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The Harlem Renaissance flourished during the 1920’s in New York City. This period of unprecedented black creative activity followed World War I, and the mass migration of many blacks from the rural South to the urban centers of the North. Issues of cultural identity as well as social and political tension in a segregated culture gave rise to a flowering of the arts in Harlem. Most well-known are the published works of writers, poets, dramatists and musicians; less is known about the painters, and sculptors of the Harlem Renaissance.
A visual vocabulary became to be developed for black Americans that celebrated black American’s African heritage, folklore and their daily experiences of life. For the first time black artists had a national audience through exhibitions sponsored by The Harmon Foundation founded by William Elmer Harmon, a wealthy white real estate magnate in 1922.
In any discussion of black artistic achievement in the United States, the period known as the Harlem Renaissance (1919 to 1929) inspired a spirit of creative energy and production that provided a forum for black artists. The Harlem Renaissance occurred a little more than halfway between the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. The term “Renaissance” might be considered a misnomer for the Harlem Renaissance because it was more of a birth than a rebirth. Its artistic production was based upon a powerful sense of intense race consciousness and pride in black heritage and community.
In the time before the Harlem Renaissance, being a professional artist was not a choice for black Americans. Jim Crow laws in the South separated blacks from the main stream of American life. The Ku Klux Klan and other violently oppressive white groups extended the separation. The traditions of a segregated and largely rural agrarian culture that had experienced slavery had a distinctive and rich grass-roots oral tradition, music, and religion.1
At the turn of the twentieth century the Great Migration of blacks to Northern urban areas began. This process encouraged rural blacks of the South to make the move to Northern cities with the hope of higher pay and improved living conditions. The North symbolized freedom from the social order and political restrictions of the South.
The area known as Harlem in New York City was an upper middle class neighborhood in the late nineteenth century. As Southern blacks moved into the area, a power struggle developed between white and black capital. Whites deserted Harlem and prices of property fell. Blacks bought up the properties. By the 1920’s, the two square mile area between Eighth Avenue (West) and Fifth Avenue(East), and 125th Street North to 145th Street held 200,000 blacks.2
During World War I black soldiers in Europe witnessed the appreciation of jazz, original black American music, and an interest in African cultures from the poetry of African and Caribbean poets living in Europe. The war had created a demand for workers. The term “New Negro” evolved which described proud and independent blacks living in Northern cities. The “New Negro” emerged from within the black community, in contrast to the white stereotyped literary image of the comic and pathetic plantation black. Alain Locke is acknowledged as the leading black philosopher who asked blacks to recognize their African heritage as “New Negroes”.3
Alain Locke was one of the organizers of the patronage system that provided a white audience and financial support for black artists. This controversial system, designed to make Harlem the center of black art in America, became the main paradox of the Harlem Renaissance: on the one hand it permitted freedom from the past injustices and stereotypes to assert one’s self with a new racial identity, and on the other hand financial support came from white philanthropists like The Harmon Foundation. The economic concerns of the Great Depression in 1929 turned much of the white financial support away.4
During this era many powerful black personalities influenced the shaping of the Harlem Renaissance: integrationists W.E.B. DuBois and James Weldon Johnson were opposed by the separatist views of Marcus Garvey.
DuBois began a black theater group in Harlem known as the Krigwa Players, began The Crisis, the magazine of the N.A.A.C.P., and edited by DuBois. It offered young black writers a vehicle for their ideas. Some considered W.E.B. DuBois an elitist intellectual, especially his opponents Marcus Garvey and Booker T. Washington. James Weldon Johnson, executive secretary of the N.A.A.C.P., at the time, defended DuBois’ intellect and talent. In his later years DuBois became a member of the American Communist party, left the United States, became a citizen of Ghana and died there in 1963.5
One of his greatest successes occurred when he became Secretary of the N.A.A.C.P. James Weldon Johnson expanded the N.A.A.C.P. with his diplomatic and tactful personality as well as his abilities as a public speaker and organizer. These qualities led to Johnson’s influence in encouraging the House of Representatives to pass the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill (1921). In addition to his writing and publishing, he felt that the quality of greatness of people would be evaluated through their art and literature. As a result he influenced the Julius Rosenwald Fund to give fellowships to Blacks in the arts. James Weldon Johnson was granted one that permitted him to write a history of Black New York: Black Manhattan.
After his death in 1939 plans were made to erect a memorial, designed by the black artist Richmond Barthé, at the beginning of Harlem (110th Street entrance to Central Park). Metal was not available for the monument, since it was the beginning of World War II, and the memorial couldn’t be built. The funds that had been collected were used by Johnson’s friend Care Van Vechten to found the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of Negro Arts and Letters at Yale University.6
When he returned to Jamaica, Garvey organized the Universal Negro Improvement Association, with the goal of reclaiming Africa for all blacks of the world. Marcus Garvey corresponded with Booker T. Washington, because he wanted to establish a school in Jamaica like Tuskegee Institute. Booker T. Washington invited Garvey to the United States, but when Garvey arrived Booker T. Washington was dead and his successor Robert Russa Morgan did not agree with Garvey’s plan for African Nationalism.
