Amy Sherald, Precious Jewels by the Sea

Amy Sherald, Precious Jewels by the Sea, 2019, oil on canvas, 304.8 x 274.3 x 6.4 cm (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art)

Additional resources

This work at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

More about Amy Sherald from Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

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Dr. Austen Bailly: [0:05] We’ve just walked into one of the galleries at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and one of the largest paintings in what is already a sizable gallery is Amy Sherald’s “Precious Jewels by the Sea.”

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:17] There is a grouping of four figures. Two young men, on their shoulders are two young women, posing as if you’re standing near, taking their picture on the beach.

Dr. Bailly: [0:27] What first grabbed my attention was the colors that remind me of summer. We’re seeing these gorgeous azurite blues and turquoises, and this almost cherry red, and these bright yellows and greens, and everything is so saturated and lush. It calls to mind what we think of as the colors of summer.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:46] This is an incredibly sunny, sun-struck day, but it doesn’t feel like it’s too hot. The figures look really comfortable. Their feet are nestled softly in the sand. There are beautiful touches of white to give a sense of a breeze. A sailboat is passing by.

[1:03] These colors are so vibrant that they also remind you of this title, “The Precious Jewels by the Sea.” They have the sense of jewel tones, emerald, amethyst, garnet, topaz, even opal for the woman on the left who’s wearing more pastel-striped bathing suit.

Dr. Bailly: [1:23] There’s also these intimate details. I’m looking, for instance, at the center of the composition, the young woman’s fingertips are just grazing the young man’s, and it’s this beautiful, intimate gesture, just as his left arm is barely grazing her thigh.

[1:38] There’s a classical monumentality to this.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:41] I think that idea of monumentality also makes me think of how sculptural they are. They’re very still. It’s as if they’re expressing no real effort, and they’re very calmly looking out at us. This is a painting about seeing and being seen.

Dr. Bailly: [1:57] I think that sense of scale and the statuesque nature of the figures is very appropriate to Sherald’s ambition for works like this, for figures like this, to be in museums. In the context of Crystal Bridges, with our sweeping roofline of more than 20 feet, this painting fills the space effortlessly.

[2:18] You look at these figures and you think about the lasting nature of who they are, what they represent in the museum. Sherald has written about the importance of the Black figure in the museum space in her art and in art history, and working at the scale to be able to fill the size of galleries, of museums around this nation and the world is important.

[2:43] This is not a home. It’s an institutional building with power and drama in its architecture, with paintings like hers to match.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:52] Amy Sherald is perhaps most famous today for painting the official portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama. But she has a number of paintings that she has reflected on as offering this critique to the canon of American art, this idea of coming into a museum and seeing Black individuals on this monumental scale here at the beach, going about their summer day, is a really powerful idea.

Dr. Bailly: [3:19] Sherald’s interest in creating new kinds of art histories, even correctives to art histories in which Black figures like this have not been canonized to the same extent in the histories of American art, speak to her knowledge of American history and her knowledge of art history broadly.

[3:37] She talks about the fact that she wants to “make images of things that we normally don’t get to see in spaces like museums, like Black people going to the beach,” and she connects that to memories of her own mother, who didn’t know how to swim and who “didn’t like going to segregated Black beaches.”

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:57] This makes me think of how she paints these figures using a grayscale. Here, she has instead of mixing black and white paint, she mixes black and yellow.

Dr. Bailly: [4:07] The gradations of the gray and the charcoal and the brown next to the expanse of the soft light blue is arresting. She said of this painting that it’s “really just about creating American narratives about American people while critiquing it at the same time. This painting and all of them are about expressions of freedom.”

[4:30] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Austen Bailly and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank, "Amy Sherald, Precious Jewels by the Sea," in Smarthistory, September 28, 2022, accessed July 21, 2024,