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Douglas, Aaron

Douglas, Aaron

May 26, 1899
February 24, 1979

Born in Topeka, Kansas, Aaron Douglas, a painter and educator, graduated from Topeka High School in 1917, then earned his B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska in 1922. While he taught art at Lincoln High School in Kansas City, Missouri (19231925), his social circle included future civil rights leader Roy Wilkins, future classical music composer William Levi Dawson, and Ethel Ray (Nance), who became Charles S. Johnson's assistant at Opportunity magazine. Ray and Johnson persuaded Douglas to postpone study in France to work in New York. Douglas soon became one of the leading artists of the New Negro movement, developing a geometric, monochromatic style of depicting African Americans in dynamic silhouettes by synthesizing formal and symbolic elements of West African sculpture with European-American traditions and modern design into a hard-edged, art decolike style.

In 1925 Douglas earned three important distinctions that launched his careerfirst prize for a front cover illustration of Opportunity, first prize in drawing (for The African Chieftain ) from Crisis magazine, and a commission to illustrate Alain Locke's anthology, The New Negro. The following year, Douglas married his high school classmate, educator Alta Sawyer, and illustrated The Emperor Jones and the short-lived magazine of African-American art and literature Fire!! In 1927 he illustrated Plays of Negro Life, edited by Locke and Montgomery Gregory, and God's Trombones: Seven Sermons in Negro Verse by James Weldon Johnson. Six works in the latter book, along with a portrait, were exhibited at the Harmon Foundation in 1928. Over the next decade, Douglas would illustrate books by Charles S. Johnson, Claude McKay, Paul Morand, and Andre Salmon, as well as numerous magazine covers.

In the late 1920s Douglas studied privately with Fritz Winold Reiss, a German-American artist whose modernist work Douglas had admired in the New Negro issue of Survey Graphic (edited by Locke in March 1925). Reiss and Locke encouraged Douglas to look to African art for inspiration and develop his own racially representative work. Through their influence Douglas received a one-year scholarship (19281929) to the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania, where he studied both African and modern European art.

In 1930 Douglas painted heroic murals of African-American culture and history in the library at Fisk University in Nashville, the Sherman Hotel in Chicago, and Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina. In 1931 he went to Paris for one year to study independently and with Charles Despiau and Othon Friesz at the Académie Scandinave. While Douglas worked diligently, only one piece from his time abroad is known: Forge Foundry, a black-and-white illustration published in the French journal Revue du monde noir (1931).

In the 1930s Douglas based himself in New York as an arts leader and muralist. The year after he was elected president of the Harlem Artists' Guild (1935), he addressed the First American Artists Congress. With sponsorship from New Deal art programs and various grants, Douglas completed several murals, most notably Aspects of Negro Life, at the 135th Street Harlem Branch of the New York Public Library (1934); those for the Hall of Negro Life exhibited at the Texas Centennial Exposition (1936); and Education of the Colored Man, at the Atlanta City Housing Project (1938). In 1938 Douglas received a travel fellowship to the American South and Haiti from the Julius Rosenwald Fund. He exhibited his paintings of Haitian life at the American Contemporary Art Gallery in New York the following year.

In 1939 Douglas began teaching art at Fisk University, where he served as professor and chair of the Department of Art Education for nearly three decades. During this period, he often divided his time between Nashville and New York, where he completed his M.A. in art education at Columbia University Teachers College in 1944 (his fraternal affiliations included Sigma Pi Phi and Kappa Alpha Psi) and received a Carnegie teaching grant in 1951. From the 1930s until the 1950s, the Douglases frequently entertained artists and writers at their home at 409 Edgecombe Avenue, known as "the White House of Harlem" because the building's residents included prominent intellectuals and civil rights leaders. Douglas painted many of their portraits, in addition to landscapes.

As founder of the Carl Van Vechten Gallery (1949) at Fisk, Douglas acquired a major gift from Georgia O'Keeffe, the Alfred Steiglitz Collection (1949), as well as an important series of portraits of African Americans, the Winold Reiss Collection (1952), and he brought numerous artists to the university for lectures and exhibitions. Noted for these achievements and his art, Douglas was honored by President John F. Kennedy at a White House reception commemorating the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1963. In 1972 he became a fellow of the Black Academy of Arts and received its outstanding achievement award. The following year, Fisk University awarded Douglas an honorary degree of Doctor of Fine Arts. After retiring as professor emeritus in 1966, Douglas lectured widely and continued to paint until his death in 1979.

Douglas's work has appeared in many major American museums and galleries and in university and community center exhibitions. Additional solo exhibitions were held at D'Caz-Delbo Gallery (1933); University of Nebraska, Lincoln (1941); People's Art Center, St. Louis (1947); Chabot Gallery, Los Angeles (1948); Riley Art Galleries, New York (1955); University of California, Berkeley (1964); and Mulvane Art Center, Topeka, Kansas (1970).

See also Art; Crisis, The ; Johnson, Charles Spurgeon; Johnson, James Weldon; Locke, Alain Leroy; McKay, Claude; New Negro; Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life ; Painting and Sculpture; Wilkins, Roy


Driskell, David, David Levering Lewis, and Deborah Willis Ryan. Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black America. New York: Abrams, 1987.

Huggins, Nathan Irvin. Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Igoe, Lynn Moody, with James Igoe. 250 Years of Afro-American Art: An Annotated Bibliography. New York and London: Bowker, 1981.

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

Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Penguin, 1979.

theresa leininger-miller (1996)

linda nieman (1996)

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