Marshall Bouldin III was Mississippi’s most prolific portrait artist, with more than eight hundred commissions during his lifetime. He was born to Laurenze Cooper Bouldin and Marshall Jones Bouldin Jr. in their Dundee, Mississippi, home on 6 September 1923. Marshall III and his sister, Helen, enjoyed a quiet childhood in the Mississippi Delta, and he expressed himself through drawing and painting, steadily improving his skills. By the time he graduated from Clarksdale High School in 1941, Bouldin had decided to pursue a career as a professional illustrator.
Bouldin received a scholarship to enroll in the Art Institute of Chicago in 1941. While he had hoped for formal training in art techniques, he was met with unstructured learning that allowed students to experiment with their own emerging styles. Bouldin believed that the best lessons he learned at the Art Institute were those he taught himself by studying works by master artists. He left the school after less than two years.
Unable to join the military because of a partial paralysis he incurred at birth, Bouldin contributed to the war effort through his work in a Nashville, Tennessee, aircraft factory beginning in 1943. He created isometric assembly plans from blueprints, always pondering his goal of becoming an illustrator. In 1945 Bouldin left Nashville for Chicago, where he had secured an apprenticeship with a group of magazine illustrators. Bouldin subsequently served another apprenticeship in Westport, Connecticut, from 1946 to 1950, producing covers and illustrations for Outdoor Life, American Magazine, Collier’s, and other magazines.
Despite having achieved his childhood dream, Bouldin was unhappy with his career. Inspired by a Van Gogh exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bouldin decided that he could paint “for fun.” He returned to Mississippi in 1950 and spent his time working on the family farm. Over the next decade, he painted in his spare time, teaching himself the fundamentals first by copying masterworks and later by creating original artwork, the bulk of which falls into the category of genre painting. Bouldin’s first portrait work featured farmhands who worked for the family in the early 1950s.
After returning to his home state, Bouldin met Mary Ellen “Mel” Stribling, whom he married in 1954. The two were quite a couple, breaking any sort of stereotypes of Delta inhabitants in the mid-twentieth century. While Marshall pursued his artwork full time, Mel became a successful Memphis obstetrician and gynecologist, flying herself to and from work each day in her own Cessna aircraft. She also served as Coahoma County’s health officer for more than thirty years.
In the mid-1950s Bouldin was offered his first commission by someone who had seen one of his farmhand paintings. Bouldin was still unsure about his skills as a portrait artist, so he asked the client for some time to hone his skills. At about the same time, Mel Bouldin had been issued a box of human bones as part of her medical studies. The artist began to carefully study and draw the bones, and after about nine months of exploration, he had created a detailed anatomy book that he consulted for the rest of his career. Bouldin then studied the color wheel and experimented with mixing various colors and making swatches, creating another large book of reference materials. After about two years of intense study and experimentation, Bouldin accepted the commission, receiving one hundred dollars for a painting of his late grandfather, Marshall Bouldin, who had founded the Delta Grocery and Cotton Company in 1903.
Not only did Bouldin approach each painting with detailed knowledge of color and human form, he was careful to get to know each subject before picking up a brush. A typical commission began with multiple interviews, sketches, photographs, and even video. Bouldin searched for the essence of his subject—personality, mannerisms, expressions—and believed that capturing this essence created a portrait that was truer to its subject than one that simply illustrated someone’s likeness. Bouldin created portraits of hundreds of people, from his relatives to members of the broader Delta and Mississippi community to world-famous subjects. His most notable portraits include Julie and Tricia Nixon, Sen. Thad Cochran, Speaker of the House Jim Wright, Sen. John C. Stennis, Gov. William Winter, astronaut Ronald E. McNair, Gen. Louis Wilson, and a posthumous painting of author William Faulkner.
Bouldin’s artwork can be found in collections across the country, including in the White House and in the halls of Congress. He was the only American to exhibit at the Royal Society of British Artists in 1987, 1988, and 1989, and three of his paintings were included in the 1990 show. Bouldin received the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in 1997 and the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009. Bouldin attributed his success as an artist to his hard work and a religious faith he strengthened through worship at First Presbyterian Church in Clarksdale. He and his wife raised four sons: Marshall IV, Jamie, Mahlon, and Jason, who spent two years as an apprentice with his father and is an accomplished portrait painter in his own right.
Marshall Bouldin III died in Memphis in November 2012.
- Patti Carr Black, Art in Mississippi (1998)
- Robin C. Dietrick, ed., A Painter’s Odyssey: The Art of Marshall Bouldin III (2008)
- Paul Vitello, New York Times (15 November 2012)