The Nation’s Largest African American Video Oral History Collection Mobile search icon Mobile close search icon

Search Results

Advanced Biography Search
Mobile navigation icon Close mobile navigation icon

Merton Simpson

Painter Merton Daniel Simpson was born on September 20, 1928 in Charleston, South Carolina to Jenny and Marion Simpson. He began drawing after being hospitalized at childhood with diphtheria. William Halsey, an artist who gave private instruction to the young artist, soon recognized Simpson’s talents. During his formative years, Simpson worked at the Gibbes Museum there he was the only African American in the still segregated institution.

Moving to New York in 1942, Simpson began his studies at Cooper Union Art School and also at New York University where he studied with professor Hale Woodruff. In 1951, he joined the U.S. Air Force, where he was the official U.S. Air Force artist and painted portraits of officers including one of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1952, his painting, "Nocturnal City" was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Concluding his military service in 1954, Simpson returned to New York to continue painting and was included in two museum exhibitions, Young American Painters at the Guggenheim Museum in 1954 and Eight New York Painters at the University of Michigan in 1956.

In 1954, Simpson opened a gallery on Madison Avenue, which featured African and Modern art. During the Civil Rights Movement in 1963, Simpson joined the Spiral Group, an organization of African American artists that included Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, and Charles Alston. For Simpson, this sense of social consciousness led to his "Confrontation" series, a group of mostly black and white canvases, which expressed the anger, and frustration of the times.

Traveling extensively to West Africa in the 1970s, Simpson built a collection of African art and is known as one the preeminent dealers of African art. In the 1980s, he created two series of work, "Universal Orchestrations" and "Contemporary Melodies" both showed his great love for jazz music. By the 1990s, Simpson began using fragments from West African hunting cloth, which were used to wrap tribal objects during shipments from Africa. His work gained a sculptural quality reflective of tribal art. In 1995, the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston presented a retrospective exhibition and published a catalogue entitled, "Merton D. Simpson, The Journey of an Artist." The Studio Museum in Harlem honored Simpson in 2002 for his work as an artist and humanitarian.

Merton Daniel Simpson resides in New York City.

Merton Daniel Simpson was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on November 29, 2005.

Merton Simpson passed away on March 9, 2013.

Accession Number




Interview Date


Last Name


Maker Category

New York University

Cooper Union

Search Occupation Category
First Name


Birth City, State, Country




Favorite Season



South Carolina

Favorite Vacation Destination

Paris, France

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

New York

Interview Description
Birth Date


Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

New York



Favorite Food

Soul Food

Death Date


Short Description

Painter Merton Simpson (1928 - 2013 ) was the first African American to exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum, and was a member of the Spiral group, an African American art collective during the 1960s.


United States Air Force

Favorite Color

Orange, Red

Timing Pairs

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Merton Simpson's interview</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Merton Simpson lists his favorites</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Merton Simpson describes his mother's family background</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Merton Simpson describes his father's family background</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Merton Simpson describes his earliest childhood memory</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Merton Simpson recalls his childhood neighborhood and Christmas celebrations</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Merton Simpson describes his childhood illness and paintings</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Merton Simpson describes the sights, sounds, and smells of his childhood</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Merton Simpson describes his childhood activities</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Merton Simpson describes his first painting mentor</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Merton Simpson describes his experiences in the U.S. Air Force</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 12 - Merton Simpson recalls painting portraits and playing jazz in the U.S. Air Force</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 13 - Merton Simpson remembers moving to New York City in the mid-1950s</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Merton Simpson recalls protesting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Merton Simpson describes the Spiral group</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Merton Simpson talks about the black art aesthetic</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Merton Simpson describes his exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum and his painting technique</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Merton Simpson describes his experiences in Paris, France</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Merton Simpson recalls his trips to Africa</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Merton Simpson talks about prominent civil rights leaders</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Merton Simpson describes collecting African American art</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Merton Simpson describes the Spiral group and the concept of black art</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Merton Simpson recalls selling art to famous buyers</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 11 - Merton Simpson describes his painting series 'Confrontation'</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Merton Simpson talks about his private collectors and accomplishments</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Merton Simpson reflects upon the importance of history and his career</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Merton Simpson narrates his photographs</a>







Merton Simpson describes his first painting mentor
Merton Simpson recalls protesting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City
So, who gave you the first paint and brushes, and helped you become a painter when you were that child? And how did painting start? You were looking at the comic strips?$$The comic strips, yes. And I'm sure the family got together and bought me a paint set, you know. I don't remember exactly when, you know. But I remember at some point we used to have white paint, and I couldn't buy. So we'd get sometimes an old toothbrush and buy toothpaste and put a binder in it and use that as a paint canvas, and it worked for the moment, you know. But I always had the good luck of running into good people. There was one lady by the name of Jean Flemings [ph.]. She was a portrait painter, and she lived in the People's Building in Charleston [South Carolina], which was down in the rich part of the city. And Edward Johnson [ph.] had a frame shop that I worked in for a little while, and he introduced me to Jean Flemings, and she had me sit for a portrait. And she said she could show me something about the technique, and she did the painting. And strangely enough, that painting turned up about six weeks ago, very badly damaged. So I had it sent to me, and I'm going to have it restored, and probably give it to the Schomburg [Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York, New York], you know. But she gave me my first lesson in portrait painting by painting--I was sitting in as a model, yeah. That was a good way to do it, you know. And that's the kind of thing I remember most about Charleston, you know. And she was in the People's Building, you know, a major building on Burke Street [sic. Broad Street] in Charleston, right near city hall, you know. I don't know whether Mia [ph.] mentioned to you, but in the city hall in Charleston, there was a portrait of Reverend Jenkins [Daniel J. Jenkins] who started the art thing for the jazz group. And he was a black man being honored by black artists, so I did the portrait. And they hung the portrait right across from John C. Calhoun, that big racist guy, and that's where it hangs today in Charleston, you know. There's a photograph of it in the file there, of Reverend Jenkins. He was a brilliant man, you know.$You'd mentioned Norman Lewis.$$Uh-huh.$$I was going to have you just talk about the year you met him, and then the impact on your friendship.$$Okay. Well, he was one of the mainstays of the Spiral group, you know, that started. And he was a very intense man, you know, and very concerned about the better things in life, you know, a high respect for the arts, you know. I remember when they had the program at the Metropolitan [Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met), New York, New York] about showing black artists, and he was one of the main guys in the picket line, you know. And a lot of people didn't want to do it, you know. Romare [Bearden] did it, you know. And loving these people, I got in line with them, you know sort of, you know. And it did open up the place; they did take a few people in at the Met, you know.$$What were you protesting at the Met, and what year was this?$$There were no black artists being exposed there, you know, almost nil, you know. But that's--because you know, that was during the Civil Rights Movement at the time, you know, and it affected so many things, you know. But like I said, Norman was one of the ringleaders, you know. Not only did he march, but he marched and he was chanting, you know, "Stay away from this museum." And he stopped people from going in. He stopped them, you know, the politicians that were going in, and for them not to cross the picket lines. And I think about six months after that, there were a couple of black artists exposed there, you know. At one point I was in one of the group shows, and I didn't win a prize, but I got an honorable mention, you know. And it was the first pastel I ever did, you know. And I sold it during the show in August recently, sold it to a man on Wall Street, you know.