What is Harlem Renaissance Art?One of the most influential 20th century art movements in art history, the Harlem Renaissance was a rich period of artistic and cultural activity that began around 1917 and lasted into the 1930s. Centered in Harlem, the movement celebrated growing pride in Black life and the African American experience, resulting in flourishing artistic achievements by African Americans working in the visual, literary and performing arts. Spurred by the teachings of Alain Locke, among others, luminary figures such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Duke Ellington emerged as cultural forebears who promoted new ways of thinking and modes of expression. Locke described the moment as a “spiritual coming of age” in which African Americans transformed social disillusionment into racial pride. These exciting developments were especially prevalent in the visual arts, as Black American artists began to experiment with the influences of their ancestral African cultures and reckon with their uniquely American perspectives, ultimately heralding a rebirth, or Renaissance, that defined Black fine art and, moreover, American fine art.
Characteristics of the Harlem Renaissance Art Style
During the Harlem Renaissance, sculptors, painters and printmakers combined aspects of Afrocentric points of view with modern influences to form a Black avant-garde movement in the visual arts. Artists were influenced by modern art movements such as Cubism and also the graphic arts–a development further fueled by the advent of several African American driven publications such as Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, The Crisis, and Fire!!, an African American literary magazine. Artists also looked toward West Africa for inspiration, making personal connections to stylized masks and sculptures from Benin, Congo, and Senegal. In his influential “Legacy of the Ancestral Arts” essay, Alain Locke issued a call to action for African American artists, noting the use of African masks and motifs in the work of European modern artists like Pablo Picasso, and imploring Black artists to take cues from the visual arts of their African ancestors.
African American artists’ use of these ancestral influences was at times, fraught–a notion illustrated in the opening line of Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen’s famous poem “Heritage” that queries, “What is Africa to me?” While there was certainly a desire to earnestly connect with some of these ancestral roots, artists of the Harlem Renaissance also had to reconcile with the fact that for most, generations and an ocean of trauma separated them from the continent. Still, these artists celebrated the striking modernism, disciplined aesthetics and creative portrayals of the human form mastered by African artists. However, despite artists’ celebration of the sheer innovation and modernism of art from the African continent, Western critics often characterized this art as primitive or somehow of the ancient world. Thus, African American artists had to reconcile with all of these factors, and much of the art created during this time illustrates this challenging juxtaposition.
Harlem Renaissance Visual Artists
Aaron Douglas and Gwendolyn B. Bennett
Perhaps the most renowned visual artist of the Harlem Renaissance, Aaron Douglas (1899–1979) was known as the “father of African American art.” He defined a modern visual language that represented Black Americans and the African American experience in a new light. Douglas heeded Locke’s call to action and combined the influences of modern art movements like Cubism with the aesthetics of African art to create original works featuring fragmented and fractured subjects, bold colors and stylized forms. He also studied the tenets of graphic design under German émigré artist Fritz Winold Reiss. As a result, Douglas’ original works graced the covers of Fire!!, The Crisis and The Opportunity. His unique abstract style also recalls the artistic oeuvre of Gwendolyn B. Bennett, a groundbreaking editor for The Opportunity, who similarly employed the aesthetics of printmaking and references to African art, and also utilized tongue-in-cheek references to antiquity in a somewhat subversive nod to Western art critics.
Archibald Motley and the Jazz AgeArchibald Motley was another leading artist of the Harlem Renaissance. His work engaged with the movement’s burgeoning Jazz scene, led by musicians and performers like Cab Callawoy, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Ma Rainey and international dance sensation Josephine Baker. While Motley never lived in Harlem, his popular modernist paintings of the Jazz Age showcase how the movement reached far beyond the New York borough. The Harlem Renaissance created ripples across mediums and soundwaves that swept the country and even crossed the Atlantic.
Other Leading ArtistsOther leading artists of the Harlem Renaissance included the accomplished painter Palmer Hayden and pioneering sculptor Augusta Savage, whose works in the often male-dominated medium earned the highest acclaim. Celebrated photographer James Van Der Zee utilized his camera to capture important scenes of the Harlem Renaissance. Van Der Zee created empathetic and aspirational photographs of Harlem’s residents and artistic leaders of the movement. Viewers lauded the technical artistry of Van Der Zee’s photographs, noting that he not only documented the Harlem Renaissance, but helped create it through his artistic output.
Influence of Harlem Renaissance Visual Art
Peter Harholdt/Copyright Talladega College