The Harlem Renaissance was, at its heart, a movement that explored heritage, history, and culture while celebrating the beauty of African Americans. Parallel and prior to the Harlem Renaissance was an interest by European artist such as Picasso and Matisse in African art; they incorporated African elements into their own works (Slovey, 109). The popularity of these works encouraged African Americans to experiment as well (Slovey 109).
One of the biggest contributors to the evolution of visual arts during the Harlem Renaissance was the Harmon Foundation, which recognized African American achievement “with awards in seven categories—literature, fine arts, science, education, industry, religion, and music” (Slovey, 110). The Harmon Foundation also sponsored all-black art exhibitions, including a traveling exhibition of 150 artists that toured fifty cities (Slovey, 110).
Aaron Douglas was born in Topika Kansas in 1899. He is one of the most recognized and influential artist of the Harlem Renaissance. Often called “the father of African-American art” (DeLombard). His illustrations were included in many novels and publications from the era; including Langston Hughes’s Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem (1928), and the definitive text of the movement The New Negro (1925), edited by Alain Locke. He also noted for his mural paintings for the Harlem cabaret Club Ebony, Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, Fisk University Library, and the NYC 135th Street YMCA, among others.
Douglas was a promoter of “jazz as a new mode of African American expression based in deep emotions and black cultural traditions” (DeLombard). This can be seen in his illustration Congo, which was done for the Paul Morand novel Black Magic (1929). Douglas used a blend of African techniques, themes, and subjects in a way that was new to American art at the time. The main figure of Congo, the woman with a ray of light shooting from her eyes amidst the revelers, is based on Josephine Baker—dancer and noted contributor to the American Civil Rights movement.
Lois Mailou Jones was born in Boston in 1905. She was an “active participant in the development of African-American influence in the arts” (LMJ). Jones was a painter and a professor of arts and design—starting at Palmer Memorial Institute in 1928 and at Howard University in 1930, where she worked for years (LMJ, MFA). Jones also did illustrations for Harlem Renaissance writers Carter Woodson and Langston Hughes. She was widely acclaimed during her life time, winning dozens of awards, fellowships, and honors (LMJ, MFA).
Her painting Ascent of Ethiopia was shown in a Harmon Foundation art of the Harlem Renaissance exhibit in 1933 (LMJ).
William H. Johnson was born in Florence, SC in 1901. He was considered a “20th century American Art” (FCM). He was a hugely prolific artist, with 1500 known and accounted for works (FCM). In 1930 Johnson won a gold medal in the Fine Arts Field of the Harmon Foundation Distinguished Achievements Among Negroes (FCM).
Johnson had returned to the US for a short time, he had been studying and painting in Europe, in 1929-30 and visited his family for the first time in twelve years (FCM). While in Florence, Johnson painted 12 works; one of which was the painting of his brother James, who was sixteen at the time. The painting is done in an expressionistic style, as he had not yet developed the folk style of which he’d become known for.
I chose these three works by Douglas, Jones, and Johnson because they are not only beautiful pieces but they portray different aspects of the Harlem Renaissance.
Douglas was known for using silhouettes and muted colors in his works. I love Congo because of the energy displayed by the dancers. The viewer can almost hear the music embodied in their revelry. I also like the graphic quality of the work. Though it was done as a book illustration, it could work just as well as a poster. The aspect of the Harlem Renaissance that Douglas depicts is African American culture. Music, and Jazz in particular, and dance were integral to African American culture of the time.
The first thing that struck me about Jones’ Ascent of Ethiopia was the colors. The contrast of the blue and yellow, the areas where they’ve blended to green—the combination is visually striking. I also liked the Egyptian face in the bottom right, and how the figures in the painting transform from laborers to urban entertainers. There is also a bit of echo in shape between the pyramids and the high-rise buildings that is intriguing. The aspect of the Harlem Renaissance that I find in Jones’ piece is a integration of African culture and technique.
Jim is a lovely painting, done in an expressionistic manner. Johnson captures his brother in a way that gives the viewer a sense of youth, without making him childlike. I like the tones used in this work. The colors in the skin, the mahogany red against the ocher yellow, shouldn’t work but somehow do. The aspect of the Harlem Renaissance that I find in this piece, is the celebration of beauty.
Overall, I think that the Harlem Renaissance was a vivid and exciting movement in art history. My favorite artist from the time is by far Aaron Douglas.
“Biography.” Loïs Mailou Jones. Loïs Mailou Jones Pierre-Noël Trust. nd. Web. March 31 2015. < http://www.loismailoujones.com/index.php?page=biography >
DeLombard, Jeannine. “Douglas, Aaron.” American National Biography Online Oxford University Press, April 2014. Web. March 31, 2015. < http://www.anb.org/articles/17/17-00233.html >
“Loïs Mailou Jones.” Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Nd. Web. March 31 2015. < http://www.mfa.org/exhibitions/lois-mailou-jones >
Slovey, Christine, and Kelly King Howes, eds. Harlem Renaissance. Detroit: UXL, 2001. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 3 Apr. 2015.
“William H. Johnson Biography.” Florence County Museum. Florence County Museum. Nd. Web. March 31 2015. < http://www.florencemuseum.org/william-h-johnson/william-h-johnson-biography-p1/ >