‘Bedtime’ by Charles Sallée Jr. is a perennially popular work at the Cleveland Museum of Art

‘Bedtime’ by Charles Sallée Jr. is a perennially popular work at the Cleveland Museum of Art

Charles L. Sallée Jr. painted this intimate picture, which is at the Cleveland Museum of Art, in 1940. His career was flying. Sallée had been the first African American to graduate from the Cleveland School (now Institute) of Art. In 1940, his work was included in the American Negro Exposition in Chicago, also known as the Black World’s Fair, celebrating the 75th anniversary of the end of slavery. By the end of that year, he had also been written about in Alain Locke’s influential “The Negro in Art” and had his first solo show, in his native Ohio.

He was in his late 30s. Born in Oberlin, he grew up in Sandusky, halfway between Toledo and Cleveland. His name was still pronounced “SAL-lee” in those days; he added the accent, to make it “sal-LAY” after returning from France during World War II. Like so many African American artists and writers who went to France, he fell in love with the country and its culture.

In high school, studying art, he’d fallen under the spell of Ingres, the great 19th century French neoclassicist. He made countless portrait drawings of the school faculty in the manner of Ingres. He also worked on stage sets for school plays.

To me, “Bedtime” conjures the atmosphere of a play — some kind of psychological domestic drama, perhaps. It’s a bit too tidy for real life. The props are all there — the clock, the curtain, the mirror, the bed — but it has been carefully reduced, like a fine French sauce. Notice the undulating rhythms Sallée creates — on the bed and curtains, and (reflected in the mirror) the lid of a vase and the trim of the bedspread. All these repeating lines create a counterpoint to the smooth expanse of the woman’s brown skin.

The view of a woman’s back, with its subtly modeled bones and musculature set against the rhythmic folds of curtains, invokes the spirit of one of Ingres’s most famous works, “The Bather of Valpinçon,” 1808.

Sallée’s model’s pose, with her arms up, removing the pins from her hairpiece, is more reminiscent of Degas’s unselfconscious bathers than of Ingres’s chilly neoclassicism. There is no hint of salaciousness. Instead, we feel privy to a tenderly intimate moment — a quiet unwinding, a letting go — at the end of another day of strenuous self-presentation. Bedtime.

In his 1943 survey, “Modern Negro Art,” James A. Porter described Sallée as “a master of rhythm, so expert that the work is joyously animate. It is as though the artist found nothing but transporting gladness in life.”

“I was always looking at the brighter side of things,” confessed the artist himself. “I didn’t make paintings about the effect of dire poverty or cruelty. I was always inspired to do things that were on the upbeat.”

Sallée, who began using his artistic skills to serve the war effort at the end of 1941 before being drafted in 1943, was doing important work even before his military service. Black life in America is so often seen through a lens of trauma and violence. People sometimes seem unhealthily stimulated by this vision, aroused by the sense of emergency it continually sustains.

There is an emergency, of course — there has been since slavery. But seeing everything through that lens can produce a kind of ghoulish, self-saucing spectacle — amplified by today’s image-saturated culture — that may undermine the truth, and beauty, of Black lives and the endlessly varying conditions in which they are lived. Black artists have been depicting their own lives with gorgeous tenderness, intimacy and invention for centuries. It’s no wonder “Bedtime” is one of the Cleveland museum’s most beloved paintings.

Great Works, In Focus

A series featuring art critic Sebastian Smee’s favorite works in permanent collections around the United States. “They are things that move me. Part of the fun is trying to figure out why.”

Photo editing and research by Kelsey Ables. Design and development by Junne Alcantara.

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