Woodruff, Hale 1900–1980
Hale Woodruff 1900–1980
Painter, muralist, art educator
Hale Woodruff contributed to the development of African American art as an artist and a distinguished art educator. His works are displayed in the permanent collections of several universities, particularly in the South, as well as the National Archives and the Library of Congress. He considered the mural series he created for the library at Atlanta University, The Art of the Negro, his most significant work, according to Black Art, Ancestral Legacy. The mural traced the history of African art and showed its impact on modern art. A major retrospective of his paintings was mounted by the Studio Museum of Harlem in 1979, one year before he died at the age of 80.
Woodruff was born on August 26, 1900, in Cairo, Illinois, to George and Augustin Woodruff. His father died while he was a child, and his mother took him to live in East Nashville, Tennessee, where he attended elementary and high school. He showed an early interest in art by serving as a cartoonist for his high school paper. Woodruff graduated from high school at the age of 18, and two years later enrolled in the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis, Indiana. After experiencing financial difficulties, he moved to Chicago and enrolled briefly at the Chicago Art Institute. Shortly thereafter, he returned to Indianapolis, where he continued to paint and work at the local Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). Exhibiting locally, Woodruff soon developed a following for his works.
In 1924 Woodruff entered the first of the Amy Spingarn Prize competitions sponsored by the Crisis magazine. He won a third place for illustration, which netted him ten dollars. More importantly, the competition brought the young artist’s work to the attention of the William E. Harmon Foundation and others interested in stimulating achievement among African American artists. When the New York-based Harmon Foundation established its first annual fine arts competition in 1926, Woodruff entered and won the second place bronze award, which included a $100 cash prize. The governor of Indiana recognized Woodruff’s Harmon Foundation award with another medal.
To further his artistic education, Woodruff travelled to Paris in 1928 with the financial help of supporters from Indianapolis. He agreed to write a series of articles on the art scene in France for the Indianapolis Star for ten dollars apiece. In Paris he studied at the Academie Scandinavia and Academie Moderne. He noted that many of the French Modernists had incorporated African and other primitive forms and images into their work. Throughout his career, Woodruff would
Born Hale Aspacio Woodruff, August 26, 1900, in Cairo, IL; died September, 1980, in New York, NY; son of George and Augustin Woodruff; married Theresa A. Baker; children: Roy. Education: Attended John Herron Art Institute, Indianapolis, IN, 1920–22; studied at Chicago Art Institute; Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, MA; Academie Scandinavia and Academie Moderne, both in Paris, 1926–27; and with Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1928, and Diego Rivera, 1936.
Awards: Amy Spingarn Prize, third place for illustration, 1924; William E. Harmon Foundation Award, 1926; Julius Rosenwald Scholarship, 1943 and 1944; Purchase Prize, Atlanta University, 1951; Great Teacher Award, New York University, 1966; Honorary Doctorate, Morgan State College, Baltimore, 1968.
explore the effect of African art on the modern art of the twentieth century.
In France, Woodruff met Henry Ossawa Tanner, who was considered the foremost black artist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Tanner was living in semi-retirement in the Normandy town of Etaples. While Woodruff studied with Tanner, he learned the importance of the human figure. From Tanner, Woodruff learned to use the human figure as “a vehicle for representing the concerns of humanity,” according to the Journal of Negro History. As Woodruff developed from a landscape painter to an accomplished muralist later in his career, the historically accurate depiction of human figures became an important aspect of his work, perhaps reflecting the influence of Tanner.
After studying with Tanner, Woodruff moved to a less expensive place to live and paint, Cagnes Sur Mer in the south of France. In this scenic village, which overlooked the sea and countryside, lived French painters Pierre Auguste Renoir and Chaim Soutine, as well as the black American painter William H. Johnson. Woodruff found it an ideal setting to continue his landscape paintings while soaking up the influence of the Modernists. His goal at the time was to become a great landscape painter in the tradition of the Indiana artists of Brown County.
While in Europe, Woodruff continued to submit paintings to the Harmon Foundation. In 1929 his landscapes were included in a Harmon Foundation exhibition that traveled to 11 American cities. Influential art critic Leila Mechlin characterized the show as “a group of carefully selected works by advanced students or young professionals,” according to Against the Odds. She described Woodruff’s works and those of other artists as “all good of their kind.” That year Woodruff sold one of his works for $200, but continued to have financial difficulties.
