The early facts of Jones’ career are sketchy, and deliberately so. The artist was a self-mythologizing young man in the process of reinventing himself. In 1933, when he sent a picture to the Sixteen Cities Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, he described himself tersely: “Born Saint Louis, 1909, self-taught.” Jones deliberately presented himself to the art world as a genuine working-class hero. He had the credentials to prove it. He was born the youngest of five children born to a one-armed Saint Louis house painter, a Welsh immigrant, and his German American wife. When Jones was ten years old, he spent time in a Missouri reformatory, the result of official displeasure with his early work as a graffiti artist. He finished his elementary school education and hopped a freight car to California and back, arrested once for vagrancy in Pueblo, Colorado. Home in Saint Louis, he appeared to settle down, joining his father on the job. But Jones was restless and found himself pulled, in late adolescence, toward a more exalted use of brush and pigment. Seeking out a local group of struggling artists who constituted Saint Louis’s “Little Bohemia,” he shared studio space and mutual encouragement until he was able to finance his own modest studio in a vacant garage.Jones’s first works were still lifes, landscapes, and evocative portraits of family and friends. These subjects all shared the virtue of being inexpensive and available on demand. He certainly could not afford to hire models. He painted himself, his father, his mother, and later, his wife. In December1930, when he was 21 years old, Jones married Freda Sies, a modern dancer and political activist four years his senior.
By 1933, Jones began to attract serious local attention with a one-man show at the Artists’ Guild of Saint Louis. Among the twenty-five paintings exhibited, one River Front (private collection, formerly Hirschl and Adler Galleries) was chosen to illustrate the feature notice of Jones’s show in The Art Digest (February 15, 1933, p. 9). Shortly before the Artists’ Guild show, Jones’s work had caught the eye of a young surgeon, Dr. Robert Elman, who purchased some pictures and organized a group of would-be patrons who pledged to provide the young artist with a monthly retainer in return for works on hand. Elman’s group was officially named the “Co-operative Art Society.” Unofficially it was the “Joe Jones Club.” Jones was an active member of the St. Louis artists’ community, most especially its bohemian precinct. He was a proud modernist, a founding member, in 1931, of the “New Hat” group, in cheeky opposition to the “old hat” art of the conservative mainstream art establishment.
The summer of 1933 proved a turning point in Jones’s life. Funded by a loyal supporter, Mrs. Elizabeth Green, Jones, Freda, and Green set off on a road trip east. In Washington, D.C., they visited the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Freer Gallery (Smithsonian Institution), the Library of Congress, and Mount Vernon. After this whirlwind tour of art history and Americana, they proceeded to New York where they toured museums and galleries, including a stop at The New School for Social Research with its important contemporary murals by fellow Missourian Thomas Hart Benton and the politically engaged Mexican artist, José Clemente Orozco. Jones and Freda spent June, July, and August in the artist’s colony at Provincetown, Massachusetts, returning home via Detroit and Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry mural at the Detroit Institute of Fine Arts.
While Elizabeth Green is said to have hoped that in Provincetown Jones would hone his technical skills under the tutelage of Charles Hawthorne or Richard Miller, Jones departed from the script. Instead of seeking out conservative teachers, he found a vibrant circle of left-wing intellectuals, writers, and artists who spent their time reading Marx and applying his writings to the situation in America. Jones’s reaction to the tradition-bound culture of New England was, as he told an interviewer for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, “Class consciousness ... that’s what I got of my trip to New England. Those people [New Englanders] are like the Chinese—ancestor worshipers. They made me realize where I belong” (September 21, 1933). Jones’s visceral response to the social stratification he observed in New England was to double down on his working-class identity. He returned to St. Louis a loudly self-proclaimed Communist. His newly explicit politics spelled trouble with some of his local supporters. Jones’s middle-class backers withdrew their support, partly doubtless because of Jones’s politics, but also, in his case, inextricably bound to his flamboyantly provocative, and confrontational personal style.
In December 1933, Jones established a free art class for unemployed students in the same Old Courthouse in St. Louis where the Dred Scott case had been argued and whose plaza had been the site of slave auctions. At the same time as Jones’s free school, the St. Louis Art League was held with paid classes. Focusing on the art of social protest, with a studio decorated with Soviet posters, Jones’s school lasted for a little over a year before local authorities evicted it from the Court House. In addition to its politics and unorthodox teaching methods, it certainly did not help that the school welcomed a large contingent of African American students in a time of rigid racial segregation. Under Jones's tutelage, the class produced a 16 by 37-foot chalk pastel on board mural, Social Unrest in St. Louis. Mural painting held no terror for the former housepainter, comfortable with large expanses of wall. His breakthrough commission in St. Louis, at the end of 1931 had been a mural celebrating the industrial and commercial strength of St. Louis for a local radio station, KMOX. That mural, determinedly optimistic in the face of crushing economic depression, celebrated St. Louis’s industrial and commercial strength in a modernist style. When Jones returned to mural painting in late 1933, his understanding of the world was quite different. The school’s Courthouse mural, composed by Jones, contained vignettes of contemporary St. Louis chosen to illustrate political points. Jones had seen the use of self-contained episodes juxtaposed to create a visual narrative in the murals he visited in the East. Closer to home, it was a favored compositional device used by Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975), Missouri’s famous native-son artist. As early as October 1933, returning from Provincetown to find that his Communist affiliation didn’t sit well with local supporters, Jones had written to Elizabeth Green, “I sincerely believe that I am as far as I can go in St. Louis." At the end of 1934, seeking wider horizons, he placed three oil paintings in high profile East Coast group shows: American Justice, a searing anti-lynching picture, at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts (now in the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio); Road to the Beach, a Provincetown landscape (Museum of Modern Art, New York); and Wheat at the Whitney Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting. These paintings advertised both his technical skill and his facility with a variety of subject matter.
