CANVASES, CARATS AND CURIOSITIES

Harness the Beauty of Harlem Renaissance Art

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.

 
 Aaron Douglas, Invincible Music: The Spirit of Africa, artwork for The Crisis
 
Aaron Douglas, Invincible Music: The Spirit of Africa, artwork for The Crisis
 
L'Arlésienne by Pablo Picasso, M.S. Rau
 
L'Arlésienne by Pablo Picasso, M.S. Rau
 

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.

 
Augusta Savage with her sculptures
 
Augusta Savage with her sculptures
 

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.

 
James Van Der Zee, Photograph of Man and Woman in Car in Harlem
 
James Van Der Zee, Photograph of Man and Woman in Car in Harlem
 
Archibald Motley, Black Belt, 1934, Collection of the Hampton University Museum, Hampton, Virginia. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.
 
Archibald Motley, Black Belt, 1934, Collection of the Hampton University Museum, Hampton, Virginia. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.
 

Archibald Motley and the Jazz Age

Archibald 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 Artists

Other 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

 
Hale Woodruff, Amistad Murals, 1938 Peter Harholdt/Copyright Talladega College
 
Hale Woodruff, Amistad Murals, 1938
Peter Harholdt/Copyright Talladega College
 
Many of the visual artists associated with the Harlem Renaissance came to participate in the Federal Art Project (1935–1943), an employment program for artists sponsored by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration. Hale Woodruff was a later Harlem Renaissance printmaker and muralist who was enlisted by the WPA to create several large-scale commissions and murals. Woodruff notably worked with famed Mexican Social Realism artist Diego Rivera, learning his fresco technique to create monumental murals and taking his lead to portray subjects that explored identity politics and social issues. Harlem Renaissance artist Woodruff and Mexican Social Realist Rivera’s professional friendship is recorded in “spanglish” notes scrawled on the back of some of Woodruff’s work, suggesting mutual influence on each other's work and the impact of the themes and ideas of the Harlem Renaissance on international artists.
 
Bathers by Diego Rivera. M. S. Rau, New Orleans.
 
Bathers by Diego Rivera. M. S. Rau, New Orleans.
 
Further, a key legacy of the Harlem Renaissance was the 1937 founding of the Harlem Community Art Center (HCAC), an important institution directed by trailblazer Augusta Savage that was part of a cross-country network of arts centers. Additionally, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem flourished during the era, hosting the first exhibition of African-American art in Harlem in 1921 and continuing to do so annually. A focal point of the movement, the library (still actively in opperation), proved influential for the next generation of Black American artists, including perhaps the most famous of all, Jacob Lawrence.
 
Through the 1930s, Lawrence spent his formative years living in Harlem and quickly developed a love for art and a passion for art history. Lawrence studied under the mentorship of Augusta Savage at HCAC and also frequented the Schomburg center, as well as The Met and MoMA. Deeply inspired by Social Realism and Cubism, Lawrence was drawn to the Harlem Renaissance visual art method of blending African and Western art influences in search of a distinctly African American style.
 
Makeup by Jacob Lawrence (1952). M. S. Rau, New Orleans.
 
Makeup by Jacob Lawrence (1952). M. S. Rau, New Orleans.
 
Jacob Lawrence’s Makeup is a quintessential masterpiece by the celebrated artist that showcases the lasting influence of the Harlem Renaissance on later Black American artists. Inspired by the famed Apollo Theatre in Harlem, Lawrence’s Makeup takes viewers behind the curtain to a dressing room where African American actors prepare for a performance. The vibrant scene features a row of mirrors reflecting the actors’ exaggerated expressions in the style of African masks. These masks not only allude to the symbolic masks of theatre, comedy and drama, but also pay homage to the Cubist masterpieces of Pablo Picasso, and further reference Alain Locke’s Harlem Renaissance call to action.
 
Lawrence’s career was a groundbreaking triumph. He was the first Black artist to have their artworks acquired for the MoMA’s permanent collection in 1941, and was also commissioned by to create public works exhibited widely during his lifetime. His success was directly informed by the influence of the Harlem Renaissance. The indelible impact of the Harlem Renaissance remains apparent today in the work of contemporary artists working across the globe, showcasing the movement’s lasting power.
 
Curious about other famous art exhibitions? Visit M.S. Rau to learn everything you need to know about art history and browse our collection of rare art to find a piece that speaks to you.

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