Harlem Renaissance Art - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Harlem Renaissance Art
African American artists of the 19th century
For artists of the Harlem Renaissance looking for professional African-American role models, only Henry Ossawa Tanner and Mary Edmonia Lewis had gained international fame and success. Yet, faced with racial discrimination and career limitations in America, both artists spent most of their lives in Europe (Tanner in Paris and Lewis in Rome) where they found a more tolerant cultural and artistic environment in the decades following the American Civil War.
Of African American and Native American heritage, Mary Edmonia Lewis was born in upstate New York. In 1864, she moved to Boston to study sculpture but her race and gender made it difficult to find an instructor. She eventually studied with Edward August Brackett, a sculptor who specialized in portrait busts of the leading abolitionists. Lewis focused on themes of emancipation, including a bust of Union Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, a noted abolitionist who led the first all-black regiment in the Civil War. Although her work received acclaim and was widely copied, she continued to face discrimination; looking for more hospitable working conditions, Lewis moved to Rome in 1866 where she became a leading sculptor in the Neoclassical style. As she later explained, "The land of liberty had no room for a colored sculptor."
Lewis's most celebrated sculpture was her monumental The Death of Cleopatra (1876), which was exhibited in the Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia to great acclaim. Although her classical style was not directly influential to artists of the Harlem Renaissance, Lewis provided an inspirational model for how African American women artists might achieve success by combining contemporary trends and African themes.
Henry Ossawa Tanner studied with the painter Thomas Eakins, alongside Robert Henri at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In 1891, he moved to Paris to study art at the Académie Julian, seeking an environment where he could work without racism. In France, he began painting landscapes and genre scenes, influenced by the Realists Gustave Courbet and Jean-François Millet. He did return to the United States for a few years, during which time he turned to African American subjects, such as his The Banjo Lesson (1893) and The Thankful Poor (1894). He joined the National Citizens Right Association (a predecessor to the NAACP) and gave a lecture on "The American Negro in Art" at the World's Congress on Africa, held at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893). Returning to France, his subsequent work was devoted to religious subjects. Tanner became an important supporter of young Harlem Renaissance artists, opening his Paris studio to artists including Hale Woodruff, William H. Johnson, and Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller.
The Great Migration
The Great Migration began around 1910, as large numbers of African Americans moved from the rural South to Northern and Midwestern cities, escaping the widespread discrimination and violence of the segregated South and seeking opportunities for work. The combination of Jim Crow laws that rigidly enforced segregation and restricted the civil rights of black Americans and Northern companies that offered incentives to recruit black workers (a drive which intensified during World War I when war mobilization diminished the industrial work force) encouraged thousands of African Americans to migrate.
The Red Summer
As African Americans moved to Northern cities and filled industrial and railway jobs, racial tensions escalated. In 1919, white mobs in more than three-dozen American cities instigated riots, attacking and lynching African Americans, destroying their neighborhoods and businesses. Called "The Red Summer," the violence contributed to the development of the Harlem Renaissance, as African American communities organized nonviolent protests. As the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) (founded by W.E.B. Du Bois in 1907) protested to President Woodrow Wilson, the group grew in membership and visibility. Claude McKay's poem "If We Must Die" (1919) expressed the passion for equality and respect that became central themes of the Harlem Renaissance: "If we must die, O let us nobly die.../Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!"
Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller
An early pioneer in both the African American subjects and Egyptian-inspired style that dominated the early years of the Harlem Renaissance was the sculptor Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller. Born and raised in Philadelphia, she studied sculpture at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art, but it was her time in Paris that most influenced her work. For many Harlem Renaissance artists, Paris became a mecca, where they found a more welcoming society and could achieve artistic success. In 1899, while studying sculpture at the Académie Colarossi and drawing at the École des Beaux-Arts, she met the African American thinker and activist W.E.B. Du Bois, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and the famous Auguste Rodin. Du Bois, who became a lifelong friend, encouraged her to explore African and African American subjects, while Rodin, her mentor, influenced her to develop an approach to realism that conveyed the inner feeling of the subject.
In 1919, Fuller's Mary Turner: A Silent Protest Against Mob Violence depicted a nineteen-year old pregnant African-American woman who had been lynched in Georgia in 1918 after protesting the lynching of her husband the day before. By portraying Turner as an idealized and dignified presence above the disembodied faces of the mob, the work was itself a radical protest. And, Fuller's most influential sculpture was her Ethiopia Awakening (1921) commissioned for the America's Making Exposition in New York City. The work used the aesthetic and cultural traditions of Egypt to celebrate African-American identity, a combination that became a dominant motif in Harlem Renaissance art.