In 1931 Dr. John Hope, who had met Woodruff at the Indianapolis YMCA, became president of Atlanta University. Hearing of Woodruff’s financial troubles in Europe, Hope offered him a teaching position at Atlanta University. Woodruff accepted and returned to the United States in the fall of 1931. In Atlanta, Woodruff was a one-person art department, and the first instructor to teach drawing and painting at the university. Woodruff conducted his studio classes in a casual, informal manner, establishing individual directions for each student’s work and encouraging his students to use the classroom at all hours. By the mid-1930s Atlanta University and its colleges had become the regional center for aspiring art students. They came to study with Woodruff even though a graduate program in art was not yet being offered.
As a teacher, Woodruff stressed the elements of modern art as well as the importance of self-discipline. He showed how self-discipline helped organize the ideas, materials, and techniques in his own work, and encouraged his students to learn self-discipline as well. “He encouraged his students to explore all phases of their proposal before the paint was placed on the canvas,” according to the Journal of Negro History. He also influenced his students’ choice of subject matter by encouraging them to paint from their own environments, often taking small groups outdoors to sketch. “He encouraged students to study their heritage, from which they might learn a sense of artistic structure unlike that of any other art,” according to the Journal of Negro History.
To expose his students to fine art, Woodruff frequently exhibited his own works and those of other artists in the library of Atlanta University. He brought exhibits of African art to the university as well as a major display from New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. At the time his own works included such subjects as the run-down neighborhoods around the college campus and the impoverished farms of the Georgia countryside.
Woodruff exhibited in two one-person shows in 1931 at the Valentine Gallery and the L’Elan galleries in New York. New York Times art critic Edward Alden Jewell lavished attention on Woodruff’s works, in which he perceived “a distinct French influence.” He noted the Cubist structure of Head of a Woman and The Card Players and felt they were both definitely modern in spirit. During the 1930s, however, Woodruff’s style would change from figure studies and provincial landscapes to social realist scenes and increasingly abstract landscapes.
Woodruff’s first mural was a collaboration with Wilmer Jennings in 1934. The four-panel mural, titled The Negro in Modern American Life, Literature, Music, Agriculture, Rural Life, and Art, was a teaching project that involved Woodruff’s students and was done at a local junior high school as part of a Public Works Project. In 1935 Woodruff worked on Works Project Administration (WPA) murals for the Atlanta School of Social Work. These projects were part of a federal program to provide artists with work. Interested in learning the fresco technique of mural painting, which involved working directly in wet plaster, Woodruff spent the summer of 1936 in Mexico studying with the famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Upon his return to Atlanta University, Woodruff lectured his students on Mexican arts and legends, noting parallels between Mexican art and that of African Americans’.
Woodruff received his first major commission for murals in 1939. A new library was being built at Talladega College in Talladega, Alabama, where Woodruff had been invited to teach an art history course. Buell Gallagher, Talladega’s president, asked Woodruff to do a mural commemorating the new library. He wanted the subject of the mural to be the Amistad Mutiny, an event that indirectly led to the establishment of traditionally black colleges in America.
Woodruff created a three-panel mural for the library at Talladega after studying more about the mutiny. He traveled to New Haven, Connecticut, where the trial of the mutineers had been held, and studied drawings of the actual participants. The first panel depicts the actual mutiny led by Sierra Leonese captive Cinque and his countrymen against the Spanish slave-traders aboard the Amistad. Black Art, Ancestral Legacy noted that “the physicality of this scene is one of the strongest visual expressions of the black struggle for freedom.”
In panel two, The Amistad Slaves on Trial at New Haven, Connecticut, Woodruff painted his own self portrait as one of the slaves in the courthouse. “Seated among black men, women, and children, Woodruff deliberately places himself in this chapter of African American history, becoming a very real part of this classic battle for freedom,” according to Black Art, Ancestral Legacy. The final panel depicts the repatriation of the Africans, who were allowed to return to Sierra Leone. Early white missionaries accompanied the Amistad blacks to Africa. The American Missionary Association was formed as a direct result of the mutiny, and part of its work was to establish black colleges in the South, including Talladega College.
Woodruff and artist Charles Alston received a commission in 1949 from the Los Angeles-based Golden State Mutual, Life Insurance Company. The occasion was the 100th anniversary of the 1849 California Gold Rush. Golden State Mutual, one of the West’s largest black-owned businesses, had just completed its $1 million office building. Alston and Woodruff each created a mural depicting the history of African Americans in California for the lobby of the new building. Alston focused on the early black history of the state, while Woodruff’s mural contained eight scenes ranging from the Gold Rush of 1849 to the 1940s.
