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Overview

In 1927 James Weldon Johnson, a key figure in what would come to be known as the Harlem Renaissance, published his masterwork, God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. Inspired by African American preachers whose eloquent orations he viewed as an art form, Johnson sought to translate into verse not only the biblical parables that served as the subjects of the sermons, but also the passion with which they were delivered — the cadence and rhythm of the inspirational language. Identifying black preachers as God's instruments on earth, or "God's trombones," Johnson celebrated a key element of traditional black culture. Years before the publication of his poems, while traveling through the Midwest as a field organizer for the NAACP, Johnson witnessed a gifted black preacher rouse a congregation drifting toward sleep. Summoning his oratorical powers, the preacher abandoned his prepared text, stepped down from the pulpit and delivered — indeed performed — an impassioned sermon. Impressed by what he had seen, Johnson made notes on the spot, but he did not translate the experience into sermon-poems until several years later. Upon publication, God's Trombones attracted considerable attention — not only for Johnson's uniquely original verse, but also for the astonishing illustrations that accompanied the poems. Created by Aaron Douglas (1899 – 1979), a young African American artist who had recently settled in Harlem, the images were an early manifestation of a compositional style that would later become synonymous with the Harlem Renaissance. Drawn by the cultural excitement stirring in Harlem during the mid- 1920s, Douglas arrived in New York in 1925. He soon became a student of Winold Reiss, a German-born artist/ illustrator and early proponent of European modernism in America. It was Reiss who encouraged Douglas to study African art as well as the compositional and tonal innovations of the European modernists. Before long, illustrations by Douglas began appearing in The Crisis, the NAACP publication edited by W.E.B. Du Bois, and Opportunity: The Journal of Negro Life published by the National Urban League. Impressed by these illustrations, James Weldon Johnson asked Douglas to illustrate his forthcoming book of poems, God's Trombones. On short deadline, Douglas created eight images that clearly reflect the influence of Reiss as well as the artist's close study of African art. Bold and unmistakably modern, Douglas'  images were immediately recognized as the visual equivalent of equally important breakthroughs in African American literature, music, and theater.

Several years after the publication of God's Trombones, Douglas began translating the eight illustrations he had created to accompany Johnson's poems into large oil paintings. The Judgment Day, the final painting in the series of eight, is the first work by Douglas to enter the collection. At the center of the composition a powerful black Gabriel stands astride earth and sea. With trumpet call, the archangel summons the nations of the earth to judgment. Recasting both the biblical narrative and the visual vocabulary of art deco and synthetic cubism, Douglas created an image as racially impassioned as the sermons of the black preachers celebrated in God's Trombones.

Inscription

lower right: A. Douglas '39

Provenance

The artist [1899-1979]. Grace Jones, Nashville, in 1976;[1] sold 1978 to Leonard and Paula Granoff, Providence; purchased 6 November 2014 by NGA.

Exhibition History
1976
Two Centuries of Black American Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art; High Museum of Art, Atlanta; Museum of Fine Arts, Dallas; Brooklyn Museum, 1976-1977, no. 99, repro.
Bibliography
1927
Johnson, James Weldon. God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. Drawings by Aaron Douglas. New York, 1927: cover repro., repro. 52b (reference to the 1927 illustration on which the NGA painting is based).
1927
"The Browsing Reader." The Crisis 34, no. 5 (July 1927): repro. 159 (reference to the 1927 illustration on which the NGA painting is based).
1976
Driskell, David C. Two Centuries of Black American Art. Exh. cat. Los Angeles County Museum of Art; High Museum of Art, Atlanta; Museum of Fine Arts, Dallas; Brooklyn Museum, 1976-1977. Los Angeles and New York, 1976: no. 99, repro.
1987
Driskell, David. "Aaron Douglas (1899-1979)." In Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black America. Introduction by Mary Schmidt Campbell, essays by David Driskell, David Levering Lewis, and Deborah Willis Ryan. New York, 1987: 110, 129 (reference to the 1927 illustration on which the NGA painting is based).
1993
Ater, Renee Deanne. "Image, Text, Sound: Aaron Douglas's Illustrations for James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse." M.A. Thesis, University of Maryland, College Park, 1993: 63, fig. 48 (reference to the 1927 illustration on which the NGA painting is based).
1995
Kirschke, Amy Helene. Aaron Douglas: Art, Race, and the Harlem Renaissance. Jackson, Mississippi, 1995: 101, fig. 59 (reference to the 1927 illustration on which the NGA painting is based).
1998
Washington, Michele Y. "Souls on Fire." Print 52, no. 3 (May/June 1998): 58 fig. 6, 60 (reference to the 1927 illustration on which the NGA painting is based).
1999
Barnwell, Andrea D., with contributions by Tritobia Hayes. The Walter O. Evans Collection of African American Art. Seattle, 1999: 45 fig. 1 (reference to the 1927 illustration on which the NGA painting is based), 95 pl. 27, 150 (references to a 1927 opaque watercolor of the same image as the NGA painting).
2000
Goeser, Caroline. "'Not White Art Painted Black:' African American Artists and the New Primitive Aesthetic, c. 1920-35." Ph.D. dissertation, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, 2000: 149, 152, 155-156, 376 fig. 4-15 (reference to the 1927 illustration on which the NGA painting is based).
2002
Carroll, Anne. "Art, Literature, and the Harlem Renaissance: The Messages of "God's Trombones." College Literature 29, no. 3 (Summer 2002): 61, 72, fig. 7 (reference to the 1927 illustration on which the NGA painting is based).
2006
Detroit Institute of Arts. African American Art from the Walter O. Evans Collection. Preview section of the website for the exhibition: http://www.dia.org/exhibitions/woe/preview5.asp; accessed 15 August 2014, repro. (reference to a 1927 opaque watercolor of the same image as the NGA painting).
2007
Earle, Susan Elizabeth, ed. Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist. Exh. cat. Spencer Museum of Art, The University of Kansas, Lawrence; Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington; Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York, 2007-2008. New Haven and London, 2007: 225 (reference to NGA painting), pl. 54 (reference to the 1927 illustration on which the NGA painting is based).
2007
Goeser, Caroline. Picturing the New Negro: Harlem Renaissance Print Culture and Modern Black Identity. Lawrence, Kansas, 2007: 223-224, 225 fig. 67 (reference to the 1927 illustration on which the NGA painting is based)..
2008
Knappe, Stephanie Fox. "Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist: The Exhibition, the Artist, and His Legacy." American Studies 49, no. 1/2 (Spring/Summer 2008): 124, fig. 23 (reference to a 1927 opaque watercolor of the same image as the NGA painting).
2010
Gilbert, James. "The Judgment Day." In Essays on Illustration, the website of the Norman Rockwell Museum: http://www.rockwell-center.org/essays-illustration/gods-trombones-judgment-day/; published 18 February 2010, accessed 13 September 2016, repro. (reference to a 1927 opaque watercolor of the same image as the NGA painting).
2014
Mault, Natalie A., ed. The Visual Blues. Exh. cat. LSU Museum of Art, Baton Rouge; Telfair Museums, Savannah, 2014-2015. Baton Rouge, 2014: no. 37, repro. (reference to a 1927 opaque watercolor of the same image as the NGA painting).
2015
"Aaron Douglas, The Judgment Day." National Gallery of Art Bulletin, no. 53 (Fall 2015): 34, repro. 35.
2015
Anderson, Nancy. "Gifts and Acquisitions: Aaron Douglas, The Judgment Day." National Gallery of Art Bulletin 52 (Spring 2015): 20, repro. 21.
2015
Kennedy, Randy. "The Met and the National Gallery Buy Harlem Renaissance Paintings." New York Times (14 May 2015): C20.
2015
Met Museum and National Gallery of Art, Washington, Each Acquire Significant Work by Leading Harlem Renaissance Artist Aaron Douglas. Press release, Washington and New York, 14 May 2015.
2016
Meier, Allison. "A Rare Encounter with an Aaron Douglas Painting that References Slavery's Past." Hyperallergic: Sensitive to Art & Its Discontents; http://hyperallergic.com/265634/a-rare-encounter-with-an-aaron-douglas-painting-that-references-slavery's-past; published 4 January 2016, accessed 9 March 2016.
2016
National Gallery of Art. Highlights from the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Washington, 2016: 305, repro.