Fuller explained her use of Egyptian motifs by declaring the reign of the Negro Kushite kings (712-664 BCE) as the most brilliant era of Egyptian history. This claim was supported by reports on the archeological discovery of Meroe, the Kushite capital city in the Sudan, which had been published by Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in 1911. Her friendship with Du Bois also influenced her style; he was an ardent proponent of Pan Africanism, an international movement that connected African and African-American pride to its historical sources in Africa, promoting the discoveries of Egyptian and Nubian art as artistic and cultural models.
Alain LeRoy Locke and The New Negro (1925)
Dubbed "the Dean" of the Harlem Renaissance, Alain LeRoy Locke provided the basis for the intellectual architecture of the movement. A noted philosopher, sociologist, writer, educator, critic and patron of the arts, his essay "Harlem, Mecca of the New Negro" in included in a 1925 issue of Survey Graphic that introduced Harlem and its culture to a general audience. He expanded these ideas in The New Negro: An Interpretation (1925), an anthology that included his influential essays, "The New Negro", "Negro Youth Speaks", "The Negro Spirituals", and "The Legacy of Ancestral Arts."
The central drive of the Harlem Renaissance - the development and promotion of a distinctly African American culture - was inspired by Alain LeRoy Locke's The New Negro (1925), which called for "a new dynamic phase ... of renewed self-respect and self-dependence" within the community. Locke's work expressed and refined ideas that that had been fermenting in the African American intellectual community since the 1890s, led by the sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois, the writer Booker T. Washington, and social activist Hubert H. Harrison. Building upon works, including Washington's A New Negro for a New Century (1900), Locke's anthology became known as "the first national book" of African American experience and identity. In it, he argued for self-confidence, social awareness, and an emphasis on black equality. The anthology also included poetry and fiction that reflected similar themes, by the leading writers of the Harlem Renaissance, including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer, and Claude McKay.
Locke contrasted the "old Negro," beaten down by legacies of slavery and the Jim Crow era, with the "new Negro," who could start over in northern cities; he saw new possibilities for challenging and changing old stereotypes, as well as opportunities to overcome the internalized effects of oppression. He emphasized "the necessity for fuller, truer self-expression" to achieve spiritual emancipation, and his ideas influenced the jazz musician Duke Ellington, the writers Langston Hughes and Claude McKay, the sculptor Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, and the painter Aaron Douglas. The Harlem Renaissance was distinguished for its rich and diverse, interdisciplinary collaborations, inspired by Locke's view that "the moral function of art...is to remove prejudice, do away with the scales that keep eye from seeing, tear away the veils due to wont and custom, perfect the power to perceive." This sentiment became the de facto manifesto of the movement.
Aaron Douglas became a leader within the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. Raised in Kansas, he moved to New York City where he studied with the German artist Winold Reiss, whose paintings and graphics reflected the Art Deco style. Reiss was also an advocate and supporter of the writings of Alain Locke; he and Douglas illustrated the first edition of Locke's New Negro: An Interpretation (1925).
Working with Reiss, Douglas developed a distinctive style that combined influences from African American folk art and African art with Art Deco stylization. In projects such as his illustrations for James Weldon Johnson's God Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927), Douglas's iconography linked Christian subjects and black subject matter to convey racial pride and spiritual longing in an influential modernist style. He combined African subjects with an American modernist look that brought together a deep tradition and abstract energy. His work, along with his legacy of teaching, made him an influential figure for generations of African-American painters.
Langston Hughes and Fire!!
The leading poet of the movement, Langston Hughes, pioneered a new style based upon jazz music's rhythms and improvisatory technique. He focused on working class African American life in works such as his poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" (1921), explaining "my seeking has been to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America and obliquely that of all human kind," His work became widely influential for its appeal to racial pride and identity. He also argued for racial unity in the manifesto "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" (1926), which criticized divisions within the black community itself that were based upon social class and skin color.
In 1926 Aaron Douglas, Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, and Countee McCullen cofounded Fire!!, the first Harlem Renaissance literary magazine. Although the magazine was plagued by financial difficulties and produced only one issue, it was widely influential. It challenged what Hughes called, "the old, dead conventional Negro-white ideas of the past" and took on controversial issues within African American communities including gay relationships, interracial relationships, and color prejudices. The literary arm of the Harlem Renaissance influenced subsequent generations of writers, including James Baldwin, who grew up in Harlem and became known for his profound analysis of racial, class, and gender in Notes of a Native Son (1955) and The Fire Next Time (1963)
The 1930's: The Schools of Arts and Crafts and The Harlem Community Art Center
During the Great Depression economic hardships forced many African American artists living in Paris to return home. In the decade that followed, artists founded schools, community centers, and art collectives in Harlem as they sought to create their own venues for opportunity. In 1932, Augusta Savage founded the Savage School of Arts and Crafts and became an influential teacher to a second generation of Harlem artists, including Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden, and Jacob Lawrence. In 1935, she cofounded the Harlem Artists Guild in order to train young artists, encourage community arts involvement and education, and create more opportunity for black artists. The Guild also advocated that the Federal Arts Project, a branch of the Works Progress Administration, needed to recruit more African Americans. In 1937, The Harlem Artists Guild succeeded in opening the Harlem Community Art Center, funded by the WPA; Savage was appointed as its first director. It remained a vibrant hub of the arts until World War II, when a lack of funding closed its doors.
