Savage, Augusta (1892–1962)
Savage, Augusta (1892–1962)
African-American sculptor and teacher whose work and educational endeavors helped increase opportunities for other black artists. Born Augusta Christine Fells on February 29, 1892 (some sources cite 1900), in Green Cove Springs, Florida; died on March 26, 1962; daughter of Reverend Edward Fells and Cornelia (Murphy) Fells; briefly attended Tallahassee State Normal School (now Florida Agricultural and Mechanical State University); attended Cooper Union Art Program, 1921–24; studied with George Brewster, 1929–30; studied with Félix Beauneteaux, at the Grand Chaumière, France; studied with Charles Despiau, in France; married John T. Moore, in 1907 (died); married James Savage, around 1915 (divorced early 1920s); married Robert L. Poston, in October 1923 (died 1924); children: (first marriage) Irene Connie Moore (b. 1908).
Won the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship (1929 and 1931); was the first African-American member of the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors (1934); won citations at the Salon d'Automne and the Salon de Printemps at the Grand Palais, Paris; was awarded a medallion at the Colonial Exposition in France.
Destined to be called "one of the nation's most distinguished black artists of the Harlem Renaissance and beyond," Augusta Savage was born in 1892 in Green Cove Springs, Florida, where she worked the red clay, which was native to the area, into a source for her early creativity. "At the mud pie age," she later noted, "I began to make 'things' instead of mud pies." Inspired to share her skills with others even in her youth, she instructed siblings and friends in her sculpting technique. Savage's father, however, was by no means pleased with the works his young daughter produced. A minister who worked as a house painter, he regarded her creations as "graven images" and punished her repeatedly for her efforts. "My father licked me five or six times a week and almost whipped all the art out of me," she said, but she did not let his aggression put an end to her activities; rather, she took care to keep her work hidden from him.
In 1907, while in her mid-teens, she married John T. Moore, with whom she had a daughter, Irene Connie Moore , the next year. John died while Irene was still a child. Around the time Augusta married a carpenter and laborer named James Savage, she relocated in 1915 to West Palm Beach, Florida. There, a local pottery factory provided her with clay, and when a statue of Mary the Virgin was among the pieces she produced, her father began to relent and accept her talents. Local attention also resulted from this work and opened the door for Savage to teach a class in clay modeling to her fellow high-school students for six months. From sculptures of animals, her work evolved to increasingly challenging subjects. Noticed by country-fair superintendent George Currie, she was provided an opportunity to display her work at the country fair, earning $25 in prize money. This sum was increased by local contributions until she was able to support a stint in Jacksonville where she produced busts for wealthy blacks in hopes of generating enough income for formal art training. Although this venture did not prove lucrative, her goal would be achieved after she made her way to New York.
Arriving in Manhattan during 1920 with $4.60 to her name, Savage went to work as an apartment caretaker. A letter of introduction from Currie to the sculptor Solon Borglum made possible her entrance to Cooper Union, where she studied largely with sculptor George Brewster. Cooper Union provided a four-year art program which was tuition free, but, after Savage lost her job three months into her studies, she could not afford living expenses. The school's director provided her with a scholarship so that she could continue, and she took an inexpensive room in Upper Harlem to make ends meet.
Her studies in African art at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library brought her to the attention of librarian Sadie Peterson (Delaney ). Through Peterson's efforts, Savage received a commission for a portrait of NAACP founder W.E.B. Du Bois for the library. This work, which is still regarded as the finest likeness of Du Bois ever produced, earned her portrait commissions for other black leaders, including of Marcus Garvey, who sat for the sculptor in his Harlem apartment. In addition to the financial support they represented, these commissions earned Savage the black community's recognition.
She became an even more recognizable figure when a summer-school program at France's Palace of Fountainebleau, which was under the auspices of the French government, rejected her application in an overtly racist attempt to exclude Savage because she was black (this was publicly admitted by the selection committee's chair for painting and sculpture). Savage took the matter to the press, and her case was argued by Alfred Martin of the Ethical Culture Society and prominent anthropologist Franz Boas. While the issue was addressed in articles in The New York Times—and other leading newspapers, including the Nation, lent their voices to the protest—Savage did not gain admittance to the school. However, Hermon MacNeil, a committee member, did not hide his shame of the incident and invited Savage to work with him at College Point, an offer she accepted. "Meanwhile," notes Jessie Carney Smith , "Savage became known as a talented troublemaker to be avoided. It has been suggested that the prominent white critics, museum heads, artists, and dealers saw to it that she was excluded from exhibits and galleries."
Neither her experiences with bigotry nor difficulties in her personal life kept Savage from continuing her work. Her third marriage, in October 1923 to journalist and Marcus Garvey associate Robert L. Poston, ended with Poston's death less than six months later (March 1924).
