Three children—an infant boy in diapers and two girls in their nightdresses—kneel on the floor in prayer. The oldest devoutly keeps her eyes tightly shut while the other two look out at the viewer. Little of the interior space in which they pray is visible, except for the floorboards, the paned window, and the brightly colored, pink flowered wallpaper on the wall.
In the 1930s, the young artist, Bernice Cross, was known for her paintings of seemingly “storybook characters” (1) portrayed in children’s storybook-like narratives, and these often involved African-American children. A related painting, the ca. 1937-1939 All God’s Children Got Shoes, formerly in the estate of the artist, also depicts three children of about the same ages as those in the Dumbarton Oaks painting. (2) Here, however, they are winged angels and are elevated in a night sky of clouds, stars, and a crescent moon, all above an undulating ground line with trees and small houses. All three wear bright red shoes. Another related painting, Henhouse, was exhibited at Studio House, Washington, D.C., in 1938. It depicts the three children on the top of a henhouse, having climbed up to the roof on a ladder. (3) And another related painting appeared in a 1938 one-person exhibition of Cross’s recent work at the Phillips Gallery, where a reviewer singled out From an Album, “a tiny canvas of three small Negro children, one with a red umbrella, another with a red bonnet and pigtails.” The reviewer noted: “Much of Miss Cross’ work is directed toward a youthful audience, which should be duly appreciative. She has worked a great deal with children, and her paintings reflect this close sympathy and contact.” (4)
It is not known how the Blisses came to own Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep; it is presumed that they purchased the painting, possibly from The Little Gallery, Washington, D.C. in 1937, or received it as a gift. Between 1934 and 1937, Mildred Bliss acquired a number of works by local artists at such venues as the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s Public Works of Art Project exhibition (1934) and the Phillips Studio House (1937).
(2) Oil on canvas, 25.4 cm x 30.5 cm (10 in. x 12 in.). Sold by Sloan’s Auction Galleries, Washington, D.C., February 14, 2001, lot no. 453.
(3) This painting is reproduced in black and white in an unidentified newspaper clipping in the Phillips Collection Library, Records of the Research Office, series VIII, subseries 2, box 4, folder 34.
(3) Jane Watson, “Phillips Gallery Exhibiting Paintings by Bernice Cross,” The Washington Post (November 27, 1938), TS7.
Carder, James. American Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010, 124-127, no. 19.
The Little Gallery, Washington, D.C., Recent Paintings by Bernice Cross, March 20-April 15, 1937, no. 14.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., American Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Selections from the House Collection, October 26, 2010-February 13, 2011, no. 19.
Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, Washington, DC, until January 17, 1969.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, House Collection, Washington, DC.