Savage, Augusta C. 1892(?)-1962
Augusta C. Savage 1892(?)-1962
The statue called “The Pugilist” says it all. Designed with the head tilted upward, it faces the world calmly with folded arms prepared for whatever challenge the world may present. A late work by an artist renowned for her portrayal of personality and character, “The Pugilist” expresses most clearly the way Augusta Savage’s life shaped her personality.
Intent upon showing physical suppleness and humor she often produced works that over-portentous critics labeled “trivial. “Concentrating on the aspects of culture shared by black and white Americans alike, she was often castigated by black intellectuals for not drawing inspiration from purely African sources. Shackled by neverending family responsibilities, plagued by poverty, she also suffered the suspicion and hostility that many black trailblazers of the 1930s experienced, when trying to challenge the established order. In the end her struggles on behalf of others exhausted her, and she simply waited, like “The Pugilist,” to deal with life’s next challenge.
Augusta Savage was the seventh of fourteen children born to Edward and Cornelia Fells. Sources seem undecided about whether she was born in 1892 or 1900, but know definitely that five of her siblings did not live to maturity. Savage herself identified her birthplace as Green Cove, Florida, a town whose clay soil made it a thriving brick-making area. Augusta loved the clay from her earliest years, often choosing to slip off to the clay pits to model ducks and birds instead of going to school. This habit infuriated her father, a fundamentalist preacher with a profound belief that frequent whipping would prevent her from “fashioning graven images.”
Edward Fells was wrong. Whipping did nothing to stop his daughter from modeling her clay birds. She produced dozens of them during her childhood years, continuing even through her 1907 marriage to John Moore, and the birth of her only child, Irene, the following year. The marriage was a short-lived one—Moore died a couple of years later, so the teenage mother took her child and her clay birds and went back to her parents.
In 1915 Augusta’s father was appointed minister West Palm Beach Church. The move was good for her.
Born February 29, 1892, though some dates give 1900, Green Cove Springs, Florida; parents, Edward and Cornelia (Murphy) Fells; thirteen siblings, of whom nine survived to maturity; married John T. Moore, 1907; daughter Irene born 1908; widowed; married James Savage, divorced; married Robert L. Poston 1923, widowed 1924; died: March 26, 1962, Education: Florida State Normal School, Tallahassie; Cooper Union, New York City, 1921-1924; Paris, studied with sculptor Hermon MacNeil; Paris, 1929
Career: assistant supervisor of the Federal Arts Project for New York City; Director, Harlem Community Art Center, 1937; taught concurrently president, holding corporation of Salon of Contemporary Negro Art, 1939;
Memberships: National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors.
Awards: Julius Rosenwald Scholarship, 1929; Julius Rosenwald Scholarship, 1930; citation, Salon d’ Automne; citation, Salon Printemps at theGrande Palais, Paris; medallion, French Govt. Colonial Exposition.
A mature student who wrote sensitive poetry, she was welcomed by the teachers, and no longer felt the need to play truant. Her modeling, however, did not receive the same encouragement. Withering in the face of her father’s disapproval and the scarcity of clay in the area, it came to a stop, until she chanced upon the Chase Potteries on the outskirts of town. Augusta begged a pailful of clay from the owner and modeled a little statue of the Virgin Mary for her over-strict father. This not only impressed him into into allowing her to continue her art undisturbed, but also persuaded the school board to appoint her to teach modeling during her senior year, at a “salary” of one dollar per day.
By now she had begun to broaden her repertoire to include all sorts of farm animals. Sure that some of them would appeal to the town’s large number of tourists she showed them to a man named George Graham Currie, who had recently been appointed the superintendent of an upcoming county fair. Like her school principal, Currie found Augusta’s talent exciting. In the face of disapproval from authorities reluctant to encourage a “colored girl, “Currie gave her a booth at the fair, where her animals became so popular that she won a $25 prize. She also earned $175—her first real sum of money.