Marcus Garvey decided that Harlem was the place to establish his Universal Negro Improvement Association since there were so many blacks from the Caribbean there. He begun the newspaper, Negro World and denounced any white involvement in his ventures. He urged blacks to do for themselves, and criticized the N.A.A.C.P. as an interracial organization. His appeal was to the black working class, which gave millions to the U.N.I.A. Black intellectuals derided his movement. Garvey was confirmed as the Provisional President-General of Africa and organizer of the African Orthodox Church which had a black Holy Trinity, Madonna and Christ of Sorrow. His dynamic personality and colorful presence caused many blacks to give up their life savings for his causes. At meetings and parades he wore a purple and gold uniform with a feathered helmet. His black Cross nurses dressed in white; his African Motor Corps, African Legion and Black Eagle Flying Corps wore green, black and red uniforms. Garvey founded the Black Star Line, a shipping company, that was to compete with white shipping lines and transport blacks to Africa. All of his plans fell apart due to poor money management, inadequate subordinates and lack of backing from influential American blacks. He was found guilty of mail fraud, due to improper collection of money for his shipping company, and spent two years in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. Garvey returned to Jamaica for a few years, and then he moved to London, where he continued his work to regain Africa for blacks until his death in 1940.7
Leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, who espoused the concepts of the new Negro, encouraged black visual artists, as well as writers, to come to Harlem from across the country. Artists were guided to a new image and ethnic identity that emphasized the influence of African art, and the folk art of black Americans.
Five black artists, one woman and four men, among others contributed to the new tradition that affirmed a personal and racial identity during the Harlem Renaissance: Aaron Douglas, Meta Warrick Fuller, Palmer Hayden, William Johnson, and James Lessesne Wells.
In 1924 Aaron Douglas came to Harlem where he met the German artist Winold Reiss, a white artist, who encouraged young black artists to look at African art for its elements of design. Douglas explored African art in his painting, which brought him into contact with Alain Locke and W.E.B. DuBois. Locke and DuBois, both committed to the exploration of African aesthetics, gave Aaron Douglas numerous opportunities to further his career in art.
Douglas’ illustrations were often found in The Crisis magazine, as well as in numerous other publications such as: Opportunity, Theater Arts Monthly and Vanity Fair. Alain Locke used Douglas’ illustrations between the chapters of his famous anthology of black writers, The New Negro, in 1925. Locke who wanted a “Negro School of Art” in Harlem called Douglas a “pioneering Africanist”.
His fame and reputation spread to Nashville (Fisk University) and Chicago where Douglas painted historical murals and paintings that related pride in black history. Douglas created a series of paintings for James Weldon Johnson’s book of poetry: God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. Each of his paintings was done in a flat, hard-edge style that used themes from Negro spirituals, the Bible and African and black American customs. Rectangles, squares, triangles and circles were the dominant shapes he used in his paintings, as they are found in African art and Cubism of European artists. All of Douglas’ paintings utilize the black American figure almost as a silhouetted form which can be seen in the mural he painted for the 135th Street branch of The New York Public Library (Schomburg Center). The mural is known as Aspects of Negro Life.
Aaron Douglas joined the faculty of Fisk University in the late 1930’s where he stayed until his death in 1979. Aaron Douglas is remembered most for having been the leader in the use of African inspired themes during the Harlem Renaissance.8
When she returned to the United States she opened a studio in Philadelphia. In 1907 Meta Fuller was commissioned to sculpt black figures for the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition. A fire in 1910 destroyed all of her sculpture she had brought back from Paris, as well as her current work. She married Dr. Solomon Fuller, psychiatrist and neurologist, and had three sons.
Meta Fuller created a sculpture in bronze in 1914 known as Ethiopia Awakening. It was to become a symbol of Alain Locke’s “New Negro” for it captured the spirit of the soon to come Harlem Renaissance. The sculpture was of a woman separated into two parts: the lower bound as a mummy with the head of a beautiful African woman with the headdress of an ancient queen of Egypt. The sculpture expressed womanhood and black Africa. W.E.B. DuBois asked her to produce a sculpture for the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in New York. She created one of a black boy and girl.
