Artworks and Artists of Harlem Renaissance Art
Progression of Art
This statue depicts a young black woman, dressed as an ancient Egyptian with the lower half of her body wrapped in mummy-like bandages. The woman's right palm rests on her breast, as if against her heart, while her left arm, flush against her body, ending with her fingers that extend outward in an expressive gesture. Softly turned toward her left, her closed eyes convey a depth of inner feeling.
The work has a two-pronged message: the title referring to Ethiopia, the only African nation had that retained its independence from Western powers (it would only later be occupied by Italy between 1936-1941), evokes African American self-determination, while the Nemes headdress worn by the woman (a symbol of power traditionally worn by the Egyptian pharaoh) suggests the dignity of African American women. The sculpture's elegant and flowing lines that move from the patterned mummy wrap to the headdress framing her face to create an idealized, but distinctly modern, effect. The contrast between the rigidity of the lower part of the figure's body, tightly encased, and the expressive movement of her upper body conveys a sense of awakening; this was Fuller's intent, as she explained, "Here was a group who had once made history and now after a long sleep was awaking, gradually unwinding the bandage of its mummied past and looking out on life again, expectant but unafraid and with at least a graceful gesture."
In 1921 W.E.B. Du Bois commissioned the artist to create a work that would symbolize African American contributions to American arts and industry to be included in the "Americans of Negro Lineage" section of the America's Making Exposition in New York City. Pioneering an expression of African-American pride, she connected modern trends in Western art with an awareness of the African and Egyptian influence on Western civilization. As historian Paul Von Blum later noted, the work was, "a response to Western societies that had promoted a caricature of Africa as a continent of barbaric tribes...Fuller's work helped her audiences to imagine an African history and culture that Western society had denied, even stolen. It was a powerful, compelling vision of black heritage."
Bronze - National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C.
This bust depicts an African American boy. Wearing a wrinkled shirt and bebop cap, he turns his head to his right with a thoughtful and reserved expression on his face. His somber gaze conveys an adult awareness of hardship and poverty, emphasized by the cropping away of his arms in a manner that suggests powerlessness and social constraint. It as if he wisely understands his situation but has little agency to remedy it, in the tradition of the titular gamin, or streetwise child. Some historians have suggested the bust depicts Ellis Ford, the artist's nephew, while others believe it was modeled on a street urchin, as the French title indicates.
The bust was met with acclaim, and, as a result, Savage was awarded a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship for study in Paris in 1929, where her work continued to be met with success. She exhibited both in the Salon d'Automne and at the Grand Palais in Paris. When she returned to Harlem in 1932, she founded the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts where she became one of the most influential teachers of the subsequent generation of Harlem Renaissance artists, including Jacob Lawrence. Although she was considered a leading Harlem Renaissance artist, poverty and misfortune led to her obscurity in the 1940s and the destruction of many of her artworks, though there has been a contemporary revival and rediscovery of her work.
Painted plaster - Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
Couple in Raccoon Coats
This iconic photograph depicts a young African American couple, both wearing full-length raccoon coats. The man in the driver's seat of his Cadillac roadster looks out at the photographer through the open door, while the woman, standing beside him, also turns toward the photographer. The car gleams with reflected light, particularly its chrome wheel on the front bumper, the frame of the open door, its diagonal beam drawing attention toward the man, and the roof of the car and its trunk. These highlighted forms create a kind of private space around him, conveying a sense of dignity and privacy that is reinforced by his expression, although shadowed, that suggests a self-confident reserve. The woman also radiates a sense of relaxed confidence in her pose and facial expression.
Van Der Zee opened his Harlem studio in 1916, which became successful during the World War I era, and in the 1920s he primarily photographed the rising middle class of Harlem, as well as the notable people of the Harlem Renaissance, including the political leader Marcus Garvey, the musician and dancer, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, and the writer Countee Cullen. Influenced by Pictorialism, Van Der Zee carefully arranged family portraits, community events, and funerals to create classical and idealized compositions, and perfected his images in the darkroom, using double exposures, composite images, and darkroom manipulations, "to make the camera take what I thought should be there" as he said.
