A portrait of the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a sharecroppers’ son with an Old Testament presence who became a powerful advocate for his beloved Baltimore, will go on public view Dec. 22 at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
The portrait was commissioned by the congressman’s widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, and was painted by Jerrell Gibbs, an up-and-coming Baltimore artist who was chosen from among 30 applicants for the prestigious project.
The portrait will be displayed in Baltimore through Jan. 9, before moving to its permanent home in the U.S. Capitol building.
Cummings represented Maryland’s 7th district for more than two decades and fought for his constituents on issues ranging from voting rights to gun control to reforming the criminal justice system. He was a key figure in the first impeachment of former U.S. President Donald Trump, and a powerful advocate for peace during the 2015 uprising following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody.
After the congressman died in October 2019, at age 68 from complications of long-standing medical problems that included a rare form of cancer, he became the first African American to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol.
His portrait will be unveiled during a private ceremony Dec. 21 attended by family members of the late congressman, museum officials and politicians.
“It’s a beautiful portrait,” Rockeymoore Cummings said. “It conveys Elijah’s seriousness, his graciousness and his importance as a staunch defender of our democracy. It captures his essence and does justice to his memory.”
Gibbs, 33, said he modeled the portrait on the photograph used for the cover for the congressman’s posthumous book, “We’re Better Than This: My Fight for the Future of Our Democracy.” The political memoir was released 11 months after Cummings’ death.
In the photograph, Cummings is holding a gavel. He peers out at onlookers with the gravitas of the Hebrew prophet with whom he shared his first name. It was especially important to the congressman’s wife that the portrait emphasize her husband’s magnificent hands.
“They were larger than life and very expressive,” Rockeymoore Cummings said. “A lot of people didn’t realize that when they were getting the full Elijah treatment, they weren’t just getting his voice and his facial expressions. They were also getting his hands.”
She decided to commission the oil painting in late 2020 after a congressional staff member reminded her that it was traditional to hang a portrait of national figures in the buildings where they had performed their life’s work.
A former trustee of the Baltimore Museum of Art, Rockeymoore Cummings turned to museum director Christopher Bedford and his staff to help select the artist. They decided to limit the pool of applicants to Black artists from Baltimore.
“Because Elijah was such a staunch promoter of Baltimore, and believed so strongly in the youth of this city and what they have to offer, we decided to focus on uplifting a Baltimore artist for this opportunity,” Rockeymoore Cummings said.
“The way Chris put it was, ‘We’re looking to support the next Amy Sherald.’”
Sherald was a Baltimore resident when she was selected to create the official portrait of former first lady Michelle Obama. The 2018 painting caused a sensation and skyrocketed the relatively unknown artist to national prominence. Recently, her works have been fetching as much as seven-figures at auctions.
A committee that included Rockeymoore Cummings, museum staff members and community leaders began meeting in March and narrowed the initial list of artist candidates to three finalists: Gibbs, Monica Ikegwu and Ernest Shaw Jr.
The finalists were asked to submit preliminary sketches to the selection committee. BMA officials subsequently purchased one sketch apiece from Ikegwu, Shaw and Gibbs for a sum that officials declined to disclose, and added them to the museum’s permanent collection.
But ultimately the choice landed on Gibbs, who didn’t pick up a paint brush for the first time until 2015.
“Jerrell has a way of painting that differentiates him from the pack,” said Bedford, who predicts that Gibbs will have an important career.
“He absolutely stands out. He has a way of burrowing into the feeling and consciousness of subject so that they are instantly visible and emotionally available to viewer. Jerrell doesn’t just make you see his subjects. He makes you feel them, and that’s very, very hard to do.”
As part of the commission, Gibbs, a Pikesville resident, received a $75,000 stipend.
The artist came to his calling relatively late. He was 27 and working two jobs caring for mentally disabled adults when during a slow overnight shift, he picked up a pencil and began to draw. He texted that sketch to his wife.
“For Father’s Day in 2015, my wife gave me painting supplies and an easel,” Gibbs said. “I’ve been running with it ever since.”
Gibbs later enrolled in the Maryland Institute College of Art, graduating with a degree in fine art in 2020, and already has had some success. He has been on the radar of Bedford’s staff since one of his portraits went on view in April as part of the BMA exhibit, “Now is the Time: Recent Acquisitions to the Contemporary Collection.”
He is represented by the Chicago-based Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, which is organizing a solo show for him next year in Paris. In addition to the BMA, Gibbs’ portraits are in the permanent collections of museums in Columbus, Ohio, and Los Angeles, California, and in institutions in Shanghai and Beijing, China.
To prepare his portrait of Cummings, Gibbs immersed himself in everything he could learn about the congressmen. He read his memoir and other accounts of Cummings’ life. He listened to hours of Cummings’ speeches on YouTube and his recorded court sessions. He bombarded Rockeymoore Cummings with questions about her late husband’s taste in music and his favorite artists.
And he drew on his memory of his one brief meeting with the congressman at the 2016 inauguration of former Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh.
“I tried to capture his aura,” Gibbs said. “He had a presence about him. When he spoke, people listened. He was stern but empathetic and compassionate at the same time.
“When he came over to talk to us, he acted as though he was just one of the fellows. He didn’t come into the space and try to take it over. Instead, he made us feel like he was one of us.”