Douglas, Aaron 1899–1979
Aaron Douglas 1899-1979
Painter, illustrator, educator
Aaron Douglas has been called the father of African American art. His striking illustrations, murals, and paintings of the life and history of people of color depict an emerging black American individuality in a powerfully personal way. Working primarily from the 1920s through the 1940s, Douglas linked black Americans with their African past and proudly showed black contributions to society decades before the dawn of the civil rights movement. His work made a lasting impression on future generations of black artists.
In the film Hidden Heritage: The Roots of Black American Painting, David C. Driskell—an artist and a leading educator and scholar of African American art—discussed Aaron Douglas’s role in art history: “Douglas is the leading painter of the [Harlem] Renaissance movement. A pioneering Africanist, he accepted the legacy of the ancestral arts of Africa and developed his own original style, geometric symbolism. At a time when it was unpopular to dignify the black image in white America, Douglas refused to compromise and see blacks as anything less than a proud and majestic people.”
Best represented by black-and-white drawings with black silhouetted figures, as well as by portraits, landscapes, and murals, Douglas’s art fused modernism with ancestral African images, including fetish motifs, masks, and artifacts. His work celebrates African American versatility and adaptability, depicting people in a variety of settings— from rural and urban scenes to churches to nightclubs. His illustrations in books by leading black writers established him as the black artist of the period. Later in his career, Douglas founded the Art Department at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.
Beginning in the 1920s, Douglas’s illustrations appeared in books by James Weldon Johnson, Countee Cullen, Alain Locke, and other prominent black writers, activists, and intellectuals. They were also featured in such magazines as the Crisis, Opportunity, Harper’s, and Vanity Fair. From the late twenties through the forties, his art was shown across the United States at universities, galleries, hotels, and museums, including the Harmon Foundation in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Dallas, Howard University’s Gallery of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and New York’s Gallery of Modern Art. In addition, selected works by Douglas were assembled for a landmark traveling show of Harlem Renaissance artworks sponsored by the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1988. According to Driskell in an essay for Harlem Renaissance Art of Black America, “It was Douglas’s own strength of character and inventive artistry that enabled him to have a lasting impact on the future course of black expression in art.
Aaron Douglas was bom on May 26, 1899, in Topeka, Kansas, to Aaron and Elizabeth Douglas. He developed an interest in art during his childhood and was encouraged
At a Glance…
Born May 26, 1899, m Topeka, KS; died of a pulmonary embolism, February 2, 1979, in Nashville, TN; son of Aaron and Elizabeth Douglas; married Alta Mee Sawyer, 1926 (died 1958). Education: University of Nebraska, B.F.A., 1922; University of Kansas, B.A., 1923; Columbia University Teachers College, M.A, 1944; also attended L’Académie Scandinave, Paris. Studied under Winold Reiss, Charles Despiau, Hemri Waroquier, Othon Frieze, and Dr. Jacqueline Bontemps
Pioneering Harlem Renaissance artist known for black-and-white drawings, portraits, landscapes, and murals; entertained prominent black artists and writers in New York City; taught art at Lincoln High School, Kansas City, KS; Fisk University, teacher of art, beginning 1937, founder and chair of Art Department, retired in 1966.
Works shown at New York’s Harmon Foundation exhibition, 1928 and 1935; Museum of Fine Arts, Dallas, 1936; Howard University’s Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 1937; Brooklyn Museum, 1940; Gallery of Modern Art and Findlay Gallery, both in New York, 1940; Fisk University, Nashville, 1971; and Studio Museum in Harlem (traveling exhibition), 1988. Had solo shows at the universifie of Kansas and Nebraska. Executed many murals, often of allegorical scenes depicting history and cultural background of African Americans. Murals hang in the Countee Cullen Branch of the New York City Public Library on 135th Street; illustrations appear in editions of books by Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, and other black writers, and in magazines sudi as the Crisis and Vanity Fair.
Awards: Barnes Foundation fellowship, 1928-29; Rosen-wald grant, 1931; Rosenwald travel grant for studies in the southern U.S. and in Haiti, 1937.
in his pursuits by his mother. In A History of African American Artists from 1792 to the Present by Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson, Douglas was quoted as saying, “One day [my mother] came home with a magazine [containing] a reproduction of a painting by [black artist Henry O.] Tanner. It was his painting of Christ and Nicodemus meeting in the moonlight on a rooftop. I remember the painting very well. I spent hours poring over it, and that helped to lead me to deciding to become an artist.” Years later, Douglas visited Tanner in Paris.