Van Der Zee's contribution to the Harlem Renaissance was to create, as art historian Adrienne Child's wrote, "a virtual lexicon of New Negro identity as it developed during the Harlem Renaissance...The image with its hip and stylish African American couple personified the Jazz Age, and radically challenged popular culture's stereotypes and caricatures of African Americans." The raccoon coat was highly fashionable, associated with college-aged men; Van Der Zee deliberately connects his subjects with peers across racial barriers, countering derogatory stereotypes of urban blacks. The image was culturally influential, as the lifestyle it depicted became the aspiration of many young African Americans, and it launched a craze for raccoon coats among the denizens of Harlem's nightclub and music venues. His photographs fell into obscurity beginning in World War II, but were rediscovered when they were included in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition, "Harlem on My Mind" of 1969. Subsequently his photographs of Harlem funerals were published in The Harlem Book of the Dead (1978) with a foreword by the Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison.
Gelatin silver print - Detroit Institute of Art, Detroit, Michigan
This boldly colored painting depicts a busy street at night in the Black Belt, the popular name for the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago which was noted for its jazz and cabaret clubs. The scene hums with activity as electric lights and signs create a kind of syncopated rhythm of stage-like illumination, transforming the street into a kind of public theatre. The various figures represent a gathering of types: the hip couple on the right, the policeman on the left trying to help an older man pick up his newspapers. The women wear low cut and tightly fitting dresses in saturated colors, and the young men have the fashionable hats. The exception is a heavyset man, his white sleeves rolled up as if for work. Bent over with his gaze down, his shoulders rounded as if with exhaustion, the man's presence is disconcerting. Some scholars have suggested that this figure, which appears in several of Motley's paintings, is a kind of artistic alter ego, conveying the toll of racism with his stolid and bent appearance. Juxtaposed against the man's blocky and dark figure the colors of the women's dresses take on an air of artificiality, as if everyone were out trying to have a good time, while at the same time fending off the despair embodied in the man.
Influenced by the artist George Bellows and the works of the old masters, including Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt van Rijn and Frans Hals, Motley's paintings were noted for their physicality, his rendering of the variations of skin tone, and his un-idealized depictions of black life that sometimes evoked stereotypes in order to subvert them. Here, the stereotype of black nightlife as a wild celebration that drew many white people to areas like the Black Belt is subverted by the painting's disquiet, as the isolated figures stand about or just make their way through the crowd, making an effort to find connection. Of African, Native American, and European ancestry, Motley's "mixed racial heritage," as art critic Edward M. Gómez, wrote, "estranged him from both the white and black communities. In a single work he could go from keen observation and telling detail to caricature and exaggeration, provoking a disquieting self-consciousness in the viewer." As a result the Chicago artist remained somewhat at the periphery of the Harlem Renaissance, though as Gómez notes, his work "anticipates the use of stereotypes and exaggeration by Ellen Gallagher and Kara Walker."
Oil on canvas - Hampton University Museum, Hampton, Virginia
Let My People Go
This work depicts the Biblical leader Moses, as he kneels with the pyramids of Giza behind him. This is the moment when God calls him to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. At upper left, three yellow concentric rings represent both the sun and the trinity, from which streams a diagonal beam of light that, representing God's command, intersects the canvas and illuminates Moses's silhouetted form. Lavender waves crest on the left over the dark silhouettes of the Pharaoh and his army, alluding to the subsequent pursuit of the fleeing Israelites and the drowning of the army in the Red Sea. Douglas's color palette unifies the image, as the lavender that depicts Moses is echoed in the saving waves and the divine storm on the upper right, while the yellow of God's illumination contrasts with the black figures, horses, and weapons of the Pharaoh's army.
Part of an eight painting series, Douglas based the paintings on his earlier illustrations for James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927). His depiction expressed a longstanding African American religious tradition that connected the oppression of the Israelites to the oppression of African Americans, as black spirituals referring to Biblical stories were one of the few ways that slaves could safely express their longing for freedom. As he said, "I tried to keep my forms very stark and geometric with my main emphasis on the human body. I tried to portray everything...simplified and abstract as . . . in the spirituals. In fact I used the starkness of the old spirituals as my model - and at the same time I tried to make my painting modern."
