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Jennifer Wingate, “Aaron Douglas/Into Bondage/1936,” American Paintings, 1900–1945, NGA Online Editions, https://purl.org/nga/collection/artobject/166444 (accessed November 20, 2017).

 

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Overview

Into Bondage is a powerful depiction of enslaved Africans bound for the Americas. Shackled figures with their heads hung low walk solemnly toward slave ships on the horizon. Yet even in this grave image of oppression, there is hope. In a gesture foreshadowing freedom from slavery, a lone woman at left raises her bound hands, guiding the viewer's eye to the ships. The male figure in the center pauses on the slave block, his face turned toward a beam of light emanating from a lone star in the softly colored sky, possibly suggesting the North Star. The man's strong silhouette breaches the horizon line, communicating strength and optimism. Concentric circles—a motif frequently employed by Aaron Douglas to suggest sound, particularly African and African American song—radiate from a point on the horizon.

In 1936, Douglas was commissioned to create a series of murals for the Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas. Installed in the elegant entrance lobby of the Hall of Negro Life, his four paintings charted the journey of African Americans from slavery to the present. Considered a leader of the Harlem Renaissance, the cultural phenomenon that promoted African and African American culture as a source of pride and inspiration, Douglas was an inspiring choice for the project.

The Hall of Negro Life, which opened on Juneteenth (June 19), a holiday celebrating the end of slavery, was visited by more than 400,000 fairgoers over the course of the five months that the Exposition was open to the public. This commemoration of abolition, and the mural cycle in particular, served as a critical acknowledgment of African American contribution to state and federal progress. Unfortunately, of the four original paintings only two, Into Bondage and Aspiration (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco), remain.

Entry

The modernist painter and graphic artist Aaron Douglas heeded the call of Harlem Renaissance intellectuals by acknowledging African cultural traditions as a source of pride and inspiration.[1] He embraced a machine age aesthetic, but also integrated Egyptian and African motifs into cubist, precisionist, and art deco designs. Douglas’s illustrations for The New Negro, the 1925 anthology of Harlem Renaissance writers compiled by the philosopher Alain Locke, was his first major commission after moving to New York City from Kansas City in 1924. This project established his reputation as a leading artist of the new negro movement. In 1926, the writer Langston Hughes commended Douglas for inspiring younger African American artists to express their “individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame.”[2] A decade later, when the Harmon Foundation was looking for an artist to paint a series of murals for the Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas, Douglas was an obvious choice for the commission.

The four large canvases that Douglas made for the lobby of the centennial’s Hall of Negro Life welcomed more than 400,000 visitors [fig. 1].[3] Only two of the paintings, however, have been located: Into Bondage and Aspiration [fig. 2]. Along with The Negro’s Gift to America, a large horizontal work that hung between Into Bondage and Aspiration in the lobby of the exhibition hall [fig. 3], these canvases depicted the journey of African Americans from their native land to the 20th-century North American metropolis. Into Bondage illustrates the enslavement of Africans bound for the Americas. The Negro’s Gift to America featured an allegory of Labor as the holder of the key to a true understanding of Africans in the New World. Aspiration concluded the cycle by calling attention to the liberating promise of African American education and industry. A fourth canvas portrayed Estevanico, a Moroccan slave who accompanied the Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca on his expedition through Texas.[4]

Like Douglas’s other murals of the same period, such as Aspects of Negro Life [fig. 4], created for the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library in 1934 (now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture), the Texas centennial canvases were unified by a subdued palette, silhouetted figures, and repeated motifs that held personal meaning for the artist. In the Gallery’s painting, concentric circles Douglas frequently used to suggest sound—particularly African and African American songs—radiate from a point on the horizon where slave ships await their human cargo.[5] Warm earth tones accent a palette of cooler blues and greens, just as the composition’s undeniable rhythm competes with an overall timelessness. Silhouetted figures move in a steady line to the distant boats, their rust-colored shackles creating a staccato rhythm echoed by the framing foliage. Patchy brushstrokes activate the surface, imbuing the painting with a texture and liveliness that belie the static precision of crisply delineated forms.

