men are common enough in art to be a cliché, encouraging the viewer to think of women as aesthetic objects while men are persons. Picasso is even posed like a typical nude woman in such works, although the pose looks rather funny when a man is shown doing it.

    Thanks for posting her story and work. I had not previously heard of her beyond just the name.

    • “Every struggle and decision must be seen in the context of culture and past events.” Well said, Infidel. Yeah, I love that skinny little shriveled Picasso.

      You’re welcome!

  5. Fascinating and edifying! I am grateful that you’ve introduced Faith Ringgold to us, Carol. The name sounded familiar, but I had no idea about the richness of her work. Like Infidel, I was delighted by her inversion of biases in the Picasso scene.

    I think the Louvre quilt with the children dancing in front of Mona Lisa was a standout.

    It’s extremely disconcerting that an artist with such talent and breadth has gained so little prominence. Thank you for the time you spent on assembling this fine post.

    • You’re welcome Annie. In addition to flipping the roles in the picnic scene at Giverny, I love the racial role reversal in Jo Baker’s Birthday. Describing her as a visual storyteller fits her to a T.

      Her paintings and children’s books are equally impressive but her quilts are what first earned her entry into the world of fine art. Faith Ringgold exhibits seem to be popping up all over now. I’m hoping with time, she’ll become quite well known.

  6. An interesting artist… Didn’t know about her. Merci “Carole”.

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