Framingham, Massachusetts became her home after 1929 where she continued her work in sculpture, exhibited and taught students. She was praised for her sculpture which includes one named Talking Skull. It shows an African man kneeling in front of a skull. Her sculptural themes were highly emotional reflecting Meta Fuller’s concern with life and death. Her work was shown in The Harlem Foundation exhibitions and she later became a juror for their exhibitions in New York.9
He was, along with Aaron Douglas, one of the black artists of the Harlem Renaissance to use themes in his work taken from African art and black folklore. His painting Fétiche et Fleurs is a still life that includes a Fang mask from Gabon along with a Bakuba raffia cloth from the Congo (now known as Zaire). The use of African objects in a traditional still life painting was original and unique at the time.
Palmer Hayden painted many works that borrowed from popular images. of black culture. Some criticized him for exaggerating black features, and painting scenes of everyday black life. Hayden defended his painting; that he was referring to the tragedy and comedy of a black life-style. The Janitor Who Paints was an autobiographical painting since Hayden was a janitor and handyman for The Harmon Foundation.
His interest in folklore is seen in the series of paintings he did that depicted the talk of the hero John Henry. Hayden’s paintings are regarded as symbols of the changes in black culture that were occurring during and following the Harlem Renaissance. Many rural blacks had come North in the hopes of finding a better life in the city. He portrayed the struggle with a positive affection.10
William Johnson traveled to Denmark where he married Holcha Krake, a potter. There he painted many landscapes that reminded him of his childhood in the rural South. He and his wife traveled to North Africa in 1932 where he studied the arts and crafts of the area. The time he spent in Africa was to influence changes in his painting style when he returned to Harlem.
He painted scenes of Harlem in a flat, geometric style. His style of painting continued to change and he became interested in black subjects and black Christianity. He painted a series of religious paintings that had all black subjects interpreted in flat shapes and brilliant color: Nativity, Descent from the Cross, Jesus and the Three Mary’s, Climbing Jacob’s Ladder and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.
William Johnson traveled back and forth between Harlem and Denmark. He continued painting scenes that dealt with the social and political life of Harlem as well as black heroes and historical figures. Johnson died in New York in 1970, having spent his life portraying the black experience.11
He graduated from the Florida Normal and Industrial Institute on a scholarship. James Wells received another scholarship to attend Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, but he wanted to work for awhile to supplement his scholarship. This led him, like many other black Americans after World War I, to find work and a better life in Harlem. James Wells worked as a porter on the Hudson River Day Line. In his free time he sketched scenes along the banks of the Hudson River, and copied paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
He went to Lincoln University for two years, and left to return to New York for professional art training. At Teachers College, Columbia University James Wells began his study in printmaking with woodcuts and linoleum, block printing. During this time, the late 1920’s, publishing of books, magazines, journals and reviews was booming. Illustrations were needed, and Wells provided many, especially for the two leading black magazines of the time: The Crisis and Opportunity. He combined an Egyptian theme with the modern art deco style in his 1928 block print Ethiopia at the Bar of Justice. James Wells became a prolific and skilled printmaker.
In 1929 he began his art teaching career at Howard University in Washington, D.C. The Harmon Foundation awarded him a Gold Medal in 1930. His dedication to printmaking techniques and processes were developed in lithographs, etchings, and engravings. His themes became predominantly mythological and religious printed in vibrant colors. Wells social messages, into his eighties, deal with topics such as violence, ambition, seduction and the emergence of Third World nations: Phoenix Ascending, The Vamp, Emerging Continent and Salome.12
In order to have art students more fully understand the themes, styles and art processes the five selected artists of the Harlem Renaissance utilized in their work, they will view and discuss examples of each of the artist’s work compiled by the teacher: the artists, and questions for students to complete. Following this students will complete and art project that demonstrates the artist’s unique use of African and black American themes as well as design elements and medium (media).