Woodruff’s last major mural commission came in 1950 from Atlanta University and resulted in what Woodruff has called his most significant work. Housed in the university’s library, The Art of the Negro draws upon Woodruff’s knowledge of African art and its influence on modem art. Among the subjects of the six eleven-foot-high panels are African art forms, European contact with African artists, destruction of African civilization by European influences, parallels among African, Native American, and other ethnic arts, and the impact of African art upon modern art. The mural scenes depicted “an artistic heritage which few blacks at the time were even aware of,” according to Black Art, Ancestral Legacy. By presenting scenes of African art and artists within the context of the university library, Woodruff hoped that the murals would become part of the students’ cultural frame of reference.
One of Woodruff’s major contributions to the development of African American art and artists was the inauguration in 1942 of an annual exhibition devoted to the works of black artists from around the country at Atlanta University. The exhibit gave artists a chance to show their works, an opportunity to earn money through prizes, and helped the university establish a permanent collection of African American art. Invitations to black artists were announced in the black news media throughout America, and Atlanta University offered four purchase prizes of $100, $75, $50, and $25 at the first exhibition. The Harmon Foundation provided a substantial $250 prize in the name of Dr.John Hope, Atlanta University’s former president.
107 paintings and sculptures by 62 artists made up the first annual exhibit, which opened on April 19,1942, with an address by noted black painter Aaron Douglas. By 1945, the show had become the number one sales outlet for black artists, according to Ebony magazine. The fifth annual show, held in 1946, gave out $1,400in prizes. The Atlanta annual exhibition ran successfully until 1970.
After winning the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship, Woodruff moved to New York to further his creative talents in 1943. The scholarship was renewed in 1944. In 1946 Woodruff accepted a teaching position with New York University’s Department of Art Education, where he taught for more than 20 years until his retirement in 1968. Throughout his career, in his paintings as well as his teaching, Woodruff celebrated African art and highlighted its influence on modem art.
Bearden, Romare, and Harry Henderson, A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present, Pantheon, 1993.
Black Art, Ancestral Legacy: The African Impulse in African-American Art, Dallas Museum of Art and Harry N. Abrams, 1989.
Dover, Cedric, American Negro Art, New York Graphic Society, 1960.
Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black America, Studio Museum in Harlem and Harry N. Abrams,1987.
Reynolds, Gary A., and Beryl J. Wright, Against the Odds: African-American Artists and the Harmon Foundation, Newark Museum, 1989.
Thomison, Dennis, The Black Artist in America: An Index to Reproductions, Scarecrow, 1991.
Ebony, December 1945, p. 46; August 1946, p. 46;October 1947, p. 15; November 1949, p.29.
Jet, September 25, 1980, p. 58.
Journal of Negro History, summer-fall 1984, p. 147.
New York Times, February 17, 1931, p. 23.
New York Times Biographical Service, September 1980, p. 1346.
August 26, 1900
September 10, 1980
Born in Cairo, Illinois, Hale Aspacio Woodruff, a painter and educator, moved with his mother to Nashville, Tennessee, where he attended public schools. In 1920 he moved to Indianapolis to study at the John Herron Art Institute while working part-time as a political cartoonist for the black newspaper the Indiana Ledger. In 1927 he traveled to Europe and lived in France for the next four years. He studied with the African-American painter Henry O. Tanner and at the Académie Scandinave and Académie Moderne in 1927 and 1928. Like other American artists who sought an education in the center of the art world, Woodruff spent his time recapitulating the succession of avant-garde art movements of the previous fifty years. His landscapes and figure paintings first synthesized elements of the late-nineteenth-century styles of impressionism and postimpressionism in their interest in the nonrealistic shifts of color and the manipulation of the texture of the brushstroke. His key work of the period, The Card Players (1930; repainted in 1978), plays on the distortions of figure and space found in the work of Paul Cézanne and the cubists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. This work emphasizes Woodruff's debt to African art (which had also been a source for the cubists) in the masklike nature of the faces. Woodruff had first encountered African art in Indianapolis in the early 1920s, when he saw one of the first books on the subject. As it was written in German, he could not read it, but he was intrigued by the objects. Woodruff and the African-American philosopher and teacher Dr. Alain Locke visited flea markets in Paris, where the artist bought his first works of African art.