His modernist idiom included Art Deco arabesques, as shown here in the waves and clouds, to pioneer a kind of jazz painting that drew on visual rhythms of line and color. Douglas's use of silhouettes evoked Egyptian art while allowing him to create idealized portrayals of African Americans that could also suggest a universal form. It was a 'human shape' that could not be reduced to caricature. Second-generation Harlem Renaissance artists, including Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, employed silhouettes as have contemporary artists such as Kara Walker, Lorna Simpson, and Laylah Ali.
Oil on Masonite - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
This depiction of an African mask gazes forward with beveled oval eyes accentuated by carved eyebrows that create flowing contours down to the chin, creating a geometric portrait that suggests a strong human presence. The apex of the triangular nose is formed by contrasting light and dark tones that flow upward into the forehead, creating a vertical movement that is echoed in green and red feathery plumes. The pattern continues on the periphery, creates a sense of swirling movement. Other masks emerge into this spotlight: a striped wooden mask juts into the pictorial plane, a dark mask with white banded slit-like eyes facing forward, a curving biomorphic mask with its jaws toward the chin of the central figure, and a horned mask in the lower right. At center right, a red African fetish statue stands erect, as if it were evoking this gathering of masks that evoke an assembly or a ritual dance. The masks themselves are copied from different African tribes, including the Songye Kifwebe and Guru Dan.
Jones grew up in Boston and studied art in France, where she turned to depicting African themes and subjects. She credited Grace Ripley, a costume designer and lifelong friend, with influencing this work and her interest in masks. In Paris, Jones studied African art, including masks at the Musée de l'Homme. Primitivism among the early 20th-century modernists had incorporated the aesthetic of these non-Western sources, however Jones explored more specific and cultural dimensions of the mask. When her teachers questioned her African themes, she replied, "if masters like Matisse and Picasso could use them, don't you think I should?" This painting was a seminal work in the transition of Négritude, a French literary movement, into the visual arts. Art historian Holland Carter has called it "an emblem of black American self-identity." Returning to the United States, Jones later taught at Howard University where she influenced subsequent generations of African American artists including Alma Thomas, Elizabeth Catlett, and David Driskell.
Oil on linen - Smithsonian American Art Museum
The Migration of the Negro, Panel 3
To create the sixty panels that made up his Migration of the Negro series, Lawrence conducted extensive research, combing through library archives, historical documents, and eyewitness accounts. Wanting the panels to work as a single story, he worked on them simultaneously, as if they were film storyboards. Each panel had a caption, as this one read: "From every Southern town migrants left by the hundreds to travel north," and, taken together, the works conveyed a powerful narrative. Jay Layda, an assistant film curator at the Museum of Modern Art who recognized the cinematic quality of Lawrence's work, lobbied for the artist to receive the Julius Rosenwald Fund fellowship to finance the Migration series.
This panel depicts a group of African Americans carrying their possessions, formed into a pyramidal shape that emphasizes their collective strength and purpose during the Great Migration north. Some of the figures have their heads bowed, conveying exhaustion and depression. The artist employs elemental forms, flat planes of color, whose lines creates both a horizontal movement pressing forward and vertical movement toward the blue sky with its six black crows spread out across the horizon, the curve of a barren hill. As a result, both the group's struggle forward and their struggle to rise and overcome are conveyed.
Lawrence called this combination of broad planes of bold color and flat linear design, "dynamic cubism," though it was not so much influenced by European Cubism, but by his own childhood and the colors and shapes of Harlem. The leading artist of the second generation of Harlem Renaissance artists, he studied at the Harlem Art Workshop with Charles Alston and then the Harlem Community Art Center with the sculptor Augusta Savage, making him "first major artist of the 20th-century who was technically trained and artistically educated within the art community in Harlem," as art historian Leslie King-Hammond has noted.
The series was immediately successful and was featured in Fortune magazine . Both the Museum of Modern Art and The Phillips Collection added the works to their collection, with MOMA taking the even numbered panels, and The Phillips, the odd numbered works. Lawrence's work has continued to be influential, as seen in a legacy of artists that include Kerry James Marshall, Faith Ringgold, Robert Colescott, Hank Willis Thomas, and Alexis Gideon.
