African-American Painter and Graphic Artist
Summary of Aaron Douglas
In both his style and his subjects, Aaron Douglas revolutionized African-American art. A leader within the Harlem Renaissance, Douglas created a broad range of work that helped to shape this movement and bring it to national prominence. Through his collaborations, illustrations, and public murals, he established a method of combining elements of modern art and African culture to celebrate the African-American experience and call attention to racism and segregation.
- Douglas depicted African subjects in an innovative and bold graphic style that was inspired by modern art, particularly Cubism. His approach elevated both everyday experiences and non-Western history to be part of an international avant-garde. He also integrated the rhythms of jazz into his compositions, adding an additional element of African-American culture to his imagery.
- Flattening his figures to two-dimensional silhouettes and generalizing their forms to be generic men and women, Douglas created imagery that celebrated African and African-American themes in terms that were universal and integrative. He employed this style across a range of different media, including painting, illustration, murals, and prints.
- Douglas often worked with a narrow range of colors, instead using compositional elements and shapes like concentric circles and radiating beams, to create dramatic focal points and dynamic movement. These abstract elements enhanced the narratives of his paintings to make them more emotionally impactful.
- Through his work with the Harlem Artists Guild and as the chair of the art department at Fisk University (a historically black college), Douglas worked to increase educational access and career opportunities for young African-American artists. He was an important mentor for second-generation Harlem Renaissance artists and an inspiration to contemporary artists who deal with race and identity in their work.
Biography of Aaron Douglas
Aaron Douglas, the the father of black American art, told his wife in 1925 that through his work he would upend the notion that you have to be white to be truly beautiful. He said: “It takes lots of training or a tremendous effort to down the idea that thin lips and straight nose is the apogee of beauty.” His body of work went some way to realizing this aim and in 1963 president JFK welcomed him into the White House in honor of his achievements.
Important Art by Aaron Douglas
This illustration, one of Douglas's earliest known works, was created under the tutelage of German artist Fritz Winold Reiss, who encouraged Douglas to draw inspiration from African art and culture, as well as elements of Art Deco, Art Nouveau, and Cubism. We can see Douglas experimenting with all of these influences in this piece. From African Art, we see him using a distinctly Egyptian style, with silhouetted, composite figures in profile arranged in rows. Douglas said of the image, "I used the Egyptian form, that is to say, the head was in profile flat view, the body, shoulders down to the waist turned half way, the legs were also done in a broad perspective . . . the only thing that I did that was not specifically taken from the Egyptians was an eye." From Art Deco and Art Nouveau, he borrowed bold, angular forms that are abstracted to create an overall sense of symmetry and balance. The fragmented space and lack of single-point perspective reveal the influence of Cubism. Douglas would continue to develop these key elements to create his signature style in future works.
This black and white image combines figurative and decorative elements. At the top left, the sun has been graphically simplified as a partial circle with thick, wavy lines emanating outward. The series of bold, triangular forms suggest mountains or pyramids as part of a geometric landscape. At the center of the image stands a large, solid black silhouetted female figure with one hand raised, a pose echoed in the three repeating smaller female figures who are arranged in a row. Their bodies are contorted in a wave-like posture, indicating that they may be engaged in some sort of dance. This rhythmic quality is carried over to the bottom and right side of the image, where several more geometric shapes and patterns appear, including repeating wavy lines and jagged black forms.
Throughout his career, Douglas was interested in the representation of black women. Writing to his wife in 1925 (the same year that this work was created) he explained, "We are possessed, you know, with the idea that it is necessary to be white, to be beautiful. Nine times out of ten it is just the reverse. It takes lots of training or a tremendous effort to down the idea that thin lips and straight nose is the apogee of beauty. But once free you can look back with a sigh of relief and wonder how anyone could be so deluded." In this image, he attempts to create a visual vocabulary for black beauty, emphasizing the female figures' curvaceous bodies, thick lips, and African-American profile.
Douglas was commissioned to create a series of illustrations for James Weldon Johnson's book of poetry God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. Although he considered himself agnostic, Johnson wished to pay respect to the black Christian preachers and religious tradition that had been important during his youth. The illustration seen here was made for the last poem in the book, titled "The Judgment Day." The following is an excerpt from that poem:
Where will you stand,
In that great day when God's a-going to rain down fire?
Oh, you gambling man - where will you stand?
You whore-mongering man - where will you stand?
Liars and backsliders - where will you stand,
In that great day when God's a-going to rain down fire?