In 1931 Woodruff returned to the United States to found the art department at Atlanta University. Through his pioneering efforts, the national African-American arts community developed the kind of cohesion that previously had been lacking. Woodruff himself taught painting, drawing, and printmaking. To teach sculpture, he recruited the artist Nancy Elizabeth Prophet. The works that came from the department's faculty and students came to be known as the "Atlanta School" because their subjects were the African-American population of that city. Fully representational with modernist nuances, they fall into the style of American regionalism practiced throughout the country at that time. The use of woodcuts and linoleum prints added a populist tone to these works, which dealt with everyday life. Besides teaching, he brought to Atlanta University exhibitions of a wide range of works, including those of historical and contemporary black artists and the Harmon Foundation exhibitions, providing a unique opportunity for the entire black Atlanta community, since the local art museum was then segregated. The year 1942 saw the initiation of the Atlanta University Annuals, a national juried exhibition for black artists that expanded opportunities for many who were frequently excluded from the American art scene. Woodruff's legacy can be seen in the remarkable list of his students—Frederick Flemister, Eugene Grigsby, Wilmer Jennings, and Hayward Oubré—and of the artists who showed in the Annuals, including Charles Alston, Lois Mailou Jones, Elizabeth Catlett, Claude Clark, Ernest Crichlow, Aaron Douglas, William H. Johnson, Norman Lewis, Hughie Lee-Smith, Jacob Lawrence, and Charles White. The exhibitions continued until 1970.
During this same period, Woodruff, as part of his efforts to present a populist art, produced a series of murals. Two of his inspirations were the murals placed in public buildings across the country by WPA artists, and the Mexican mural movement. Woodruff himself received a grant to study with Diego Rivera for six weeks in the summer of 1934, when he assisted in fresco painting. After completing two WPA murals, he painted the major work of this period, the Amistad Murals (1938–1939) at Talladega College (Alabama). Designed in the boldly figurative style associated with social realism, the murals depict the mutiny led by Cinqué aboard the slave ship Amistad in 1834 and the subsequent trial and repatriation of the Africans. Other mural projects included The Founding of Talladega College (1938–1939), murals at the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company (Los Angeles) on the contribution of blacks to the development of California (1948), and The Art of the Negro for Atlanta University (1950–1951).
In 1946, after receiving a two-year Julius Rosenwald Foundation Fellowship to study in New York (1943–1945), Woodruff moved to that city permanently to teach in the art education department of New York University. The move was not a rejection of the South, but came as an attempt by Woodruff to be part of the new art capital, which had shifted from Paris to New York. Woodruff changed his style from that of a figurative painter of the American scene to a practitioner of the ideas of abstract expressionism. While employing the gestural spontaneity of that style, he incorporated design elements from the African art he had studied since his student days in Indianapolis. Worked into his compositions are motifs from a variety of African cultural objects, including Asante goldweights, Dogon masks, and Yoruba Shango implements—a kind of aesthetic Pan-Africanism. This, the third major style of his career, demonstrates the adaptability of an artist always open to new currents in both the aesthetic and political worlds. He continued to be supportive of African-American artists by being one of the founders in 1963 of Spiral, a group of black New York artists (including Charles Alston, Emma Amos, Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, and Richard Mayhew) who sought to weave the visual arts into the fabric of the civil rights struggle.
Woodruff received awards from the Harmon Foundation in 1926, 1928 and 1929, 1931, 1933, and 1935, and an Atlanta University Purchase Prize in 1955. He received a Great Teacher Award at NYU in 1966 and became professor emeritus in 1968.
Reynolds, Gary, and Beryl J. Wright. "Hale Aspacio Woodruff." In Against the Odds: African-American Artists and the Harmon Foundation. Newark, N.J.: The Newark Museum, 1989, pp. 275–279.
Stoelting, Winifred L. "Hale Woodruff, Artist and Teacher: Through the Atlanta Years." Ph.D. diss., Emory University, Atlanta, Ga., 1978.
Studio Museum in Harlem. Hale Woodruff: 50 Years of His Art. New York: Author, 1979.
Wilson, Judith. "'Go Back and Retrieve It': Hale Woodruff, Afro-American Modernist." In Selected Essays: Art and Artists from the Harlem Renaissance to the 1980s. Atlanta, Ga.: National Black Arts Festival, 1988.
helen m. shannon (1996)