Outsider artist painting: Duke Ellington - by Harriet Young
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  • Duke Ellington

  • 1995
  • Acrylic Gel
  • 30" x 36"

Duke Ellington is actually not rendered in this painting, Harriet just pasted him in with a small black and white head shot. Given the visual extravaganza before us, this gesture is a genuine delight, and surely the irony of it was not lost on the artist. Here is a similar photo, reshot or reprocessed for a record album:

Head shot of photo of Duke Ellington that appears in the painting Duke Ellington by outsider artist Harriet Young

An educated guess, but one we’re very comfortable with, is that the six women with blond hair and blue faces surrounding Duke in a manner not unlike the photo below are the Moulin Rouge Showgirls. Unlike hair color, facial features don’t lie:

Photo of the Moulin Rouge show girls, who appear in the painting Duke Ellington by pop art chronicler of mid-century Hollywood and Las Vegas, Harriet Young
Clockwise, from lower left (1955): Barbara McCory, Jane Craddock, Norma Talbot, Lorraine Riley, Anna Bailey, Dee Dee Jasmin, and (center) Norma Washington. They would appear in performance on the cover of Life Magazine one month later. (non-commercial image use courtesy UNLV University Libraries)      

There is some interesting history here that for many will enhance an appreciation of this work. The desegregation of the entertainment industry in Las Vegas during the mid-1950s and beyond was one of the great sidebars to the American civil rights movement. Pivotal in this history was the Moulin Rouge, a hotel, nightclub and casino located away from the Strip in Westside, the black neighborhood in the then fledgling entertainment mecca of 25,000 called Las Vegas. As of this writing there are some very good articles on the internet that describe the edginess and inevitable workarounds of segregated Las Vegas back then, and how it all finally played out:

From sfgate.com

From smithsonianmag.com

The subject is also covered in the mid-‘90s double DVD set The Real Las Vegas, and includes interviews with folks who were right in the middle of it, including one of the ladies above.

While Harriet doubtless didn’t think of it as such, this is likely the only painting in existence recounting the Moulin Rouge Showgirls, either separately or with a famous headliner like Duke Ellington. And make no mistake, the artist was up to the task. The work is a tour de force, as complex, visually arresting, and deftly executed a work of Harriet Young as we’ve yet seen, and clicking the painting into enlargement mode and beyond will provide endless delight.