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.
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.
This entry is a revised version of text that was originally published in Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945, ed. Sarah Cash (Washington, DC, 2011).
Langston Hughes, “The Negro and the Racial Mountain,” Nation 122 (June 1926): 692–694.
The four large canvases that Douglas made for the lobby of the centennial’s Hall of Negro Life welcomed more than 400,000 visitors
Jesse O. Thomas, Negro Participation in the Texas Centennial Exposition (Boston, 1938), 25.
Jesse O. Thomas, Negro Participation in the Texas Centennial Exposition (Boston, 1938), provides a description of all four canvases in the cycle, along with an interpretation by the Hall of Negro Life curator, Alonzo J. Aden. For a discussion of Aspiration, see Timothy Anglin Burgard, “Aspiration,” in Masterworks of American Painting at the De Young, ed. Timothy Anglin Burgard (San Francisco, 2005), 342.
Like Douglas’s other murals of the same period, such as Aspects of Negro Life
Renée Ater, “Creating a ‘Usable Past’ and a ‘Future Perfect Society’: Aaron Douglas’s Murals for the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition,” in Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist, ed. Susan Earle (New Haven, 2007), 107. According to Susan Earle (“Harlem, Modernism and Beyond: Aaron Douglas and His Role in Art/History,” in ibid., 31), the circles also contribute to a layered effect that recalls surrealist and art deco fragmentation of form, as well as double exposure photography from the interwar period. The art historian David Driskell has interpreted the circles as the global transmission of black culture by way of radio waves. Driskell, interview by Robert Farris Thompson, in Black Art: Ancestral Legacy; The African Impulse in African American Art (Dallas, 1989), 136.
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.
Renée Ater, “Creating a ‘Usable Past’ and a ‘Future Perfect Society’: Aaron Douglas’s Murals for the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition,” in Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist, ed. Susan Earle (New Haven, 2007), 106.
Renée Ater, “Creating a ‘Usable Past’ and a ‘Future Perfect Society’: Aaron Douglas’s Murals for the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition,” in Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist, ed. Susan Earle (New Haven, 2007), 106–107.
See Amy Helene Kirschke, “The Depression Murals of Aaron Douglas: Radical Politics and African American Art,” International Review of African American Art 12, no. 4 (1995): 26.
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.”
Renée Ater, “Creating a ‘Usable Past’ and a ‘Future Perfect Society’: Aaron Douglas’s Murals for the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition,” in Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist, ed. Susan Earle (New Haven, 2007), 95, 98.
Mabel O. Wilson, Negro Building: Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums (Berkeley, 2012): 170, 188.
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.
Though much newspaper coverage of the Hall of Negro Life was positive in a general way, both Ater and Burgard cite many examples of headlines that reflect the racial prejudices of the period. Timothy Anglin Burgard, “Aspiration,” in Masterworks of American Painting at the De Young, ed. Timothy Anglin Burgard (San Francisco, 2005), 535 n. 9, also notes that the Hall of Negro Life was the only building destroyed before the fair reopened the following year as the Greater Texas and Pan American Exposition. Renée Ater, “Creating a ‘Usable Past’ and a ‘Future Perfect Society’: Aaron Douglas’s Murals for the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition,” in Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist, ed. Susan Earle (New Haven, 2007), 104–5, 111; see also Mabel O. Wilson, Negro Building: Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums (Berkeley, 2012):122.
Jesse O. Thomas, Negro Participation in the Texas Centennial Exposition (Boston, 1938), 27.
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.
September 29, 2016
lower right: AARON DOUGLAS
Commissioned 1936 for the Hall of Negro Life, Texas Centennial Exposition, Dallas; possibly Wiley College, Marshall, Texas. Joseph Mack [1920-1986]; sold to Thurlow Evans Tibbs, Jr. [1952-1997], Washington, by 1987; by gift and partial purchase 1996 to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; acquired 2014 by the National Gallery of Art.
- Texas Centennial Exposition, Lobby of the Hall of Negro Life, Dallas, 6 June - 29 November 1936, no catalogue.
- 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.
- 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.
- Celebrating the Legacy: African American Art from the Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 30 July - 22 September 1999, no catalogue.
- Celebrating the Legacy: African American Art from the Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 10 January - 25 February 2002, no catalogue.
- Figuratively Speaking: The Human Form in American Art, 1770-1950, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 20 November 2004 - 7 August 2005, unpublished checklist.
- 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.
- 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.
- American Paintings from the Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 6 June - 18 October 2009, unpublished checklist.
- American Journeys: Visions of Place, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 21 September 2013 - 28 September 2014, unpublished checklist.
- The Color Line: African-American Artists and segregation, Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, 2016 - 2017, unnumbered catalogue.
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.
The priming extends over the intact tacking margins, indicating that the ground was commercially applied. The preserved tacking margins show that the current dimensions are very close to original.
The infrared examination was conducted using a Santa Barbara Focalplane InSb camera fitted with a J astronomy filter.
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.
Susan Earle, ed., Aaron Douglas: African Modernist (New Haven, 2007), 105.
Quentin Rankin was a conservator for the Smithsonian Museums at that time; he also had a thriving private practice in Washington, DC. Conservation report in NGA conservation files. Later, Dare Hartwell prepared a comprehensive technical summary for Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945, ed. Sarah Cash (Washington, DC, 2011). A copy of this summary is also available in NGA conservation files.
Report in NGA conservation files.
- 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.
- J. B. "Negro Art Works Being Displayed at Fair Exhibit [exh.review]." Dallas Morning News (28 June 1936): 2:4.
- Tedford, Claude C. "Art Section Most Beautiful Part of Negro Building at Texas Centennial Exhibition [exh. review]." Associated Press (10 September 1936).
- Thomas, Jesse O. Negro Participation in the Texas Centennial Exposition. Boston, 1938: 25, 26, 27, 102, 129.
- 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.
- 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.
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- Corcoran Day and Night 3, no.4 (July/August 1996): cover, repro., 2, repro., 5.
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- Baker, Kenneth. "Black Renaissance; Legion of Honor Show Surveys Harlem's Artistic Zenith [exh. review]." San Francisco Chronicle (16 January 1998): D:1, repro.
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- Heyd, Milly. Mutual Reflections: Jews and Blacks in American Art. Brunswick, New Jersey, 1999: 38, 39, repro.
- Holt, Thomas C., and Elsa Barkley Brown, eds. Major Problems in African-American History. 2 vols. Boston, 2000: 1:cover, repro.
- Smith, Rochelle, and Sharon L. Jones, eds. The Prentice Hall Anthology of African American Literature. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 2000: after 86, repro.
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- Rochelle, Belinda. Words with Wings: A Treasury of African-American Poetry and Art. New York, 2001.
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- Emery, Mary Lou. Modernism, The Visual, and Caribbean Literature. Cambridge, England, 2007: 82, repro.
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- Sadlier, Rosemary, et al. Black History: Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas. Toronto, 2009: 178, repro., 363.
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- Greenhalgh, Paul. Fair World: A History of World's Fairs and Expositions From London to Shanghai 1851-2010. Berkshire, 2011: 142, repro., 143.
- 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.
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- Parsons, Jim and David Bush. Fair Park Deco: Art and Architecture of the Texas Centennial Exposition. Fort Worth, 2012: 145, repro.
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