Jones’s domestic life had also reached a breaking point. In December 1934 Freda Jones was arrested for “disturbing the peace” at a political demonstration in front of St. Louis City Hall. But shared politics couldn’t save the marriage. The couple separated and soon divorced. Jones moved back to his parents’ house. It was clearly time for a change. He returned to New York, where he immersed himself in museums and galleries while he looked for New York representation. His painting, by this time, was strongly political. Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery and The Rehn Gallery both turned him down. He contributed a work to an anti-lynching exhibition at the A.C.A. Gallery and that led to a full-scale affiliation and the groundbreaking 1935 show. Herman Baron appreciated Jones’s talent but understand both where he came from and where he wanted to go. Looking back, Baron wrote that the artist “as a young boy ... dreamed of riches when he grew up; success to him meant acceptance into the upper classes." Jones did not remain in New York. He returned to St. Louis in April and never saw his show at A.C.A. He spent August and September 1935 documenting the hard life of Arkansas rural laborers for a mural at Commonwealth College in Mena, Arkansas. Commonwealth College was a socialist school that served as a training hub for organizers for the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. It closed in 1940, but the mural, The Struggle in the South, 9 x 44 ft., was, improbably, saved, and has recently been restored. It now occupies pride of place at the University of Arkansas Little Rock Downtown campus in the River Market District.
In the latter part of the 1930s, Jones’s subjects changed, becoming less explicitly political and more concerned with workers and African Americans, mostly rural. In 1936, he executed a commercial commission for a mural in a downtown St. Louis taproom. The five-panel work titled (appropriately for its location) The Story of the Grain was a success and part of the emphasis on Midwest rural-themed works that characterized the year 1936. In January 1936, Jones had another exhibit in New York, “Paintings of Wheat Fields,” this time at the Walker Gallery. Although Herman Baron cooperated with this show, it was a notable move for Jones. Maynard Walker founded his gallery in 1935, capitalizing on his relationships with Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood. Clearly, Jones wanted to be seen in the same company. In late 1936, Jones sent Our American Farms to the Whitney Museum’s Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting. An apocalyptic vision of the ecological disaster of drought, the picture was the result of Jones’s six-week employment as a Special Skills Artist in July and August 1936 by the Resettlement Agency, a New Deal initiative to move farmers from dust bowl holdings to areas with better soil. Our American Farms was one of eight works the Whitney Museum purchased from the show for its permanent collection.
The 1940s presented a stark contrast to the preceding decade, politically, economically, and, for Jones, personally. A war economy replaced a decade of financial depression. After the disastrous Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939, Soviet Russia and the American Communist Party were firm allies of America during World War II. Jones had a history of close relationships, both professional and personal, with women from the highest echelons of St. Louis society. In 1940, his relationship with Grace Adams Mallinckrodt (1918–2002) burst into headlines in St. Louis when a private investigator discovered the two in Jones’s cottage in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. Mallinckrodt was the young wife of Henry E. Mallinckrodt, son of the president of the Mallinckrodt Chemical Company. The Mallinckrodts were among the wealthiest and most socially prominent families in St. Louis. Grace Adams, an Albany, New York, debutante met Henry Mallinckrodt when he was a student at Harvard and the two married in 1937. Jones met Mrs. Mallinckrodt in 1939 when “she posed for him." The sensational divorce trial named Jones as co-respondent. The scandal marked the end of Jones’s career as an enfant terrible and certainly the end of Jones’s residence St. Louis. The couple married, and eventually moved to Morristown, New Jersey where they lived quietly, raising a family of four children. Jones served as a combat artist for Life Magazine during World War II. His art lost its anger and its political edge, as he moved away from the broad handling associated with American Scene and Social Realism and toward a spare, delicate, and linear style influenced by Japanese art, as well as an Impressionist-inspired landscape style. In the postwar period, he painted coastal landscapes of New Jersey and Bermuda and established a commercial career producing advertising images, magazine illustrations, and murals for corporate clients. He died of a heart attack in 1963 in Morristown, New Jersey, the prosperous and genteel community where he lived and supplemented his free-lance income with steady work teaching art in local private boys’ schools. It was a long way from his rough-and-tumble beginnings.