When the fair ended Currie did not abandon Augusta. Believing deeply in her talent, he took the time to write a letter of introduction to Solon Borglum, a New York based teacher of sculpture whose son Gutzon would one day be famous for his Mount Rushmore carvings of presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. Unfortunately Solon Borglum would not consider accepting Augusta as a non-paying student, but had no objection to writing a recommendation on her behalf to the registrar of Cooper Union, a public institution offering free tuition. This small effort on Borglum’s part opened the gateway to her artistic future. His recommendation, as well as the bust of a Harlem minister that she modeled overnight, sent her to the top of a 142-strong waiting list for Cooper Union, then won her immediate entry for a four-year course of study.
Despite Augusta’s burning determination to become an artist within six months, she was not able to give her full attention to her studies. The $175 had melted to just $4.60 by the time she arrived in New York, so she was forced to find work immediately in order to support herself. A job as an apartment caretaker tided her over at first but proved as short-lived as her second marriage to carpenter James Savage, who left nothing permanent in her life other than the name she adopted. Still, she was not completely alone with her problems. Noting that this talented, hardworking young woman had completed her first two years of schooling within her first six weeks, the Cooper Union school board voted to supply her with a scholarship to cover her living expenses for the rest of her stay.
Sooner or later life presents every human being with an event that determines their destiny. Augusta Savage’s testing time came in 1923, when a committee of distinguished American artists and architects publicised an upcoming summer sculpting school to be held at Fontainbleau, outside Paris, France. Conditions for application were clearly demarcated: Only 100 female students would be considered; tuition was to be provided free of charge; living expenses of $500 would be the responsibility of each candidate, who would also need to furnish two references plus a $35 application fee.
Savage sent the application fee immediately. Shortly thereafter she was in the process of sending the names of her references when she received her application fee back with a note explaining that she had been rejected. At first the committee claimed that the problem lay in her lack of references. However, the true reason soon revealed itself. Apparently two Alabama winners of the scholarship had refused to travel or room with a “colored” girl.
If the committee imagined that this rejection would cause Savage simply to fade away they were very much mistaken. With years of practice born of whippings and poverty she fought grimly for her rights. “How am I to compete with other American artists if I am not given the same opportunity?” she demanded, in a May 20,1923 letter to New York World. But she did not leave matters there. Determined to open every door that was available to her she appealed to the Ethical Culture Society, which in turn wrote to every member of the American committee choosing the applicants. The effects of all this were soon apparent. “Negress Denied Entry to French Art School,” shrilled the New York Times of April 24, 1923. “Negroes to Ask Harding’s Aid in Case of Augusta Savage,” ran the newspaper’s May 16 headline.
At best, the result was only a partial victory. The ban was upheld, but at least one of the committee members regretted the joint decision. Sculptor Herman MacNeil, then president of the National Sculpture Society, invited Augusta Savage to study privately with him that summer, at his studio on Long Island.
This incident marked the start of a tragic decade for Savage. In October of 1923 she married Robert Poston, an official of black nationalist Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. The only one of her three marriages that brought her any happiness, it was doomed to an abrupt and far-too-early end. Just five months after the wedding Poston died a mysterious death aboard a steamship returning from Liberia.
In 1925 there was another major setback. Through the efforts of the distinguished W.E.B. Du Bois and the Countess Irene Di Robilant, the manager of the Italian-American Association in New York, Savage received a working scholarship to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Rome, Italy. Thrilled, she took a job in a Manhattan steam laundry in order to save the money for the fare, but was forced instead to spend it on bringing her aged parents to New York, so she could care for her paralyzed father.
While these repeated blows would have been enough to discourage anyone, Savage still entertained a small spark of hope that she might, somehow, afford to get to Rome to study. Fanning the ember of hope by keeping her priorities intact, in 1926 she showed 22 works at the Baltimore Federation of Parent Teacher Clubs, in company with paintings by Henry O. Tanner and sculpture by her colleague Meta Warrick Fuller. She also studied incessantly in the public library, her determination to succeed inspiring the Friends of the New York Public Library to commission her for a bust of W.E.B. Du Bois. Savage worked carefully on this piece, intent upon showing the refinement and intelligence that marked the living model. The work of art that resulted drew such admiration that several other orders came her way. Among them was a commission for a bust of Marcus Garvey, who sat for her in his own apartment, on Sunday mornings.
