The Art of Albert E. Daniel

St. Thomas Painter and Sculptor
1897 – 1982


“Never had a lesson in my life, some call me a hit and a miss, but I seldom miss. You can go to a thousand schools, they can teach you the technique of art, but expression, you must have it inside, they can’t put expression into you.” -Albert E. Daniel

These words capture Albert Edward Daniel’s vision of himself as an artist. For Daniel, a self-taught artist, it was the ability to project his inner vision on canvas that made the artist. Excellence was entirely the product of the depth and intensity of inspiration. In a society where art was pursued as amusement and entertainment, not as occupation, recording his inner vision was Daniel’s lifelong struggle.

Born on May 16, 1897 to Lucy Ann and Charles Daniel, Albert Daniel attended a private Catholic school. His favorite subjects were art and music. At the age of 14, he was forced to leave school because of his family’s financial difficulties. After school and later on after work Albert drew and painted constantly, copying anything he would find to improve his skills. For him, imitation of the acceptable European styles of the time was only for the purpose of “getting the feel of the paint”. Daniel wanted to be an “original”. A devout Catholic, he prayed for inspiration in his search for a unique style to express his message. In 1937, Albert Daniel married Agnes Brouwer. His wife operated a dry-goods store and was able to support him in his work. By the mid-1940s, the artist decided to dedicate himself full-time to his art.

Acceptance of his painting of a market vendor, entitled “Lady”, for exhibition at the 1939 World’s Fair, confirmed Daniel in his chosen subject matter, the common laborer and market woman. The market vendor, fisherman, dock worker and farm laborer formed the backbone of Virgin Islands society. In portraits of the laborer and the market woman, the artist defined the character of his people as hard-working, God-fearing and content, in their daily occupations along the waterfront and the market place, and in the merry-making of carnival.

By the late 1950s, Daniel had found his own style. His paintings disregarded the laws of perspective, as he depicted his subjects in frontal or profile representations. Through keen observation, he captured the typical mannerism of his people with a liner facility, which
transformed his child-like representations into forms of expressive vitality. Color was the soul of his painting. He used it for both purely decorative and symbolic purposes. [1]

In the 1960s, as commercial tourism began to elbow out the traditional way of life, Daniel turned his creative efforts to a restoration of the past. His “memory paintings” capture the way things had been. Stylistically matured, Daniel manipulated pictorial elements for symbolic and decorative purposes. Perspective lines are used for dramatic purposes or symbolically to indicate a state of contentment and balance or turmoil. Artifacts, such as the Danish colonial flag, the sack of coal, the beast of burden, and the market tray, emblematic of the traditional life style, conjure up the past.
During this period of transition, Daniel turned to social commentary in his paintings and sculptures. The market woman and laborer became the critical observers of the social changes brought about by commercialization, whose observations are emphasized with titles and verses drawn from 19th century poetry and sayings in his native Creole which he affixed to the back of his works. Symbols, the best known of these is the pole or “staff of life”, convey the presence of the Almighty in the lives of his subjects, and other values he felt had been lost.

In the seventies, Daniel tackled the clash of traditional values and contemporary life-styles: the alienation of the young and the generation gap, increased secularization, and other ‘evils’ of materialism threatening to destroy the fabric of society—labor unrest, crime, and anarchy. Towards the end of his life, his art encompassed the broader philosophical implications of the disintegration of the stable society he had known, expressing the agitation and turmoil of the age and man’s inhumanity to man.
Albert Daniel died in 1982. His art chronicles the struggles, joys and sorrows of the inhabitants of St. Thomas, who had been brought as chattel from Africa to these shores. Through his artistic commentary on the life of his people from the vantage point of the poor, Daniel created a continuous historical perspective; from slavery through subsistence living, to the dominance of the tourist economy. Throughout, Daniel captured the strength and identity of his people that were preserved in their history of struggle. Today, Albert Daniel is regarded as a major voice in Virgin Islands cultural history,
bearing out the artist’s prediction: ”When I am dust upon the wind, people will realize what I left behind.”

In the 1950s, Daniel also developed an interest in sculpture and executed pieces mostly in wood.