For the pose of the central male figure, whose head is turned in profile but whose square shoulders and torso face forward, Douglas looked to Egyptian art as a source of pan-African nationalism. Similarly, the slit-eye masks made by the Dan peoples of Liberia inspired the man’s narrow slash of an eye.[6] Standing on a pedestal that foreshadows the auction block from which he will be sold, he is the only figure in the composition whose shoulders rise above the horizon. The man’s elevated form and uplifted head, cut across by a ray of starlight, signal eventual freedom for his race. A woman who raises her face and shackled hands to the same star, her fingers grazing the horizon, also foretells a distant future without slavery. According to Douglas, the star and ray of light, which appear in a number of his paintings, represent the North Star and the divine light of inspiration.[7] Douglas, a member of the Communist Party USA, may also have included this motif as a political symbol and to advocate socialism as a means of achieving equality for African Americans.[8]

Regardless of its specific meaning, the star’s message of hope is clear. Renée Ater has shown how the Texas Centennial’s Hall of Negro Life offered African Americans the opportunity to “re-articulate their racial and national identities” and “reshape historical memory.” Similarly, Douglas’s murals, she writes, “set out to rethink and to develop alternative narratives of black history and contemporary life that were embedded in visual references to slavery.”[9] By the 1920s, historical representation and cultural expression had become important signifiers of black progress in the public spaces of American fairs, serving as “a springboard from which to educate blacks about how their rich American and pan-African heritage would assist them in charting their future.”[10] Douglas’s forward-looking, modernist aesthetic that paid tribute to an African past was thus a fitting visual complement to the fair building’s empowering themes.

On another level, the mere existence of the murals was indebted to ongoing African American struggle. When the Texas legislature originally neglected to allocate funds to allow African Americans to be included in the centennial, African American community leaders in Dallas took it upon themselves to apply for federal money to participate. Most Dallas press coverage was enthusiastic when the Hall of Negro Life opened in 1936 on June 19, or Juneteenth, an African American holiday commemorating the end of slavery. Consistently high attendance figures at the exhibition hall, however, did not succeed in dispelling deep-seated prejudices.[11] Douglas’s paintings so impressed white fairgoers that they refused to believe that an African American artist had made them. To help persuade incredulous visitors, administrators posted a sign reading: “These murals were painted by Aaron Douglas, a Negro artist of New York City.”[12]

For Douglas, the commemoration of slavery was critical to the rewriting of the history of Texas and to the acknowledgment of African American contributions to the progress of both state and nation. By doing so in a public mural, Douglas was able to reach hundreds of thousands of viewers and, at the same time, proclaim the centrality of African Americans within modern American visual traditions.

Jennifer Wingate

September 29, 2016

Inscription

lower right: AARON DOUGLAS

Provenance

Commissioned 1936 for the Hall of Negro Life, Texas Centennial Exposition, Dallas;[1] possibly Wiley College, Marshall, Texas.[2] Joseph Mack [1920-1986]; sold to Thurlow Evans Tibbs, Jr. [1952-1997], Washington, by 1987;[3] by gift and partial purchase 1996 to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; acquired 2014 by the National Gallery of Art.