Douglas's illustration is comprised of overlapping black silhouette figures and black and white geometric shapes of varying opacities. The largest figure (meant to represent the angel Gabriel playing his silver trumpet to herald the end of times) stands with one foot perched upon a quarter-circle geometricized mountain and the other foot resting on a curved shape bisected by a zig-zagging line that is meant to represent the sea. The smaller figures to either side of Gabriel represent mankind. The saved (indicated by the figure on the right with his hands raised) await entrance into heaven, while the sinners on the left side topple downward to eternal damnation in hell. A large bolt of lightning strikes one of the sinners on the left side, while a beam of light, representing enlightenment, shines down on the saved figure on the right. By depicting black figures in recognizable biblical scenes (which at the time was quite innovative) Douglas sought to demonstrate to African-Americans that they were God's children just as much as white people.
The geometric style adopted by Douglas for this illustration reveals the influence of European Art Deco posters, and his use of separate color fields in lieu of outlines indicates the influence of Cubism. These choices, however, may likely have been as much pragmatic than stylistic, as they allowed him to reduce the number of colors used in the image, which lowered publication costs. Moreover, by simplifying his images in such a way, he allowed for the message of his work to be read by anyone, even children. In an early review of God's Trombones, the Topeka State Journal wrote "These illustrations are remarkable for their originality, their poetry of conception and their appropriateness to the text. They stamp Mr. Douglas as one of the coming American artists."'
English professor Robert O'Meally sees Douglas's use of geometric shapes as deriving from the influence of Harlem Renaissance jazz (in particular the music of Douglas's friend Duke Ellington). For instance, O'Meally asserts that the concentric circles "may have been inspired by the new technology of the audio-recording," as they mimic the form of vinyl records. Moreover, the various geometric shapes used by Douglas create a sense of "rhythmical repetition [which] gives them a natural and supernatural aspect, and underscores their sense of musicality". The combination of both smooth and jagged forms in Douglas's work may be read as an embodiment of jazz music, which, according to O'Meally, is "...a classic sound, one as multifaceted and pristine as a diamond," which simultaneously has "graininess and grumble." This point of view is seconded by arts professors Deborah Johnson and Wendy Oliver who write, "The only other influence on Douglas that featured as significantly as Africa was jazz, and he both wrote about and painted the jazz musician as a kind of modern African American messiah." Music and jazz would continue to be integral aspects of Douglas' works, such as in Song of the Towers (from the series Aspects of Negro Life, 1934).
This painting, completed in a palette of greens and blues, showcases Douglas's mature style. At the center is the silhouetted female figure of Harriet Tubman, who freed over 400 slaves through her work with the Underground Railroad. Rendered in a dark shade of green atop the lightest portion of the painting, she provides a focal point for the viewer as her arms stretch upwards, revealing a broken set of shackles. Just below her sits a cannon, wafting smoke directly to her right, and a kneeling figure with his hands shackled together, who looks up at her. Behind this figure is another kneeling form, bent over with his head and hands on the ground. Several other figures are seen in the background, carrying large loads (likely sacks of cotton) on their heads and backs. This is in contrast to the area to the right of Tubman, where several more figures (men, women, and children) appear kneeling, standing, and sitting, with one of them reading a book, and another holding a hoe. At the far-right side of the image stand tall towers, reminiscent of modern skyscrapers. The image has been overlaid with Douglas's signature radiating circles and a beam of light. The central point of the concentric circles is focused on the muzzle of the smoking cannon, while the light shines down on Tubman from the top of the frame.
This painting can be read from left-to-right as a narrative about past, present, and future, starting with slavery and bondage (the shackled, toiling figures), moving through the efforts of abolitionists (like Tubman), the civil war and emancipation (the cannon, and the broken chains held by Tubman), and ending on the right-hand side with opportunities and accomplishments. Douglas highlights access to education (the reading figure), being able to remain with, and provide for, one's family (the woman and child), freedom to farm independently and benefit directly from one's own labor (the figure holding the hoe), freedom to enjoy leisure time (the man relaxing on his back), and freedom to relocate to urban centers and build lives and communities there (the towers).
With this narrative, Douglas offered "New Negroes" a collective narrative by which they could define themselves, their origins, their futures, and perhaps even their own version of the American dream. A central aspect that he emphasized was the new self-determination of African-Americans, which stands in sharp contrast to previous depictions that were made for white audiences, showing African-Americans as dependent on white society. While this sense of self-determination and defiance is shown, in part, through Tubman's strong body language, he focuses more on the broader efforts made to liberate slaves in the American South, rather than just on Tubman as a heroic figure. This is why the concentric circles focus on the cannon, rather than Tubman. That this work was commissioned for the Bennett College for Women may have influenced Douglas's choice to also highlight Tubman.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Aaron Douglas
- Aaron Douglas: Art, Race, and the Harlem RenaissanceOur PickBy Amy Kirschke
- Aaron Douglas and Alta Sawyer Douglas Love Letters from the Harlem RenaissanceBy The Aaron and Alta Sawyer Douglas Foundation
- Aaron Douglas: African American ModernistOur PickBy Susan Earle
- God's TrombonesBy James Weldon Johnson