Harlem Renaissance Art: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Throughout the 1920s, the Harlem Renaissance developed alongside the "Jazz Age" as noted performers including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, and Cab Calloway played in Harlem nightclubs. While widely popular, jazz was initially met with some resistance from the African-American middle class who associated it with lower-class entertainment. The development of the Harlem Stride in the early 1920s helped bridge this class gap, as the piano, an instrument associated with the upper class, was added to the Southern brass band. At the time, white audiences flocked to Harlem venues, drawn by the lively nightlife. The Cotton Club from 1923 to 1935 was the most famous nightclub, and, though it was a whites-only establishment, most of the era's popular African American vocalists, dancers, entertainers, and musicians performed there.
The blues, performed by Ma Rainey ("The Mother of the Blues"), Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, and later Billie Holiday, were equally interwoven with the Harlem Renaissance. Drawing upon the tradition of spirituals, the blues expressed personal woes, lost love, hard times, and the troubles within the community, but some songs were also bawdy, expressing the era's more open sexual moirés.
In addition, a variety of musical performers at the time created new fusion styles, innovatively exploring new techniques, like "scat," a vocal rendition based upon jazz improvisation. White composers like George Gershwin were also drawn to African-American music and began to incorporate it into their own work. Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (1935), a work he called "a folk opera," told the tragic story of an African American couple.
Jazz also influenced the visual arts. Aaron Douglas wanted his painting to convey the abstract quality he associated with Negro spirituals while also having a kind of jazz-like visual rhythm. The Chicago artist Archibald J. Motley (although he was not really part of the New York movement) often portrayed scenes of African American nightlife in what he called a "jazz syncopated" style, using bold colors and juxtapositions.
The musical comedy Shuffle Along (1921) employed an African-American cast that introduced Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker. The show was written by four vaudeville stars, the comedians Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles and the jazz singers Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle. Robeson went on to become the leading African-American actor of the Harlem Renaissance while Baker became an international celebrity, known for her dazzling and provocative performances. Shuffle Along's jazz music, memorable hits, and chorus line of professional African American dancers, made it an instant hit, and influenced a wide range of artists, including Fanny Brice, Al Jolson, Langston Hughes and George Gershwin. The show also played a role in the desegregation of theatres in the 1920s.
In the following decade, many African-American musicals opened on Broadway. Importantly, Blackbirds of 1928, featuring the singer and performer Adelaide Hall and the famed dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson developed out of a club floorshow to become hit on Broadway and at the Moulin Rouge in Paris. Also, several all-black theatrical groups formed, including the Krigwa Players Little Theatre Group, cofounded by Du Bois and Regina Anderson in 1925 to serve as a political theatre to advance African American playwrights. In 1928, the Krigwa Players evolved into the Harlem Experimental Theatre.
The noted photographers of the Harlem Renaissance included James Van Der Zee, James Latimer Allen, and Roy DeCarava, each of whom captured the realities of Harlem life within the context of the New Negro movement. Both Van Der Zee and Allen were known for their studio portraits, though they focused on different groups; Van Der Zee took photographs of the younger, hip community and the middle class, while Allen captured the educated upper class. DeCarava started his career as a painter and printmaker for WPA posters in the 1930s, before turning to photography in the 1940s. He became renowned for his images of everyday black life in Harlem, finding in photography a way of refuting "black people...not being portrayed in a serious and artistic way."
William D. Foster and Noble Johnson were early leaders of filmmaking; Foster, founded the Foster Photoplay Company in Chicago in 1910, becoming the first African American to start a film production company. He became the first African American director with his The Railroad Porter (1913). Noble Johnson founded the Lincoln Motion Picture Company in 1915, moving the company to Los Angeles the following year. These early filmmakers made black films staring black actors; they created a genre known as "race films." As movie houses were segregated, they were shown through a distribution system called Midnight Rambles, referencing the late night showings that were arranged for black audiences. Many of the films, like the Lincoln Company's The Realization of a Negro's Ambition (1916), were socially conscious and attempted to address negative stereotypes.