Exhibition History
1936
Texas Centennial Exposition, Lobby of the Hall of Negro Life, Dallas, 6 June - 29 November 1936, no catalogue.
1989
Black Art, Ancestral Legacy: The African Impulse in African-American Art, Dallas Museum of Art; High Museum of Art, Atlanta; Milwaukee Art Museum; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, 3 December 1989 - 24 March 1991, unnumbered checklist.
1997
Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance, Hayward Gallery, London; Arnolfini, Bristol; Mead Gallery, University of Warwick, Coventry; M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 19 June 1997 - 14 February 1999, no. 19.
1999
Celebrating the Legacy: African American Art from the Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 30 July - 22 September 1999, no catalogue.
2002
Celebrating the Legacy: African American Art from the Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 10 January - 25 February 2002, no catalogue.
2004
Figuratively Speaking: The Human Form in American Art, 1770-1950, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 20 November 2004 - 7 August 2005, unpublished checklist.
2005
Encouraging American Genius: Master Paintings from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Parrish Art Museum, Southampton; Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte; John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, 27 August 2005 - 29 April 2007, checklist no. 91.
2007
Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist, Spencer Museum of Art, 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, 8 September 2007 - 30 November 2008, unnumbered catalogue.
2009
American Paintings from the Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 6 June - 18 October 2009, unpublished checklist.
2013
American Journeys: Visions of Place, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 21 September 2013 - 28 September 2014, unpublished checklist.
Bibliography
n.d.
Letters, Jessie O. Thomas and Alonzo J. Aden, Office of the United States Commissioner General, Texas Centennial Exposition to Aaron Douglas, 5 July 1936; Evans-Tibbs Archives, formerly Corcoran Gallery of Art Archives, now NGA Library, Washington.
1936
J. B. "Negro Art Works Being Displayed at Fair Exhibit [exh.review]." Dallas Morning News (28 June 1936): 2:4.
1936
Tedford, Claude C. "Art Section Most Beautiful Part of Negro Building at Texas Centennial Exhibition [exh. review]." Associated Press (10 September 1936).
1938
Thomas, Jesse O. Negro Participation in the Texas Centennial Exposition. Boston, 1938: 25, 26, 27, 102, 129.
1971
Bontemps, Jacqueline. "The Life and Works of Aaron Douglas: A Teaching Aid for the Study of Black Art." M.A. Thesis, Fisk University, Nashville, 1971.
1989
Powell, Richard J. "From Renaissance to Realization, 1920-1950." In African American Artists, 1880-1987: Selections from the Evans-Tibbs Collection. Guy C. McElroy et al., eds. Exh. cat. Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, Washington, D.C., 1989: 71 n. 3.
1990
Terry, Clifford. "African Impulse Milwaulkee Exhibit Reveals the Strong Legacy of Black Art [exh. review]." Chicago Tribune (28 October 1990): 16.
1991
Robinson, Jontyle Theresa. "Recent Exhibitions: Black Art: Ancestral Legacy [exh. review]." African Arts 24, no.1 (January 1991): 78-79.
1996
Corcoran Day and Night 3, no.4 (July/August 1996): cover, repro., 2, repro., 5.
1996
Lewis, Jo Ann. "A Fresh Coat of Paintings; Washington Collector Gives the Corcoran a New Focus [exh. review]." The Washington Post (14 September 1996): C:1.
1996
Lewis, Jo Ann. "Corcoran to be given African American Art." The Washington Post (8 May 1996): A:16.
1996
Shaw-Eagle, Joanna. "Major Gift for the Corcoran." The Washington Times (10 May 1996): C:13.
1997
Hendrickson, Paul. "The Legacy; Art Collector Thurlow Evans Tibbs Left Behind an Unforgettable Gift. And Some Unsettling Questions." The Washington Post (20 April 1997): G:7.
1997
Murph, John. "The Evans-Tibbs Collection: Prints, Drawings and Photographs by African American Artists [exh.review]." New Art Examiner 24 (February 1997): 51.
1998
Baker, Kenneth. "Black Renaissance; Legion of Honor Show Surveys Harlem's Artistic Zenith [exh. review]." San Francisco Chronicle (16 January 1998): D:1, repro.
1998
Bonetti, David. "Black Studies: Harlem Renaissance at Legion of Honor [exh.review]." San Francisco Chronicle (1 February 1998): M:18, repro.
1998
Iverem, Esther. "The Body Eclectic New Way of Seeing Things." The Washington Post (11 April 1998): B:1, repro.
1998
Powell, Richard J. "Art of the Harlem Renaissance." American Art Review 10, no. 2 (March-April 1998): 133, repro.
1998
Walsh, Daniella. "Riches of the Harlem Renaissance; LACMA Takes a Wide-Lens View of a Uniquely American Cultural Phenomenon [exh. review]." Orange County Register (23 August 1998): F:28.
1999
Heyd, Milly. Mutual Reflections: Jews and Blacks in American Art. Brunswick, New Jersey, 1999: 38, 39, repro.
2000
Holt, Thomas C., and Elsa Barkley Brown, eds. Major Problems in African-American History. 2 vols. Boston, 2000: 1:cover, repro.
2000
Smith, Rochelle, and Sharon L. Jones, eds. The Prentice Hall Anthology of African American Literature. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 2000: after 86, repro.
2001
McNatt, Glenn. "The Works of Black Artists, Rooted in the Harlem Renaissance, Can be Seen in Local Galleries This Month [exh.review]." Baltimore Sun (25 December 2001): 1,F.
2001
Rochelle, Belinda. Words with Wings: A Treasury of African-American Poetry and Art. New York, 2001.
2002
Badder, Susan. "Into Bondage." In A Capital Collection: Masterworks from the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Edited by Eleanor Heartney. London, 2002: 172, 200, repro., 201.
2002
Lewis, Jo Ann. "Painter Aaron Douglas, A Re-Renaissance Man; The Artist Gets His Due, Times Two, at Arena and the Corcoran." The Washington Post (13 January 2002): C4.
2005
Burgard, Timothy Anglin. "Aaron Douglas, Aspiration." In Masterworks of American Painting at the De Young. Edited by Timothy Anglin Burgard. San Francisco, 2005: 342, 344, repro.
2006
Maschal, Richard. "Strokes of Genius [exh. review]." The Charlotte Observer (1 October 2006): E:3, repro.
2006
Shinn, Susan. "Viewing Masters: 'Encountering American Genius: Master Paintings from the Corcoran Gallery of Art' Opens at the Mint [exh. review]." Salisbury Post (12 October 2006): D:7.
2007
Bennett, Lennie. "The Coming of Age of American Art [exh. review]." St. Petersburg Times (18 February 2007): 8L, repro., 9L.
2007
Emery, Mary Lou. Modernism, The Visual, and Caribbean Literature. Cambridge, England, 2007: 82, repro.
2008
Bernier, Celeste-Marie. African American Visual Arts. Edinburgh, 2008: 82, repro.
2008
Gopnik, Blake. "Points of Departure [exh. review]." The Washington Post (1 June 2008): M:7, Living and Arts, repro.
2008
May, Stephen. "Renaissance of a Modernist." ARTnews 107, no. 9 (October 2008): 146-149, 147, repro.
2009
Sadlier, Rosemary, et al. Black History: Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas. Toronto, 2009: 178, repro., 363.
2010
Barson, Tanya. "Introduction: Modernism and the Black Atlantic." In Afro Modern: Journeys Through the Black Atlantic. Edited by Tanya Barson and Peter Gorschluter. Exh. cat. Tate Liverpool, 2010: 11, repro.
2011
Greenhalgh, Paul. Fair World: A History of World's Fairs and Expositions From London to Shanghai 1851-2010. Berkshire, 2011: 142, repro., 143.
2011
Jordan, Glenn. "Re-Membering the African-American Past: Langston Hughes, Aaron Douglas and Black Art of the Harlem Renaissance." Cultural Studies: Theorizing Politics, Politicizing Theory 25, no. 6 (November 2011): 873, 874, 875, repro., 884.
2011
Wingate, Jennifer. "Aaron Douglas, Into Bondage." In Corcoran Gallery of Art : American Paintings to 1945. Edited by Sarah Cash. Washington, 2011: 37, 246-247, 282, repro.
2012
Parsons, Jim and David Bush. Fair Park Deco: Art and Architecture of the Texas Centennial Exposition. Fort Worth, 2012: 145, repro.
2012
Welky, David, ed. American Between the Wars: 1919-1941: a documentary reader. Malden, Massachusetts, 2012: 52, 54, repro.
Technical Summary