Tempera on gesso on composition board - The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
This screenprint uses a cutout effect and bold planes of color to depict two Harlem musicians; the woman playing a guitar, while the blind singer of the title stands beside her, eyes closed and mouth open in song. Rendered in a primitive style that is influenced by folk art, children's art, and African art, they become emblems of the many street musicians in Harlem. The angular treatment of the figures creates a rhythmic energy, almost as if the song could be heard in their jaunty forms. Their strong contours and bold colors command the viewer's attention. The absence of any background focuses the work on the two figures, dignifying its titular subject who would have been marginalized as a black man, a disabled man, and a street performer.
Johnson worked in an expressionistic style, but in 1938, he and his wife fled pre-World War II Europe and returned to Harlem. While teaching children at the Harlem Community Arts Center under the Works Progress Administration, his work changed radically as he turned to depictions of African American life and he adopted a more primitivizing style. He turned to screenprinting and pochoir, the use of fine stencils to create images, as he created small works printed on various found papers or completed by hand. He found the process of printmaking to have an elemental simplicity, saying "My aim is to express in a natural way what I feel, what is in me, both rhythmically and spiritually."
Screenprint with tempera additions - Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York
This work depicts "Kid Chocolate," a Cuban boxer and the Junior Lightweight Champion from 1931-1933, known for his New York bohemian lifestyle. Shown nude, except for the boxing gloves on his hands, his muscular but lean body is accentuated. With his head tucked down, his right arm is raised as if to parry a blow as he strides forward, balanced on the balls of his feet; the effect is the impression of lyrical movement and strength. The artist formed the work from memory, noting how the boxer "moved like a ballet dancer."
Barthé grew up in Mississippi and later studied at the Art Institute of Chicago where his teacher, the German artist Charles Schroeder, emphasized modeling in clay, a practice that turned the young artist toward sculpture. He moved to Harlem in 1930, where he quickly became famous when his Blackberry Woman (1930) was included in the Whitney Museum of American Art's Annual show and subsequently purchased by the museum. In 1931 he moved his studio to Greenwich Village to make more connections with collectors and patrons; the move also transformed his art as he mingled with the bohemian circles of musicians, actors, athletes and dancers, often employing them as models.
Barthé's unique contribution to African American portrayal was his focus on human movement, as he employed stylistic distortions to emphasize movement as a reflection of inner identity. As said "All my life I have been interested in trying to capture the spiritual quality I see and feel in people, and I feel that the human figure as God made it, is the best means of expressing this spirit in man."
Bronze - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, New York
Can Fire in the Park
This vividly colored painting, its color palette and thick paint influenced by the Fauves, creates an empathetic scene of homeless people gathered around a trash can fire in a city park as they try to keep warm. The artist employs a thick impasto of paint to create swirling waves of blue shadow and yellow light, while the fire hydrant on the left, the street sign on the right, and a manhole cover in the lower right are depicted as simple geometric forms that become emblematic signs of city life. Depicted as dark shapes, with a hat brim or a sleeve lit up by the warming flames, the body language of each figure conveys individual feeling while the indistinct features evokes the social invisibility of the poor and homeless. A hint of narrative piques the viewer's interest: small details of dress and posture invite us to ponder their individual stories.
Born in Tennessee, Delany studied art in Boston before moving to Harlem in 1929, and then Greenwich Village, where he became known for his portraits in pastels. In the 1940s he began employing thick impasto, like what we see here, to portray urban and interior scenes. This technique introduced an innovative materiality and emphasis on process into Harlem Renaissance subject matter. In 1953, he moved to Paris where his work became nonrepresentational and associated with Abstract Expressionism, though he never identified with the movement. While he played a vital role in artistic and literary circles, his life was marked by poverty, mental illness, and the struggle to find a place for himself as an African American artist and a gay man. As the noted writer James Baldwin, who called Delaney "his spiritual father," wrote after the artist's death, "He has been starving and working all of his life - in Tennessee, in Boston, in New York, and now in Paris. He has been menaced more than any other man I know by his social circumstances and also by all the emotional and psychological stratagems he has been forced to use to survive; and, more than any other man I know, he has transcended both the inner and outer darkness." Though praised as a great but neglected artist, Delaney's work fell into obscurity until exhibitions in the late 1980s and early 1990s revived interest in his oeuvre. More recently, a 2016 retrospective of his work that opened on the Paris campus of Columbia University before touring the United States has brought new awareness to his importance as a pioneering African-American artist in nonrepresentational art.
Oil on canvas - Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.