Aaron Douglas - Biography and Legacy
African-American Painter and Graphic Artist
Biography of Aaron Douglas
Aaron Douglas was born into a rather large, proud, and politically active African American community in Topeka, Kansas. His father worked as a baker, and while his family did not have much money, his parents emphasized the importance of education and aimed to instill a sense of optimism and self-confidence in their son. Douglas's mother, Elizabeth, enjoyed drawing and painting watercolors, a passion she shared with her son. Early in his life, he decided that he wanted to become an artist.
After graduating from Topeka High School in 1917, Douglas wanted to attend university, but was unable to afford tuition. He decided to travel east with a friend, working briefly in Detroit at the Cadillac plant. He later recalled that he was the target of racism and discrimination, always given the worst, dirtiest jobs at the plant. In his free time, he attended evening art classes at the Detroit Museum of Art
Education and Early training
Douglas went on to attend the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, where he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1922. During his time at college, he also worked as a waiter, and was an active member of the University Arts Club.
After graduation, Douglas spent two years (1922-1923) at Lincoln High School in Kansas City, Missouri (where he taught classes in drawing, painting, stenciling, and batik). He also served as a mentor to the Art Club and was one of only two black teachers in the school. He said of Kansas City "I can't live here. I can't grow here. [This] is not the way the world is. There are other places where I can try to be what I believe I can be, where I can achieve free from the petty irritations of color restrictions. I've got to go, even if I have to sweep floors for a living." In June 1925, he fulfilled his dream of moving to New York City. Douglas quickly became immersed in the thriving art and culture scene in Harlem, recalling that "There are so many things that I had seen for the first time, so many impressions I was getting. One was that of seeing a big city that was entirely black, from beginning to end you were impressed by the fact that black people were in charge of things and here was a black city and here was a situation that was eventually to be the center for the great in American Culture."
Shortly after his arrival, Douglas won a scholarship to study with German-born artist/illustrator Winold Reiss who was known for his Romantic and idealized portraits of Native Americans and African Americans. Reiss's work also drew from popular and commercial sources such as German folk paper-cuts (scherenschnitt) an influence that would impact Douglas's work. Reiss also encouraged Douglas to turn to his African heritage for artistic inspiration.
Douglas soon developed his signature style characterized by elegant, rhythmic silhouettes. His first illustration commissions were for the National Urban League's magazine, The Crisis, and the National Association for the Advancement Colored People's magazine Opportunity. In these early works, he created powerful images of the struggles of marginalized people. He won several awards for his illustrations. He then received a commission to illustrate an anthology of philosopher Alain LeRoy Locke's highly influential work, The New Negro (1925). The success of this book prompted requests for illustrations from other Harlem Renaissance writers, including Langston Hughes, Charles S. Johnson, Countee Cullen, Wallace Thurman, and James Weldon Johnson. He created illustrations for popular magazines such as Harper's and Vanity Fair.
In 1926, Douglas co-founded Fire!! A Quarterly Journal Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists along with novelist Wallace Thurman. The magazine's aim was "to express ourselves freely and independently - without interference from old heads, white or Negro," and "to burn up a lot of the old, dead conventional Negro-white ideas of the past ... into a realization of the existence of the younger Negro writers and artists, and provide us with an outlet for publication." It tackled a range of controversial issues and was condemned by many within the Harlem Renaissance for promoting stereotypes and vernacular language. With poor reviews by both Black and White audiences, Fire!! only published one edition.
On June 18, 1926, Douglas married Alta Sawyer, a teacher. The two had met in 1917, however Sawyer had married another man immediately after graduating from high school. Between 1923-1925, while still married, she began corresponding regularly with Douglas. Eventually she divorced her first husband in 1925. Speaking in 1968, ten years after her sudden passing, Douglas stated that she "became the most dynamic force in my life, my inspiration, my encouragement." The couple lived on Edgecombe Avenue in Harlem.
In 1928, Douglas received financial support from a wealthy septuagenarian named Charlotte Mason, the widow of a prominent New York surgeon. Mason provided support to a number of artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance, although her views of African Americans as more "primitive" and therefore primal and spiritual, troubled several of her beneficiaries, including Douglas. When she told Douglas that she believed that his art education had a deleterious effect on his natural instincts, he ended their relationship.
Also in 1928, Douglas and fellow artist Gwendolyn Bennett received fellowships to study at Dr. Albert C. Barnes's collection of modern and African art in Merion, Pennsylvania. A physician and pharmaceutical inventor, Barnes was also an avid art collector; he amassed an impressive collection of more than 120 works of African art, primarily from Mali, Ivory Coast, Gabon, and the Congo. Barnes's collection featured ceremonial masks and domestic objects such as drinking vessels and furniture. His presentation of these artifacts as artworks, rather than ethnographic curiosities, was unusual for the time.