In 1925, Countess Irene Di Robilant provided Savage with scholarship funds so that she could study at Rome's Royal Academy of Fine Arts. To raise money for travel expenses, Savage took employment in a laundry. Unable to come up with enough funds to both see to her family matters and make her way to Italy, she was unable to accept Di Robilant's gift. Her luck changed in 1929 when she was awarded the first of two Julius Rosenwald fellowships (the second in 1931). This honor was particularly influenced by what was to become the most popular of Savage's statues, Gamin, a portrait of an attractive Harlem boy. Note Bearden and Henderson, the head she sculpted "caught the vitality, the humanity, the tenderness, and the wisdom of a boy child who has lived in the streets." By the time she won the first Rosenwald fellowship, Onorio Ruotolo, Antonio Salemme, and Hermon MacNeil were among those with whom she had studied, and Savage had developed significant contacts, including the Carnegie Corporation's Frederick P. Keppel who endorsed her fellowship application.
Savage also studied with the sculptor Victor Salvatore who expressed the hope that she would "consider her future work largely in relation to her own people." This thought was echoed by Rosenwald official George Arthur; while she was studying in Paris during 1930, he offered this advice:
[Avoid becoming] too much imbued with European standards of technique, if they are going to kill the other something which in my opinion some Negro will eventually give to American art, maybe in sculpture, maybe in music, painting or literature…. There is just one field in which the Negro has an equal chance with the white man in American life and that field is art. If he follows standards or even the white Americans,
which in turn have copied them from Europe, then the Negro can at best be but a copy of the copy.
While in Paris, Savage had private study with Félix Beauneteaux and Mademoiselle Hadjii at the Grand Chaumière and later with Charles Despiau. Several European galleries showed her work, and she earned citations at the Salon d'Automne and Paris' Salon Printemps at the Grande-Palais, as well as a medallion at the Colonial Exposition. From the Carnegie Corporation, she received another grant which financed her travels in France, Belgium, and Germany.
She returned to New York in 1931, and her work was shown for a second time in a Harmon Foundation exhibit during 1930–31 (her first showing with the foundation had been in 1928). She concentrated on sculptured portraits while working to instruct others in her field. Active in enrolling black artists in the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project (FAP), she provided them with studio space at the school she established, Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts. In the 1930s, her students' exhibitions received positive recognition, as did her own work; William Artis, Norman Lewis, and Jacob Lawrence were among those of her students who would receive national attention as artists.
Savage became the first African-American to win election to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors (1934). By 1936, she had accepted a position as assistant supervisor of the FAP for New York City. As the Harlem Community Art Center's first director (1937), she worked to develop recreational, artistic, and educational programming. She was also among the main organizers of the Harlem Artists Guild, of which she became the second president.
As one of four women, and the only black woman, commissioned to execute a sculptural work for the 1939–40 New York World's Fair, Savage produced her most famous piece entitled Lift Every Voice and Sing. Smith describes the work as a "sixteen-foot harp composed of blacks of various sizes and ages, who lift their voices to sing and form strings, tapered from each head to the base. A mammoth forearm and hand with fingers curved upward, representing the Creator, form the base. In front, the kneeling figure with outstretched arms offers the gift of black music to the world." Unfortunately, funds were not available to have the piece cast in bronze and it was destroyed following the exhibition; photographs of the work remain, however, as testament to Savage's talent. While working on Lift Every Voice and Sing, the artist took leave from the Harlem Art Center to complete the project, and she was later disappointed to find that in her absence she had been replaced.
In June 1939, a corporation which Savage headed opened the Salon of Contemporary Negro Art. This was the country's first gallery dedicated to showing and selling art produced by African-Americans. Despite its important work, the gallery had to shut its doors after only a few years because funds were unavailable to keep it running. In the following years, Savage's participation in art promotion and instruction, as well as her own production, declined. After relocating to Saugerties in New York's Catskill Mountains, she is said to have brought in money by raising and selling chickens and eggs. Savage continued sculpting and executed portrait sculptures of tourists. She did return to New York City on occasion to perform repair work on some of her plaster pieces and, as her health failed, eventually moved back there to live with her daughter before dying of cancer in the Bronx on March 26, 1962. Although she died in virtual obscurity, the place in history since secured for Savage as a sculptor and teacher serves to reinforce her motto: "Life is fleeting, Art is eternal."
Bailey, Brooke. The Remarkable Lives of 100 Women Artists. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, 1994.
Bearden, Romare, and Harry Henderson. "Augusta Savage," in Six Black Masters of American Art. NY: Doubleday, 1972.
Current Biography 1941. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1941.
Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer. American Women Artists. Avon, 1982.
Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.