Spotlight on John Biggers’s ‘Shotguns’

The image that graces the cover of the auction catalogue for Swann Galleries’ sale of African-American Fine Art on Thursday, October 8, 2009, is John Biggers’s powerful 1987 oil and acrylic painting titled Shotguns. The Biggers painting—probably the artist’s best-known work—is one of 116 paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings from notable collections and estates to be offered in the auction.


“We are very pleased to offer this celebrated work by such an influential artist. This painting is widely considered to be an icon of American painting, and has even drawn comparisons to Grant Wood’s American Gothic.”

Nigel Freeman, Director of African-American Fine Art

Remaining in a private collection since it was directly obtained from the artist, the painting gets its title from the shotgun-style houses it depicts. These narrow houses set close together are prevalent in the south, and were the first African-influenced style of architecture to become popular in the U.S. In Shotguns John Biggers weaves African-American women, architecture, and other symbols of both African and American culture into a rich and quilt-like geometric pattern. The painting sold for $216,000.

Early Life & Career

John Biggers was born in North Carolina and studied at the Hampton Institute—now known as Hampton University—under Victor Lowenfeld and Charles White. In 1943, a Biggers mural, Dying Soldier, was featured in a Museum of Modern Art exhibition showcasing Young Negro Art. After a stint in the Navy, Biggers followed Lowenfeld to Pennsylvania State University, and in 1949 moved to Houston, Texas where he founded and then chaired the art department at Texas Southern University. Biggers taught there for three decades, establishing a rich tradition of visual art in the city, with a tremendous impact on the lives of countless students, educators, artists and collectors. He continues to have a large presence in Houston where many of his monumental murals, including the 50-foot The Family of Man at the TSU student center, are landmarks.

In 1957, Biggers was one of the first African-American artists to visit Africa, sponsored by a UNESCO fellowship to study and record traditional African culture. In addition to Ghana, John and his wife Hazel visited Togo, the Republic of Benin and Nigeria over a six month period. Ghana had only just achieved its independence from Britain in March of that year.

From 1995-97, John Biggers was nationally recognized with a traveling retrospective exhibition organized by the Museum of Fine Arts of Houston of his work, The Art of John Biggers – View from the Upper Room. The exhibition featured Shotguns, which was the subject of an introductory essay by Professor Robert Farris Thompson, Professor of Art History at Yale University.

Additional Works by Biggers

Market Women, Ghana

In October 2007, Swann Galleries set a then auction record price for a work by the artist when an early 1960s painting of Ghanaian women sold for $96,000.

In recent years Swann has offered several important works by Biggers: Death and Resurrection, 1996, sold in April 2019 for $149,000 and Women, Ghana, circa 1960, sold in June 2020 for $269,000.

Women, Ghana

Women, Ghana is an important and beautiful painting by John Biggers from an early body of work representing the importance of the African woman in her society. Here Biggers captures a group of women waiting with their baskets by a road – perhaps ready to bring goods to market. Biggers had said that “Africa has a female sensibility”, and “the woman was so powerful in African culture.” Here with a limited palette of earth tones and whites, Biggers deftly highlights the rich variety of patterns and textures found in their garments and blankets.

Death and Resurrection

John Biggers’s Death and Resurrection is an important and beautiful painting from the artist’s last years, a wonderful example of the rich complexity in composition, subject matter and symbolism in Biggers’ late paintings. Death and Resurrection is a culmination of the level of expression that Biggers achieved in his 1980s and 90s paintings. Here Biggers continues to develop the important themes of the celebrations of life and death that he first explored in the 1950s – found in his seminal paintings Web of Life andJubilee: Ghana Harvest Festival.

In the 1990s, Biggers displays a fluency in rich symbolism, derived from his study of African cultural practice, in constructing his compositions. Here he includes a procession of women carrying goods on their heads, and of mothers carrying babies, lines of shotgun houses and the river teeming with turtles, herons, water lilies and fish and the patterns and colors of African fabric. Biggers scholar Dr. Aliva Wardlaw has written about Death and Resurrection Biggers further references various African traditions: the gelede masks from the Yoruba, the Horus symbols on the headdresses from ancient Egypt, and printed patterns found in traditional South African dress. The striking scene is bathed in a dramatic red light from a fiery setting sun. This rich panorama of African tradition overwhelms whatever the modern urban skyline Biggers tucked in the upper left corner might offer. Alvia Wardlaw describes how in Biggers’Death and Resurrection “it is apparent that he is continuing to explore the mysteries of life and death while drawing upon so much of his earlier imagery and iconography to develop the work.” Painting in his twilight years, Biggers displays a contemplation of his own mortality with Death and Resurrection.

Do you have a work by John Biggers we should take a look at?

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