During the 1930s, Douglas's career began to gain momentum as he became a prominent member of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1930, Douglas served as artist in residence at Fisk University in Nashville, where he was commissioned to paint a cycle of murals for the Cravath Memorial Library. (He would later return to Fisk and become a long-time member of its faculty.)
The following year, he travelled to Paris, where he studied at the Académie Scandinave, and befriended sculptor Charles Despiau and Fauvist painter Othon Friesz. He returned to New York in July of 1932, moving into the Sugar Hill area of Harlem.
In 1935, Douglas helped to form, and became the first president of, the Harlem Artists Guild, along with sculptor Augusta Savage, the painter, sculptor, illustrator, and muralist Charles Alston, muralist Elba Lightfoot, and writer Arthur Schomburg. (Later members included Romare Bearden, Gwendolyn Bennett, and Norman Lewis.) The guild aimed to support and promote young African-American artists, with special focus on work that would improve public understanding of issues faced by the African-American community, including racism, unemployment, and poverty. The guild also successfully pressured the Works Progress Administration to improve opportunities for African-American artists.
Douglas came to be known as a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance (1918-1937). This artistic and literary movement was part of the larger "New Negro" movement, during which national organizations were founded to promote civil rights, efforts were made to improve socioeconomic opportunities for African-Americans, and artists worked to define and depict African-American heritage and culture for themselves, offering a counter-narrative to stereotypical racist representations. This movement came about as a result of several converging factors: retaliation against White dominance and racial violence, mass migration of African-Americans from rural areas to urban centers, and increased militancy as well as national pride on the part of African Americans who participated in the First World War.
In 1937, Douglas received a Julius Rosenwald Foundation fellowship to travel to historically-black colleges in the South. The Foundation had been created in 1917 by Chicago businessman Julius Rosenwald, who made his fortune as part owner, president, and chief executive of Sears, Roebuck & Company. Rosenwald funded the building of more than 5,000 schools for black students in the South, and also provided stipends to hundreds of African-American artists, writers, and scholars. In 1938, Douglas was awarded a second Rosenwald Fellowship, this time to paint in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and the Virgin Islands.
In 1939, Charles S. Johnson, the first African-American president of Fisk University, invited Douglas to develop the art department at the university. Douglas served as department head until his retirement in 1966. To better serve in this capacity, Douglas enrolled in the Teacher's College at Columbia University (New York) and earned his Master's degree in Art Education in 1944. He also helped to establish the Carl Van Vechten Gallery at Fisk University, and was instrumental in obtaining important pieces for its collection, including works by Winold Reiss and Alfred Stieglitz. Artist and professor Sharif Bey asserts that Douglas "had a profound influence on this era of art education in the segregated South [by] expand[ing] learning opportunities through networks and exhibition programming that challenged racial subjugation."
In this later part of his life, Douglas maintained dual residences in Nashville, where he was working at Fisk University, and in New York, so that he could regularly attend lectures and exhibitions. In addition to educating others, Douglas also continued to be an active learner well into adulthood, enrolling in courses on printmaking and enameling at the Brooklyn Museum Art School in 1955.
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy invited Douglas to the White House to attend a celebration of the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1973, seven years after retiring, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Fisk University. He continued to guest lecture until his death.
Douglas died of a pulmonary embolism on February 2, 1979.
The Legacy of Aaron Douglas
Douglas is sometimes referred to as "the father of black American art," as he was a central figure in the development of an artistic vocabulary that generations of African-American artists would use to present their culture and identity on their own terms and to combat popular, racist depictions of African Americans. Douglas developed this vocabulary from a combination of modernist and African elements. Art history professor David C. Driskell said that it was Douglas "who actually took the iconography of African art and gave it a perspective which was readily accepted into black American culture. His theory was that the ancestral arts of Africa were relevant, meaningful and above all a part of our heritage, and we should use them to project ourselves." Similarly, writer Alain Locke described Douglas as "the pioneer of the African style among the American Negro artists, having gone directly to African motifs since 1925."
Douglas's stylistic elements would influence other African-American (and African-Canadian) artists who aimed to affirm Black identity in their works. For instance, his use of bold, solid fields of color, a strategy learned from print media, and his interest in making African-American history accessible, can be seen in the work of fellow Harlem Renaissance painter Jacob Lawrence and in the work of Douglas's own student, Viola Burley Leak. His desire to create a distinct form of African-American artistic expression influenced the AfriCOBRA artists of the 1960s and 1970s. His use of silhouettes and paper cut-outs can be seen in the work of the present-day African-American artist Kara Walker, who also aims to depict issues of racism and Black struggle in her work. And his use of Egyptian artistic elements, as well as his preoccupation with presenting Black female beauty, can also be seen in the work of the present-day, Montreal-born artist, Uchenna Edeh.