Douglas received a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska in 1922 and a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Kansas the next year. Commenting on his days at the University of Nebraska, where he won a prize for drawing, he recalled: “I was the only black student there. Because I was sturdy and friendly, I became popular with both faculty and students.” His ability to get along notwithstanding, Douglas longed to draw from an un-draped model and felt constrained by the “Victorian attitudes” that prevented the school from using nudes in the classroom.
In 1925 Douglas left a job as a high school art teacher in Kansas to pursue art in Harlem and in Paris. While in New York, he met and studied painting and drawing with German artist Winold Reiss, who encouraged him to “express racial commitment in his art.” Douglas explored his heritage in his work, using African designs that captured the notice of significant black scholars and activists, among them Alain Locke and W. E. B. Du Bois. Du Bois asked Douglas to illustrate for the Crisis, the leading black periodical of the time, while Locke invited him to contribute sketches to The New Negro, a classic anthology of black authors that was first published in 1925.
One of Douglas’s best known series of paintings—which includes Judgment Day, Let My People Go, Go Down Death, Noah’s Ark, and The Crucifixion —was completed around the same time for poet-activist James Weidon Johnson’s book God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. Douglas viewed his illustrations for God’s Trombones as his most mature black-and-white works. In Harlem Renaissance Art of Black America, a book of essays by David Driskell and other authors, Driskell described the series as follows: “Each work was executed in a flatly painted, hard-edged style that defined figures with the language of Synthetic Cubism and borrowed heavily from the lyrical style of [Winold] Reiss and the forms of African sculpture.” In this series, Douglas formulated a language for black artists and expressed humanist, literary, anti-racist, and religious messages from a black perspective.
In 1926 Douglas and his new bride, Alta Mae Sawyer, went to Paris, where he studied painting and sculpture under Charles Despiau, Henri Waroquier, and Othon Frieze at L’Academie Scandinave. Back in New York later in the twenties, he was hired for $700—a lot of money for a Harlem artist then—to paint a mural for the Club Ebony. The mural appealed to critics and artlovers alike and led Albert Barnes, a patron of the arts, to offer Douglas a tuition-free-scholarship and stipend for study at the Pennsylvania school he ran. Douglas accepted, and in 1928 his work was presented in the first Harmon Foundation exhibition of works by African American artists.
During the Great Depression, Douglas was commissioned under the Treasury Public Works of Art Project to paint murals at the Countee Cullen Branch of the New York Public Library in Harlem. These paintings, which were completed in 1934, are widely regarded as the most famous and distinctive of his works. Titled Aspects of Negro Life, the series consists of four panels depicting people of color from the time of slavery and emancipation in the southern United States to the mass migration into northern cities during World War I. Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson observed: “[Douglas] endowed his subjects with elegant but powerful distinction. In these abstract silhouettes, he found the opportunity to express the dignity of their lives. The concentric circles of the design create large, wavelike rhythms, which play against the figures, giving them balance and nobility. In fact, these murals have a classical starkness.”
According to Driskell in Two Centuries of Black American Art, Douglas “continued to extract harmonic formal designs from scenes of lower-class black life in his Aspects of Negro Life murals” and “elaborated on his clean, precise, decorative style with subtle color gradations.” He supplemented this work by painting portraits of friends and Harlem River landscapes. He also became involved in helping other black artists gain recognition and work under the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
Douglas’s artistic approach was rejected at first and criticized by many artists, educators, and critics for being base and grotesque in nature. James A. Porter, a leading critic at the time, wrote that Douglas “took literally the advice of racial apologists and, without a clear conception of African decoration, attempted to imitate in stilted fashion the surface patterns and geometric shapes of African sculpture…. It emerges in flat and arid angularities and magnifications of forms which, though decorative, [resemble the] dismemberment of a traditional [work of] art.”
But Driskell credited Douglas with creating a unique style of painting by using a “flow of circular lines amidst smoothly painted surfaces” to “move closer to a personal interpretation of his black subjects.” Douglas resisted using traditional images to portray people of African heritage and instead “chose to use geometric formulas, creating synthesized compositions. Circles, triangles, rectangles, and squares became the dominant design motifs of Douglas’s compositions…. Design concepts were at the core of his art.” However, as Driskell observed in Two Centuries of Black American Art, Douglas was under pressure from his artistic colleagues to use his “angular Art Nouveau” style only for book illustrations and murals. In addition, noted Driskell, Douglas’s own opinion of his work may have suffered from a lack of broad, balanced critical reaction at the time.
