Theora Hamblett (1895-1977)

Theora Hamblett was born and raised in Paris, Mississippi, and lived the latter part of her eighty year life in Oxford. A schoolteacher by training who had a lifelong interest in art, Miss Hamblett began painting at age 50. Hamblett passed away in 1977 after gaining fame throughout the nation as a self-taught artist whose brightly colored paintings of children’s games and childhood memories had universal appeal.

Hamblett created over three hundred paintings of religious subjects, including illustrated Bible stories-but most were inspired by visions and dreams Hamblett experienced during the last twenty-five years of her life. These works were considered by the artist to be her most important, and were exhibited less often than her other works because she preferred to keep them in her house in close proximity to her. Hamblett bequeathed the collection of her religious art to the University of Mississippi with explicit instruction that these paintings be given priority over all her other works in terms of exhibition, conservation, and scholarly study.

Hamblett’s overarching concern for her religious paintings can be traced back to the spirituality of her youth, a permutation of Protestantism scholars have dubbed Popular Southern Evangelicalism. The belief that her psychic experiences were religious experiences was in part conditioned by the prevalence of such views in the churches Hamblett attended growing up, and also by the fact that in 1955 the Museum of Modern Art acquired one of her early dream paintings and in the course of negotiations changed the title of the work.

The imagery in Hamblett’s visions and subsequent paintings also reflects the strong influence of religion, particularly the popular southern hymnody. Many of Hamblett’s images can be traced to images proposed and described in the hymns Hamblett had heard and sung all her life. Her works remain influential in the contemporary realm of southern art, with the University of Mississippi Museum displaying a large majority of her pieces.