Author: Bob Batchelor
Description: This reference article provides an overview of art during the Harlem Renaissance, including renowned African American artists, such as sculptor Augusta Savage, painters Aaron Douglas and Palmer Hayden, and photographer James Van Der Zee.
Context and Things to Consider
- Note that many museums refused to exhibit artwork by African Americans. What helped to rectify this lack of access to audiences?
- Consider Aaron Douglas, one of the best known African American painters of the time. What sort of subject matter did Douglas incorporate into his art?
- Note other types of subjects that artists of the time incorporated into their work, and think about this in the context of the "New Negro" movement Alain Locke wrote about.
Art in the Harlem Renaissance
During the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, many significant visual artistic works by African Americans were created. Artists included sculptors Richmond Barthé, Augusta Savage, and May Howard Jackson; photographers Richard S. Roberts and James Van Der Zee; and black painters and illustrators such as Archibald Motley, Palmer C. Hayden, and William E. Braxton. However, the deeply ingrained racism of American culture prevented many of these talented artists from achieving the public recognition received by their white counterparts.
Recognition of Black Artists
Some museums refused to exhibit the work of black artists, and some art schools declined to consider black applicants for scholarships. In 1923, sculptor Augusta Savage brought this discrimination against black artists to the attention of the American public. After being rejected for a summer art school in France because of her race, she appealed to the press. Her story appeared in newspapers. While she never did receive the scholarship, she did focus public scrutiny on the problem.
Wealthy white philanthropist William E. Harmon tried to rectify this unfortunate situation. He established the Harmon Foundation in 1922, which gave annual awards and cash prizes for African American achievement in seven categories. Categories included literature, fine arts, science, education, industry, religion, and music. In 1928, the Harmon Foundation began to sponsor all-black art exhibits that helped gain more widespread public exposure for the work of African American artists.
Perhaps the best-known African American painter of the Harlem Renaissance was Aaron Douglas. Douglas was a student of the German artist Winold Reiss. Reiss painted African Americans not as crude stereotypes, but as dignified, unique individuals. Reiss encouraged Douglas to incorporate African imagery into his paintings, which he did with great success. He, along with other artists, used West African stylized masks and sculpture to portray links to what he saw as his heritage. His May 1927 cover for the National Urban League's magazine Opportunity, for example, depicts the proud profile of a long-necked Mangbetu woman with an elaborate African hairstyle. Many of Douglas's works, including this one, feature angular, elongated figures, usually painted in silhouette and often accented by contrasting outlines and radiating circles and waves.
Douglas illustrated celebrated novels by Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, and Langston Hughes, and others. In 1928, Douglas became the first president of the Harlem Artists Guild. The guild helped black artists secure federal funding from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression.
Artists of the Harlem Renaissance depicted African American experience in a wide variety of ways. They portrayed day-to-day life, political and religious subjects, and incorporated folklore and history. Richmond Barthé sculpted African American subjects in a realistic, nuanced, sympathetic style. Photographer James Van Der Zee chronicled African American life, creating family portraits and photo essays of cabarets, church services, and restaurants. His work represented the diverse community of Harlem. Douglas drew together contemporary life, religious subjects, and history, while Palmer Hayden painted narrative scenes from the rural South and New York.
Bob Batchelor, PhD, is a cultural historian who has written or edited more than two dozen books on media culture, literature, music, film, and television. He received his undergraduate degrees at the University of Pittsburgh; master's degree at Kent State University; and doctorate in English at the University of South Florida. Batchelor's published works include American Pop: Popular Culture Decade by Decade (Greenwood, 2008); Cult Pop Culture: How the Fringe Became Mainstream (Praeger, 2011); American History through American Sports (Praeger, 2012); John Updike: A Critical Biography (Praeger, 2013); Gatsby: The Cultural History of the Great American Novel (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014); and Mad Men: A Cultural History, with M. Keith Booker (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016). He is the founding editor of the Popular Culture Studies Journal and has served on the editorial advisory boards of The Journal of Popular Culture and the International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching & Learning.