Oscar Micheaux was the Harlem Renaissance's leading African-American film producer and director, making more than forty films. His first production was The Homesteader (1919), based upon his own experience which he had previously fictionalized in the popular novel The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Homesteader (1913). Micheaux's films often emphasized African American success in realizing their own potential in areas that had previously closed to them. His second silent film Within Our Gates (1920) countered many of the racial stereotypes that had been reinforced in D.W. Griffith's infamous Birth of a Nation (1919). His films launched the careers of leading African American actors, including Ethel Morris who was dubbed "the black Jean Harlow" and whose glamorous image influenced popular culture.
In the 1930s, murals became a dominant art form for Harlem Renaissance artists who worked for the Works Progress Administration (a New Deal program of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's presidency, designed to counteract the effects of the Great Depression by providing work for artists). Local murals portrayed both contemporary and historical African American life and created connection with African-American communities. Pioneering the form, Aaron Douglas's Aspects of Negro Life (1934) was a four panel series created for the New York Public Library's 135th Street branch that depicted African American life from slavery to the modern era. Mural projects also created unexpected connections between African-American artists and rural, primarily white, communities in the Midwest, such as Archibald Motley's Stagecoach and Mail (1937) an Illinois Federal Arts Project created for a small-town post office in Illinois.
Other murals informed and evoked forgotten moments of African-American history, such as Hale Woodruff's The Mutiny on the Amistad (1939). For example, in a series of three monumental paintings created for the Talladega College library in Alabama, Woodruff depicted the historical account of the Amistad. When the college commissioned the works in 1938, few had ever heard of the event, including the artist who had to engage in extensive research to create the work. Modern day art critic Roberta Smith wrote that the works "teach history by making it visually riveting."
Other murals connected African traditions to modern life, as Charles Alston's pair of murals: Magic in Medicine (1940), which depicted traditional African healing methods, and the contemporary practices of Modern Medicine (1940). In 1937, Alston was the first African American to assume a leadership role in the Federal Arts Project, but these panels created for the Harlem Hospital, were controversial and therefore not installed until 1940.
Many notable artists also created work for book illustrations, children's literature, brochures, advertisements, and posters. Often, their work blurred the categories of illustration and high art, such as Aaron Douglas's illustrations for James Weldon Johnson's God Trombones: for Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927), which became the basis for his later masterworks like Let My People Go (c. 1935-39). Collaborations between the leading women artists of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Loïs Mailou Jones, who illustrated Gertrude P. McBrown's poem "Fire-Flies"(1929) for the Saturday Evening Quill, brought greater visibility to African American women. Female illustrators, such as Elanor Paul and Gwendolyn Bennett, also challenged gender stereotypes by portraying African American women as powerfully capable of taking on roles in all aspects of modern economic life. Illustration also launched the careers of second generation artists like Beauford Delaney, who worked in the 1930s creating images for the poster division of the WPA before becoming a painter.
Later Developments - After Harlem Renaissance Art
The Harlem Renaissance came to an end in the early 1940s with World War II. Yet, even without its geographic center, a second generation of Harlem Renaissance artists, like Jacob Lawrence and Charles Alston, continued working in the following decades. Others, like Romare Bearden, explored new subject matter and styles.
The Harlem Renaissance influenced Négritude, a literary and cultural movement that began in the 1930s and was led by Aimé Césaire, Leopoldl Senghor, and Leon Damas. This group of French speaking authors from French colonies in Africa and the Caribbean had a long lasting influence in subsequent decades, including upon the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.
A number of Harlem Renaissance artists, including Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, Loïs Mailou Jones, Augusta Savage, Charles Alston, and Aaron Douglas were noted teachers, influencing subsequent generations. Howard University became one noted center for African American art under Jones's instruction of later artists including Alma Thomas, Elizabeth Catlett, and David Driskell.
Jacob Lawrence's work influenced a number of later artists, including Kerry James Marshall (whose own work influenced the Mbari art movement in Kenya), and Faith Ringgold (whose work played an important role in the 1970s Feminist art movement), as well as Robert Colescott, Hank Willis Thomas, and Alexis Gideon.
Scholars have argued that Aaron Douglas's use of silhouettes, which influenced Jacob Lawrence, William H. Johnson, and Romare Bearden, were a uniquely African-American formal device. Contemporary 21st-century artists, including Kara Walker, Laylah Ali, Lorna Simpson, Michael Ray Charles, and Kerry James Marshall have extensively employed the silhouette to critique racial attitudes. Carrie Mae Weems has also cited the Harlem Renaissance, particularly the work of Langston Hughes, as an influence upon her work.