- 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
Progression of Art
Sahdji (Tribal Women)
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.
Ink and graphite on wove paper
The Judgment Day (Illustration for God's Trombones by James Weldon Johnson)
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.
Oil on canvas - Bennet College Art Gallery, Greensboro, North Carolina
The Negro in an African Setting (From the Series Aspects of Negro Life)
In 1934, Douglas was commissioned to create a series of four murals for the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library, funded by the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project. The series was titled Aspects of Negro Life, and the four murals include The Negro In An African Setting, An Idyll of the Deep South, From Slavery Through Reconstruction, and Song of the Towers. Each of the murals depicts a different aspect of African-American cultural history, from its roots in Africa, through the era of slavery, Emancipation, post-Reconstruction, and the Great Migration north.
This mural, The Negro in an African Setting, represents pre-slavery life in Africa as vibrant and joyous. Douglas depicts a large group of Africans, holding spears and bows, in circular formation around two individuals engaged in a sort of ritual or dance. These two central individuals are tilted backwards at a steep angle, creating a more dynamic sensation that captures Douglas's view of African spirituality more than any specific African dance, which typically would pitch the dancers forward. The lushness the African wilderness is indicated by the repeated foliage in and around the group. Concentric circles of varying opacity indicate motion and energy, while simultaneously focusing the viewer's attention on a small, totem-like "fetish" figure, emphasizing the importance of spirituality to the African people. The cultural historian Glenn Jordan asserts that "The image evokes a sense of community, spirituality, sovereignty and self-determination," which exemplifies the African-American imaginative construct of African life prior to European interference.
Douglas said of the image "The first of the four panels reveals the Negro in an African setting and emphasizes the strongly rhythmic arts of music, the dance, and sculpture, which have influenced the modern world possibly more profoundly than any other phase of African life. The fetish, the drummer, the dancers, in the formal language of space and color, create the exhilaration, the ecstasy, the rhythmic pulsation of life in ancient Africa." The work was controversial, however, with many of Douglas's contemporaries accusing him of playing into racism, employing all the popular tropes that suggested a primitive existence. Black art historian James A. Porter called Douglas's paintings "tasteless" and "reminiscent of minstrel stereotypes." His defenders pointed out that Douglas's murals were not intended for a white audience that was passively consuming African culture, but rather at "a Black audience many of them New Negroes or New Negroes-in-the-making, who are interested in Africa as part of a quest for dignity, pride and 'self-awareness'".
Oil on canvas - Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture
An Idyll of the Deep South (From the series Aspects of Negro Life)
This work forms the second of four murals that Douglas created for the135th Street branch of the New York Public Library, commissioned through the Works Progress Administration. The image shows several African-Americans in a natural setting, with trees punctuating the picture plane and foliage above. Unlike the title suggests, however, this is no idyll but a scene of tragedy and forced labor.
A group of African-Americans sit at the center, playing musical instruments. A series of concentric circles draws the viewer's eye to these figures, a technique that Douglas often used to indicate movement and energy. To either side, he depicts the violence and struggle of slave life. On the far left, figures kneel on the ground, perhaps weeping or praying, gathered around a rope hanging from a tree that references the practice of lynching. At the far right, several slaves obscured in darkness hold hoes and work the earth. A small, white, five-pointed star at the upper-right corner of the image shines a beam of light down diagonally across the image.
With this work, Douglas critiqued the stereotypical notion of the "happy Southern plantation Negro," flanking the central group of musicians with scenes of harsh, historical reality. At the same time, Douglas's symbolism remains open-ended and allows for multiple levels of interpretation. For example, the star in the image was typically understood to represent the Underground Railroad's well-known directive to "follow the North Star" to freedom. However, in an April 1971 conversation with artist David C. Driskell at Fisk University's Fine Arts Festival, Douglas revealed that he actually meant it to represent the "the red star of Russia," referencing the belief among some Harlem intellectuals that true equality might be reached through the "alternative policies of communism and socialism." The way that the star's light shines directly on the group of musicians can also be read as a reference to the importance of Christianity (frequently embodied in slave music) as an important glimmer of hope in the lives of slaves.
Oil on Canvas - Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at The New York Public Library
Defiance (From the series Emperor Jones)
This woodblock print was part of a commission to illustrate Eugene O'Neill's 1920 play Emperor Jones. The play tells the story of an African-American, Brutus Jones, who is imprisoned for killing another B man during a dice game before escaping to an island in the Caribbean where he establishes himself as a tyrannical emperor. The play was meant as a commentary on the U.S. occupation of Haiti, which began in 1915 and lasted until 1934.
The play won a Pulitzer prize, and is notable for being the first Broadway play with an African-American actor (Charles Gilpin) in a lead role, particularly as he performed a complicated psychological character that did not rely on bigoted stereotypes of black people. When the role was recast in 1925, it launched the career of Douglas's friend, the actor/singer Paul Robeson. Robeson would star in the 1933 film version, as well.
Douglas completed four black-and-white woodblock images representing his interpretation of the story. This print, Defiance, shows Jones in a military uniform with an aggressive, wide-legged stance and a confrontational expression. He wields a whip that overlaps with several leaves of lush foliage. Below him, wavy lines of alternating black and white, overlaid with fish, suggest a river. While these landscape elements indicate the setting in the Caribbean jungle, the stark contrast of black and white enhances the sense of drama. The monochromatic patterning also reads as rhythmic, alluding to drum beat which continuously accelerates over the course of the play.
Woodblock print - David C. Driskell Center