But neither hard work nor determination could break the catalog of calamities that stalked her. In 1928 her brother Fred died while rescuing Florida flood victims. This brought her entire family to New York to live with her. Then, the following year her father died, leaving the responsibility of his funeral expenses for her to shoulder.
Finally defeated, she turned her back on her dreams of Rome to take care of her family. Yet, just when things seemed darkest the tide at last began to turn, courtesy of two unlikely angels in disguise. They were John Nail, a Harlem realtor, and Eugene Kinckle Jones, president of the National Urban League, who brought her work to the attention of a charitable foundation.
The Julius Rosenwald Fund dated back to 1917, when the chairman of Sears, Roebuck, had started it specifically for the education of black students. In order to qualify, Savage was asked to assemble a display of her existing work for the review committee. Feverishly she put together a selection of her best works, using a small, jaunty statue of her nephew, Ellis Ford, as the centerpiece. “Gamin” dazzled the scholarship committee into raising their original offer of $1,500 to $1,800, and unlocked the door to her future.
Augusta Savage was now quite well-known among black Americans. Appreciated for the proud black-is-beautiful quality of every character-filled statue she created, she also merited loyalty as the centerpiece of the 1923 racism that had arisen over the summer at Fontainbleau. For both these reasons parties to raise money for her clothes, her fares and her living expenses were held all over Harlem as soon as news of the scholarship became public.
All the adulation added to the responsibility of trying not to disappoint anyone. But within a short time in Rome, she had proved herself admirably. The Rosenwald Fund was happy enough with her work by 1931 to award her a second scholarship, and the masters at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere, her chosen place of study. They were so impressed with her eagerness to learn and her outstanding work that they showed her sculptures at both their Autumn and the Spring Salons. In addition she had the satisfaction of having one of her African figures chosen for reproduction on a medallion at the French Colonial Exposition. Then, to crown it all, she received a grant from the Carnegie Foundation, which allowed her to travel through France, Germany, and Belgium to study the classical forms of sculpture revered by her eminent teacher, Charles Despiau.
But if these magic years were sweet they were also short. By 1932 the Rosenwald grant had run out, and the Great Depression left little hope of another scholarship. Savage came back to New York and turned to portrait sculpture in order to make a steady living. Her bust of surgeon Dr. Walter Gray Crump dates from this time, as does her sculpture of statesman and author James Weldon Johnson, a longtime friend and fellow Floridian.
But sculpture was a precarious source of income during this time of economic downturn. So Savage turned to teaching, using a basement apartment to house the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts that was supported by a $ 1,500 Carnegie Foundation grant. She brought her usual passion and enthusiasm to this task, guiding several young black artists to eventual prominence. Among them were William Artis, Ernest Critchlow, and Norman Lewis, a museum-quality modern painter who was honored at the 1955 Carnegie Exhibition in Pittsburgh.
By all accounts Savage was a spectacular leader—vivid, innovative, and magnetic. She knew well how to apply the power of the press to her cause, and how to raise support from others. During the dark Depression year of 1933 she used these skills to organize the Vanguard Club, an intellectual group that met weekly in order to discuss the social and economic issues of importance to the progress of black artists. Unfortunately this group was not destined to survive. Within a couple of years it became a favorite gathering ground for Harlem-area communists, and Savage immediately withdrew.
Other efforts centered around the Works Projects Administration, a program established by President Franklin Roosevelt to provide work for black artists blocked from the ever-dwindling available work supply. Initially the all-white WPA staff was ignorant of the number and excellence of non-white artists in America, but the socially-concious Savage was happy to bring the total of almost 200 of them to their attention. Tirelessly she led delegations, pressured politicians, and raised all the support she could to ensure that black painters were engaged to paint murals in schools, hospitals, and post offices. In an effort to make it possible for them to supervise their white counterparts on such projects, she also helped to organize the Harlem Artists’ Guild.
In 1937 her administrative ability and energy brought her a new kind of challenge. She was appointed the director of the Harlem Community Center, one of the WPA’s biggest art programs, which catered to both recreational and serious art students. Characteristically she threw herself into its organization, despite the warnings of well-meaning friends that she was being distracted from her life’s work of sculpture. “I have created nothing really beautiful, really lasting, “she said, in her usual forthright fashion. “But if I can inspire one of these youngsters to develop the talent I know they possess, then my monument will be in their work. No one could ask more than that. “The friends remained unconvinced, but Savage would not be dissuaded.
Soon after assuming this directorship Savage was commissioned to produce a sculpture for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The only black woman invited to participate, she was paid $1,200 by the Design Committee and took a leave of absence from the center to complete what was to be her last major work. The Fair’s theme read: “To contribute a Happier Way of American Living by demonstrating how it can be achieved through the growing interdependence of men of every class and function and by showing the things, ideas and forces at work in the world which are the tools of today and with which the better world of tomorrow is to be built.”
To link the important idea of a better world being achieved through the interdependence of humanity’s different groups Savage chose to base her sculpture on the lyric “Lift every voice and sing/Till earth and heaven ring...” which had been written in 1900 by her old friend James Weldon Johnson and set to music by his composer brother Rosamond. It was a large piece, consisting of a foundation modeled on a curved human arm whose hand was gently cupped round the top of a soaring, sixteen-foot harp. Jubilantly crowning each harp-string was the head of a singing boy or girl, while the front of the work boasted a kneeling youth whose outstretched hands offered music to all mankind. “The Harp” was a work that seemed the very essence of music, a work that symbolized a universal tenderness found only in artists who have been strengthened by lifelong burdens, as Augusta Savage had been.
The statue was cast in plaster, then painted to resemble basalt, so that it could be shown in the courtyard of the Contemporary Arts Building before being cast for permanence in bronze. But, unfortunately there was no money for such luxuries as bronze castings. Though “The Harp” was seen by countless visitors, and was reproduced as a small souvenir, it was destined to leave only a photographic memory behind. When the Fair was over the bulldozers moved in and reduced it to a heap of rubble.
Stoically Savage returned to familiar Harlem, where her surroundings had always been comfortingly familiar. But she found that her position at the Art Center had been filled by someone else, and that federal funding for the program itself would shortly be diverted to the needs of World War II. These blows finally defeated Augusta Savage, and she retreated to a small town named Saugerties, in the Catskill Mountains of New York. Here she finally found a measure of serenity, though her days as an artist were behind her. With the advent of the 1960s she contracted cancer, so she moved back to New York to live out her final months with her daughter. The end came on March 26, 1962, when she died in Abraham Jacobi Hospital. She is buried in Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.
“Laughing Boy, “1932
“Reclining Nude,” 1932
“Dr. Walter Gray Crump,” 1932
“Portrait of Gwendolyn Knight,” 1934
“James Weldon Johnson,” 1939
“Lift Every Voice and Sing,” 1939
“The Pugilist,” 1942
Augusta Savage and the Art Schools of Harlem, Schomburg Center for Black Culture, Exhibition catalog, 1988.
Bearden, Romare and Harry Henderson, A History of African-American Artists: from 1792 to the Present, Pantheon Books, 1993.
Bearden, Romare and Harry Henderson, Six Black Masters of American Art, Zenith Books, 1972.
Bergman, Peter M, The Chronological History of the Negro in America, Harper & Row, 1969.
Ferguson, Blanche E, Countee Cullen and the Negro Renaissance, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1966.
Hughes, Langston et al, A Pictorial History of African Americans, 6th edition, Crown Publishers, 1995.
Igoe, Lynn Moody, 250 Years of Afro-American Art: An Annotated Bibliography, R.R. Bowker, 1981.
Lewis, Samella, Art: African American, Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1978.
Logan, Rayford and Michael R. Winston, Dictionary of American Negro Biography, Norton & Company, 1982.
Sicherman,Barbara, ed., NotableAmerican Women: The Modern Period, Belknap Press, 1980.
Smith, Jessie Carney, Notable Black American Women, Gale Research, 1992.
Crisis, August 1929, p. 269; June, 1930, p. 209.
New York Times, May 11,1923; September 9,1928; December 24, 1933; December 19, 1937.
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