The painting is executed on a plain-weave, lightweight fabric mounted on a modern replacement, expansion bolt stretcher with no crossbars. The oil type paint was applied over a pre-primed, smooth, opaque, cream-colored ground.[1] Graphite underdrawing is readily visible through the thin paint layer. It appears that Douglas fully outlined the design before painting using a straight edge and some sort of compass or template for the geometric shapes. Other design elements seem to be drawn freehand. Underdrawing is most visible in areas where Douglas did not follow his outline exactly when he applied the paint. The infrared examination confirms the extent of Douglas’s underdrawing.[2] The x-radiograph shows no significant artist changes, which is to be expected considering the meticulous planning evidenced by the underdrawing. Douglas used a thin fluid paint that was sometimes so liquid that small downward drips occurred. There is no modeling of forms. Instead, Douglas created interest within the flat shapes by varying his paint application. Sometimes it was thin and transparent, sometimes it was applied with active brushstrokes showing areas of the ground beneath, and sometimes it was applied with textured impasto. There are many inclusions, such as fibers, brush hairs, and lint in the paint.

Renee Ater states that the painting was made on-site at the Texas Centennial hall for which it was commissioned, and this is supported by physical evidence.[3] Around the periphery of the painting there is a 7/8-inch-wide strip in which there are multiple nail holes and the design elements are a different color than in the rest of the painting. This probably indicates that the painting was executed on a fabric mounted directly to the wall, and then wooden strips were affixed over the edges to serve as a frame. The painting’s first known conservation treatment was executed by Quentin Rankin in 1987.[4] According to his report, he received the painting stretched on a flimsy seven-member stretcher and the canvas had several tears in it. These tears were found in the proper left leg of the foreground male figure, just above the chain, above the inner tip of the lower palm frond at the lower right edge, on the bottom edge of the same palm frond and below it onto the blue background, at the lower left near the base of the wide frond that touches the foreground women’s head and goes through the plant with smaller foliage as well, and at the top left in the dark purple brown foliage in the second leaf from the top. When the painting arrived in Rankin’s studio it was also defaced with scratches, impact cracks, grime, and pencil graffiti. The conservator cleaned the grime layer from the painting, lined it onto an auxiliary support using Beva adhesive, and mounted the painting on its new stretcher at a slightly larger dimension. Finally, he filled and inpainted the tears and losses, including some of the graffiti, and varnished the painting with a synthetic resin, even though there was no indication that the artist had ever varnished the painting. In a recent treatment in 2016, Gallery conservator Jay Krueger removed this varnish and inpainting, applied new retouching, and left the painting unvarnished as had presumably been intended by Douglas.[5] In both treatments it was impossible to remove the pencil graffiti.