Specific Objectives and Strategies
I. Aaron Douglas—Painter A. View examples of his paintings: Aaron Douglas. Study for God’s Trombones, Aspects of Negro Life (a series). B. Discuss and answer questions: 1. What themes did Douglas use in his paintings? 2. What style of painting did Douglas utilize? 3. What medium did he use? C. Art Process: Apply themes, style and medium to art process. 1. African and black American history and religion. 2. Geometric shapes, hard edge, silhouetted figure, light and dark values of color. 3. Paint in tempera, watercolor, or oil. II. Meta Warrick Fuller—sculptress A. View examples of her sculpture: Meta Warrick Fuller. Ethiopia Awakening, Talking Skull. B. Discuss and answer questions: 1. What themes did Fuller use in her sculpture? 2. What style of sculpture did Fuller utilize? 3. What medium did she use? C. Art Process: Apply themes, style and medium, to art process. 1. African folktales and themes, figure of African and black American men, women, and children. 2. Emotional expressionistic human figures, life and death concerns. 3. Sculpt in plaster, bronze and clay. (Clay is most accessible.) III. Palmer Hayden—Painter A. View examples of his paintings: Palmer Hayden. Fétiche et Fleurs, The Janitor Who Paints, His Hammer in His Hand (from the John Henry series). B. Discuss and answer questions: 1. What themes did Hayden use in his paintings? 2. What style of painting did Hayden utilize? 3. What medium did he use? C. Art Process: Apply themes, style and medium to art process. 1. African art, black American folklore, everyday black life. 2. Realistic, exaggerated features, comedy and tragedy of black life. 3. Paint in tempera, watercolor or oil. IV. William Johnson—Painter A. View examples of his paintings: William Johnson. Self Portrait, Jesus and the Three Mary’s, Café. B. Discuss and answer questions 1. What themes did Johnson use in his paintings? 2. What style of painting did Johnson utilize? 3. What medium did he use? C. Art Process: Apply themes, style and medium to art process. 1. Scenes of Harlem, black subjects, black Christianity, black historical figures. 2. Expressionistic, flat geometric, brilliant color. 3. Paint in tempera, watercolor or oil. V. James Lesesne Wells—Printmaker and Painter A. View examples of his prints (woodcuts and linoleum block prints): James Lesesne Wells. Ethiopia at the Bar of Justice, Phoenix Ascending, The Vamp. B. Discuss and answer questions: 1. What themes did Wells use in his prints? 2. What style of printmaking did Wells utilize? 3. what medium did he use? C. Art Process: Apply, themes, style and medium to art process. 1. Egyptian, African, myths, religious and social messages. 2. High contrast of light and dark, linear, brilliant color. 3. Create linoleum blocks and/of woodcuts and print with inks.
1. David Driskell, David Levering Lewis and Deborah Willis Ryan, Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black America (New York: The Studio Museum in Harlem and Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1987), p.15. 2. Bruce Kellner (ed.), The Harlem Renaissance: A Historical Dictionary for the Era (New York: Metheun, Inc., 1984), p.xv 3. Nathan Irving Huggins, Harlem Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), p.56. 4. Langeston Hughes and Milton Meltzer, A Pictorial History of the Negro in America (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1956), p.272. 5. Kellner, pp.105-107. 6. Ibid., 197-200. 7. Hughes and Meltzer, pp.270-271. 8. Driskell, Lewis and Ryan, pp.110-112, 129-131. 9. Ibid., pp.107-109. 10. Ibid., pp.131-134. 11. Ibid., pp.134-136, 153-154. 12. Richard Powell and Jock Reynolds, James Lesesne Wells: Sixty Years in Art (Washington, D.C.: Washington Project for the Arts, 1986 Exhibition Catalogue—The Studio Museum in Harlem), pp.7-11, 34-35.
Bontemps, Arna (ed.). The Harlem Renaissance Remembered. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1972.
Butcher, Margaret Just. The Negro in American Culture. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967.
Chapter 10 is a discussion of The Negro Artist in American Art.
Chase, Ina Corrine. The Story of the American Negro. New York: Friendship Press, 1936.
Dover, Cedric. American Negro Art, Greenwich, Ct.: New York Graphic Society. 1969.
Many plates of black American artists from mid 18th century until late 1960’s.
Driskell, David, David Levering Lewis and Deborah Willis Ryan. Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black America. New York: The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York and Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, 1987.
A marvelous source with many full color plates published for exhibition on Harlem Renaissance.
Driskell, David. Two Centuries of Black. American Art. Los Angeles and New York: Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.
Survey of black American artists and craftsmen for exhibition in 1979 with many color plates as well as biographies of artists.
Huggins, Nathan Irvin. Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Hughes, Langston and Milton Meltzer. A Pictorial History of the of the Negro in America. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1956.
Picture historical of black Americans from Africa to mid-1950’s.
Johnson, James Weldon. Black Manhattan. 1930 Reprint. New York: Atheneum, 1972.
Kellner, Bruce (ed.). The Harlem Renaissance: A Historical Dictionary for the Era. New York: Metheun, Inc., 1984.
Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem was in Vogue. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.
Osofsky, Gilbert. Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers’ 1966.
Porter, James A. Modern Negro Art. Reprint. New York: Arno Press and The New York Times, 1969.
Powell, Richard and Jock Reynolds. James Lesesne Wells: Sixty Years in Art. Washington, D.C.: Washington Project for the Arts, 1986.
(Exhibition Catalogue-The Studio Museum in Harlem, N.Y.)
20th Century Afro-American Culture. Curriculum Units by Fellows of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. 1978. Volume II.
(Parts 1 and 2 on the life and music of Duke Ellington).
Slides—Examples of art done by visual artists of the Harlem Renaissance: Aaron Douglas, Meta Warrick Fuller, Palmer Hayden, William Johnson and James Lesesne Wells.
Contents of 1988 Volume II | Directory of Volumes | Index | Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute