Douglas, Aaron

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Aaron Douglas

Born May 26, 1899

Topeka, Kansas

Died February 22, 1979

Nashville, Tennessee

American painter, illustrator, and educator

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Aaron Douglas's distinctive artistic style brought the Harlem Renaissance to life on magazine covers, book jackets, and murals.

One of the most notable figures in African American art, Aaron Douglas was especially active during the Harlem Renaissance, and he is often referred to as the period's "official artist." His distinctive style of geometric symbolism (featuring flat silhouettes of human figures, muted colors, and images that are symbolic, not realistic) may be seen on many magazine covers, book illustrations and dustcovers, and advertisements from the Harlem Renaissance. Douglas also painted some impressive murals (large-scale paintings, often mounted in public places) that display his unique blend of African and modernist techniques and his interest in including elements of African American history, religion, myth, and social issues in his works. Before Douglas, no African American artist had created works so unique in style and so affirming of black identity and experience.

A determined and talented young artist

Douglas was born into a relatively large, proud, politically active African American community in Topeka, Kansas.

His family did not have much money (his father was a baker). Douglas's parents emphasized education and instilled a sense of optimism and self-confidence in their son. Douglas inherited his mother's fondness for drawing and painting and decided early in his life that he would like to become an artist, even though prejudice against blacks must have made this goal seem difficult to reach.

In high school Douglas took courses that prepared him to study for a fine arts degree in college. After graduation, lacking the money to enter a university, he traveled east with a friend to find a job. He spent some months working in a Detroit, Michigan, automobile factory, where he experienced racism and discrimination; in later years he remembered that he was always given the worst, dirtiest jobs in the factory. In the evenings Douglas took art classes at the Detroit Museum of Art, his first formal education in the field he had chosen.

In July 1917 Douglas moved from Detroit to Dunkirk, New York, to take another factory job he had heard about. Later that year he returned to Topeka with three hundred dollars and new clothes to wear to college. He enrolled at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, and in a very short time he had become a star of the school's Fine Arts Department. At the same time, he was reading the works of black leader W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963; see biographical entry) and Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and becoming aware of developments in African American politics. When the United States entered World War I (1914–18) in 1917, Douglas was eager to show his patriotism, and he joined the Student Army Training Corps.

Joining the Harlem Renaissance

After he received his bachelor's degree in fine arts in 1922, Douglas wanted to continue his studies and pursue a master's degree, but the University of Nebraska did not offer an advanced degree in fine arts. Instead he took a job teaching art at Lincoln High School in Kansas City, where he made a good living but felt artistically limited. Douglas longed for contact with other artists, especially those who shared his interest in the African American experience. At this point in time he was following with great interest the growth of what was being called the New Negro movement: the shift toward black pride and the demand for advancement and equality for African Americans.

In early 1925 the Survey Graphic magazine published an issue devoted to the work of writers and thinkers who were part of the blossoming of black culture now known as the Harlem Renaissance. This exciting publication—and especially editor Alain Locke's essay on the influence of African art on modern art—intensified Douglas's interest in his African American heritage and in furthering his career as an artist. At the end of the 1925 school year, Douglas headed for Harlem with the intention of stopping there only briefly before moving on to Paris, France, to study art.

Douglas was welcomed warmly into the circle of writers, artists, and other participants in Harlem's thriving, colorful cultural scene. He was dazzled by the sights and sounds of the community and thrilled to be able to meet and talk to important people like Charles S. Johnson (1893–1956), editor of Opportunity magazine, and even the great W.E.B. Du Bois. For his part, Du Bois was eager to encourage a young black artist to develop his talent, and he introduced Douglas to someone who would prove a major influence on his career: white artist Winold Reiss (1887–1953).

An important influence

Born in Germany, Reiss had moved to the United States as a young man and pursued an interest in creating realistic portraits of members of various ethnic groups, first Native Americans and then African Americans. His portraits of black literary figures and leaders had been featured in the special issue of the Survey Graphic; they showed black people just as they were, rather than making them look either just like whites or like exaggerated caricatures.

Impressed by Douglas's obvious artistic ability, Reiss gave him a two-year scholarship to study at his studio. Reiss believed strongly that an artist should draw inspiration from his or her own experience and background, and he immediately began encouraging Douglas to look into both his African heritage and the African American folk tradition for ideas and elements he could weave into his art. Reiss was himself already blending modernist trends in art—especially cubism, a style that reduces images to flat lines, planes, and angles—with elements of African art.

Douglas was strongly influenced by his teacher's style, which stressed simplicity and clarity combined with traces of European styles like Art Deco (which was based on cubism and used geometric shapes to decorate furnishings, textiles, graphic arts, and more) and cubism, as well as elements of Egyptian art. Like Reiss, Douglas began creating flat black-and-white pictures that resembled the "cut-out" patterns of German folk art. These images were not meant to render an appearance of depth or perspective (the method artists use for realistic representations).

A hard-working and busy artist

When he first arrived in Harlem, Douglas had taken a number of low-paying jobs—including work in a fabric-dyeing factory and as a waiter—to support himself, so it was a relief when Du Bois offered him work in the mailroom of the Crisis. The job paid sixty dollars a month and allowed the fledgling artist to study with Reiss in the mornings and work in the afternoons.

Meanwhile, Douglas's reputation as a promising young artist grew, and he began to receive requests for magazine covers and illustrations. By the end of 1925 he had done two covers for Opportunity magazine (both fairly realistic portraits of people) and an illustration in his own black-and-white silhouette style. This period also marked the appearance of the New Negro anthology, to which Douglas contributed two pieces: "Meditation," a portrait of a lounging figure in silhouette, and "Rebirth," a more complicated drawing with suns, plants, eyes, and idol heads used as symbols.

As 1926 began Douglas was busy with both his studies and his magazine assignments. For Opportunity's special issue on industry in February, he drew a cover design that featured two worker figures, with structures resembling factories and smokestacks in the background. That same month he made his first appearance in Crisis with "Invincible Music, the Spirit of Africa," a drawing of a drum-playing figure with his head raised; the piece resembles Egyptian art in its simple form and strong symbolism. Also in February Douglas's illustrations of Eugene O'Neill's black-themed play The Emperor Jones (in which actor and singer Paul Robeson [1898–1976] was then starring) were published in the white publication Theatre Arts Monthly.

Other notable magazine work by Douglas from 1926 includes an illustration in Opportunity for Langston Hughes's (1902–1967; see biographical entry) poem "To Midnight Nan at Leroy's," which recreates the feeling of a Harlem nightclub; a poster for the NAACP's Krigwa Players theater group, which appeared in the May issue of Crisis and features bold, African imagery in its portrayal of a seated figure with exaggerated thick lips, a dangling earring, and tribal markings on his face; and the cover of the September issue of Crisis, a more realistically drawn portrait of Tutankhamen (King Tut), the ancient Egyptian boy-king whose tomb had recently been discovered.

Leading artist of the Harlem Renaissance

Douglas received prizes in contests sponsored by both Opportunity and Crisis in 1926, signaling his arrival as the leading visual artist of the Harlem Renaissance. By this time he had become a full-fledged member of what writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960) called the "Niggerati," the bold, daring younger generation of Harlem Renaissance writers and artists. With Hurston, Hughes, and others, Douglas helped to produce Fire!!, a literary journal meant to announce a new spirit of freedom and experimentation, but which lasted for only one issue. The home Douglas had made in Harlem with his wife, Alta (who had been his high school sweetheart), became a gathering place for these friends and colleagues.

Expanding into book illustration

Nineteen twenty-seven was also a busy year for Douglas. He was still producing magazine covers and illustrations, among them the cover of the May issue of Crisis, for which he drew a portrait of a Mangbetu (a West African ethnic group) woman in elaborate headdress. In addition, Douglas began doing illustrations, book jackets, and advertisements for books. One of his most important assignments in this area was producing illustrations for God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons (1927), a collection of poems by NAACP leader and writer James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938).

Very modern-looking in their simplicity and flatness, the God's Trombones drawings provide striking examples of Douglas's trademark style. Examples include "The Creation," which shows God's hand reaching down to man and features the use of transparent circles overlapping and layered on top of each other (a device Douglas would continue to use); "The Prodigal Son," a more contemporary scene set in what appears to be a Harlem nightclub, illustrating the temptations of modern life; "Go Down Death: A Funeral Sermon," with death portrayed as an angel on a horse surrounded by circles and rays of light, and seemingly offering relief from a harsh world; and "Judgment Day," in which a black trumpeter sounds the call to receive God's judgment.

Over the next few years Douglas would produce a number of other notable Harlem Renaissance book illustrations, including the covers for Langston Hughes's Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927) and Wallace Thurman's (1902–1934; see biographical entry) The Blacker the Berry (1929) and drawings for Paul Morand's (1888–1976) Black Magic (1929). Douglas did the covers for four of novelist and poet Claude McKay's (1890–1948; see biographical entry) books: Home to Harlem (1928), Banjo (1929), Banana Bottom (1933), and A Long Way from Home (1937). Although he did not illustrate Nigger Heaven (1926), the controversial novel by white literary critic Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964; see biographical entry), he did drawings for advertisements for the book.

Studying at the Barnes Foundation

The next phase of Douglas's career would find him creating large-scale murals, but before that phase began, a significant development took place. Douglas had the opportunity to spend a year studying at the Barnes Foundation, which had been founded by eccentric white millionaire Albert Barnes (1872–1951) as a repository for his extensive collection of art. Among the pieces in his collection were works by European modernists like Henri Matisse (1869–1954) and Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), as well as samples of African art, in which Barnes was intensely interested.

Eager to show that his foundation did not discriminate against African Americans, Barnes offered Douglas a one-year fellowship, through which Douglas was paid $125 a month to attend lectures and study the artworks at the foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania (located near Philadelphia). So during 1928 Douglas traveled to Merion every Tuesday and stayed until Friday, returning to Harlem for the remaining days of the week.

Murals depicting African American history

The next year, Douglas received his first mural-painting assignment, which came from Fisk University, a well-respected black institution in Nashville, Tennessee. He and Alta moved to Nashville for the summer of 1930 and, working with several assistants, Douglas spent the next few months creating a series of murals for Fisk's new library. The main mural is a panorama of African American history in which Douglas shows how blacks had been snatched from their African homes and transported to a new, harsh life of slavery in the United States; images of their emancipation (freedom) from slavery and their role in the building of America follow. The mural pays tribute to African Americans and their deep spirituality, their courage, and their resilience in the face of adversity.

An additional seven murals in the library's lobby illustrate the concepts of philosophy, drama, music, poetry, science, day, and night. All are done in Douglas's typical style, featuring silhouetted figures, muted colors, overlapping circles and rays of light, and storylines that are easy to follow and understand. Around the same time he was working on the Fisk University murals, Douglas also produced murals for the Sherman Hotel's College Inn Room in Chicago, Illinois, and for the Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina. For the Bennett College mural, Douglas again drew from African American history with a portrayal of Harriet Tubman (c. 1820–1913), the dynamic black woman who helped many slaves escape to the North in the mid-nineteenth century.

A year in Paris

In 1931 Douglas was finally able to fulfill a lifelong dream as he sailed for Paris, where he planned to spend a year on intensive art studies. He rented a room in a small hotel on the Left Bank, the traditional gathering place for Parisian artists and writers. Enrolling at an art studio called the Academie Scandinave, Douglas began a program in traditional, classical drawing and painting, producing mostly figure studies drawn from live models. He worked very hard, with no time to spare for the socializing and carousing popular with other artists.

During this period a number of other African American artists were also living and working in Paris, where they found not only inspiration and training opportunities but some relief from the racism and discrimination of the United States. Artists Hale Woodruff, Augusta Savage, and Palmer Hayden (see Chapter 5) as well as writers Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, and (though not continuously) Langston Hughes formed a loose-knit group called the "Negro Colony." Douglas also had a chance to meet the famous black artist Henry Tanner (1859–1937), one of very few African American artists to achieve acclaim in the years before World War I (1914–18). Tanner advised the younger artist to continue his studies and to work with live models whenever he could.

A new mood in Harlem

By the time Douglas returned to the United States, the Great Depression (the period of economic hardship and widespread unemployment that lasted from the stock market crash of 1929 until 1941, when America entered World War II [1939–45]) was well under way. The mood in Harlem—and indeed, across the whole country—was much more gloomy than it had been during the peak years of the Harlem Renaissance. Many artists and intellectuals were beginning to look toward communism (a political system in which all property is owned by the community as a whole) as a solution to the economic and social woes plaguing the United States. Douglas was among those who thought, for at least a brief period, that communism might be the only way to bring an end to poverty and racism in America.

Meanwhile, U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) was seeking his own solutions to the country's problems. In the early 1930s his administration started the Works Projects Administration (WPA; a U.S. government agency founded in 1935, called the Works Progress Administration until 1939), a program designed to put Americans back to work by assigning them to special jobs and projects. Several Harlem Renaissance artists and writers benefited from the WPA, including Douglas. In 1934 he was commissioned to create a series of murals for the Countee Cullen Library, the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library. Entitled Aspectsof Negro Life, this series would later be seen as the finest achievement of Douglas's career.

Aspects of Negro Life

The first panel in the Aspects of Negro Life mural, titled "The Negro in an African Setting," shows two dancers performing inside a circle of tribal figures, some of them holding spears and some beating drums. Painted in soft shades of gold, brown, blue, and purple and highlighted with Douglas's trademark transparent circles and rays of light, the composition conveys a sense of excitement and energy. In the second panel, "From Slavery through Reconstruction," the history of African Americans through the years after the Civil War (1861–65) is depicted through images of toiling workers, a leader-type figure who points into the distance, and chains being broken as freedom is finally won. But there are also figures representing the departing Union Army, and others who wear the conical head coverings of the terrorist group the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). This mural is painted in shades of mauve and rose, green, blue, and brown.

The mural's third panel, "An Idyll of the Deep South," shows how African Americans lived, relaxed, and suffered when most of them were still living in the rural South. Several figures in the painting are working in the fields, while others play guitars and sing; another group of figures mourns the death of a lynched man, a reference to the widespread violence against blacks that had dominated the early twentieth century. In the final panel, "Song of the Towers," a figure with suitcase in hand flees from clutching fingers that seem to represent the rural life of toil and hardship. In the distance are skyscraper-like structures that represent the northern cities, where he may find both enjoyment and artistic achievement—depicted through the figure of a jazz musician—and the evils of industry (as black smoke billows from smokestacks). Like the other murals, these are done in muted purples, browns, and greens.

Leans toward teaching

In Aspects of Negro Life Douglas had created a meaningful tribute to the history, trials, and accomplishments of black people during their several centuries in the United States. Although he remained active as an artist and a teacher, Douglas would never again produce a work as original or noteworthy as those he had completed during and just after the Harlem Renaissance.

In 1937 Douglas received a fellowship from the Rosen-wald Foundation, a charitable organization that benefited many African American writers and artists. This fellowship allowed him to make a tour of the southern states, visiting various black educational institutions. The next year he traveled to the Dominican Republic and Haiti, where he painted a series of watercolors depicting life in these Caribbean nations. In 1940 Douglas accepted a job at Fisk University, where he was to organize art classes and create a fine arts major, which the school did not yet have. During the first four years of his more than two decades at Fisk, Douglas taught in the spring and returned to New York in the fall to attend Teacher's College at Columbia University, where he earned his master's degree in fine arts in 1944.

In the remaining years of his life, Douglas continued to paint, and he exhibited his paintings in galleries in such cities as Baltimore, Maryland; Washington, D.C.; St. Louis, Missouri; and Los Angeles, California. He often lectured on black art and was recognized for his contributions to art education. Most of his time and energy, however, were devoted to his work and students at Fisk. In his contacts with students he stressed a thorough study of the history of art and the importance of learning artistic rules and traditions before experimenting with unconventional methods and themes. Douglas also encouraged young people to expand their knowledge of African American history, and he fostered an attitude of hope and optimism about the future. He retired from Fisk in 1966.

Douglas's distinctive artistic style brought the Harlem Renaissance to life on magazine covers, book jackets, and murals. At the time of his death in Nashville in 1979, he was universally acknowledged as a key figure in the development of African American art.

For More Information


Chederholm, Theresa Dickason. Afro-American Artists: A Bio-Bibliographical Dictionary. Boston: Boston Public Library, 1973.

Hayward Gallery. Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Kirschke, Amy Helene. Aaron Douglas: Art, Race, and the Harlem Renaissance. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.

Studio Museum in Harlem. Harlem Renaissance: The Art of Black America. New York: Abradale Press, 1994.

Watson, Steven. The Harlem Renaissance: Hub of African-American Culture,1920–1930. New York: Pantheon, 1995.

Web sites

"Aaron Douglas: Works Viewable on the Internet." Artcyclopedia. [Online] (accessed June 13, 2000).

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