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.
lower right: A. Douglas '39
The artist [1899-1979]. Grace Jones, Nashville, in 1976; sold 1978 to Leonard and Paula Granoff, Providence; purchased 6 November 2014 by NGA.
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