After studying in the South and in Haiti on a grant from the Julius Rosenwald Fund in 1937, Douglas became a part-time teacher of drawing and painting at Fisk University in Nashville, while maintaining his home in New York City. But after he received his master’s degree in teaching at Columbia University in 1944, he took up art instruction full time at Fisk and eventually became head of the Art Department, a position he held until his retirement in 1966. His personal papers are in the library’s special collection at Fisk.
At their home in Harlem, Douglas and his wife, Alta, entertained black writers, activists, and intellectuals, including Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, and W. E. B. Du Bois. In the early 1960s, Douglas was at the forefront of a large group of African American artists seeking to enter the country’s artistic and cultural mainstream. Ebony magazine called Douglas an “art pioneer who has been among leaders in his field since 1925” and “especially talented in [the] area of realistic portrait painting.”
In 1971 Fisk University held a retrospective showing of his artwork. Douglas lived out his later years unobtrusively, experimenting with the use of color in his work and redoing murals he had painted for Fisk University in 1930, rather then taking on new commissions and illustrations. When he became ill in the late 1970s, he was succeeded as head of the Art Department at Fisk by noted African American artist and art historian David Driskell.
Douglas’s views of the unique situation of black American artists were made plain when he presented a paper in front of the First American Artists Congress in 1936. He stated: “What the Negro artist should paint and how he should paint it can’t accurately be determined without reference to specific social conditions…. Our chief concern has been to establish and maintain recognition of our essential humanity, in other words, complete social and political equality.” On the subject of an artistic insight, Douglas told Romare Bearden, “Technique in itself is not enough. It is important for the artist to develop the power to convey emotion…. The artist’s technique, no matter how brilliant it is, should never obscure his vision.”
Driskell reflected on the significance of Douglas’s work in the film Hidden Heritage: “By eliminating details and reducing forms to silhouettes, he lifted everything above mere observation of the visual world. The unveiling of Aspects of Negro Life had a dramatic influence on the next generation, my generation of black artists. The scale, the unique blend of history, religion, myth, politics, and social issues, made a lasting impression. By clearly telling us, that in order to perceive the future, we must understand the past, Douglas has brought us full circle”.
The Crucifixion, 1927.
Go Down Death, 1927.
Let My People Go, 1927.
Noah’s Ark, c. 1927.
Aspects of Negro Life: The Negro in an African Setting, From Slavery Through Reconstruction, An Idyll of the Deep South, Song of the Towers, 1934.
Evolution of the Negro Dance, 1935.
Triborough Bridge, 1935.
Building More Stately Mansions, 1944.
The Composer, 1967.
Other works include Judgment Day. Illustrations included in selected editions of Countee Cullen’s Caroling Dusk; James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse; and Alain Locke’s New Negro. Illustrations also published in periodicals such as the Crisis, Vanity Fair, Opportunity, New York Sun, Boston Transcript, and American Mercury.
Bearden, Romare, and Harry Henderson, A History of African American Artists from 1792 to the Present, Pantheon, 1993, pp. 126-135, 257, 343, 382–383, 448–451.
Cederholm, Theresa Dickason, Afro-American Artists: A Bio-Bibliographical Directory, Trustees of the Boston Public Library, 1973, pp. 80-83.
Driskell, David C., David Levering Lewis, and Deborah Willis Ryan, Harlem Renaissance Art of Black America, Abrams, 1987, pp. 13, 29, 110-131, 192-493.
Driskell, David C., Hidden Heritage: Afro-American Art, 1800-1950, Art Museum Association of America, 1985, p. 94.
Driskell, David C., Two Centuries of Black American Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art/Alfred A. Knopf, 1976, pp. 57-58, 61-62, 68, 99, 153.
Chronicle of Higher Education, March 30, 1988, p. B56.
Ebony, September 1963, pp. 131-32.
New York Times, February 22, 1979, p. B9.
New York Times Book Review, March 1, 1987, p. 21.
Driskell, David C., Hidden Heritage: The Roots of Black American Painting (video), Landmark Films, 1990.
Additional information for this profile was provided by the Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, New Orleans, LA, and by David C. Driskell of the Art Department at the University of Maryland, College Park, in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography.
—Alison Carb Sussman
"Douglas, Aaron 1899–1979." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/douglas-aaron-1899-1979
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