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Nancy Anderson, “Aaron Douglas/The Judgment Day/1939,” American Paintings, 1900–1945, NGA Online Editions, (accessed April 24, 2024).

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Sep 29, 2016 Version

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Aaron Douglas painted The Judgment Day in 1939, more than a decade after creating the book illustration on which the painting is based. In 1927 Douglas had provided eight strikingly original illustrations for a collection of poems titled God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse by James Weldon Johnson. Executed in a style that reflected the influence of German émigré Winold Reiss, Douglas’s artistic mentor, as well as the artist’s own study of African art and European modernism, the illustrations marked the advent of Douglas’s mature style. Over a period of several years, Douglas translated his original book illustrations into large oil paintings. The Judgment Day is the final painting in the series.

At the center of the composition, a powerful black Gabriel stands astride earth and sea. With trumpet call, the archangel summons the living and the dead to judgment. Recasting both the biblical narrative and the visual vocabulary of art deco and cubism, Douglas created an image as racially impassioned as the sermons of the black preachers celebrated in God’s Trombones.


Aaron Douglas spent his formative years in the Midwest. Born and raised in Topeka, Kansas, he attended a segregated elementary school and an integrated high school before entering the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In 1922 he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, and the following year he accepted a teaching position at Lincoln High School, an elite black institution in Kansas City. Word of Douglas’s talent and ambition soon reached influential figures in New York including Charles Spurgeon Johnson (1893–1956), one of the founders of the New Negro movement.[1] Johnson instructed his secretary, Ethel Nance, to write to the young artist encouraging him to come east (“Better to be a dishwasher in New York than to be head of a high school in Kansas City").[2] In the spring of 1925, after two years of teaching, Douglas resigned his position and began the journey that would place him at the center of the burgeoning cultural movement later known as the Harlem Renaissance.[3]

Douglas arrived in New York three months after an important periodical, Survey Graphic, published a special issue titled Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro.[4] A landmark publication, the issue included articles by key members of the New Negro movement: Charles S. Johnson, W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), Alain Locke (1885–1954), and James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938). The special issue also included a number of illustrations by German émigré artist Fritz Winold Reiss (American, 1888 - 1953).[5] Introduced to Reiss by Charles S. Johnson shortly after his arrival, Douglas quickly found in him an artistic mentor. Reiss offered the young artist a two-year fellowship to study at his School of Art as well as weekly critiques of his work until the fall term began in September 1925.

Prompted by the overwhelmingly positive response to the Harlem issue of Survey Graphic, editor Alain Locke published an expanded version several months later under a new title: The New Negro: An Interpretation.[6] Again, numerous illustrations by Reiss were included as well as several “drawings and decorative designs” by Douglas, Reiss’s new student. Later described as the “bible” of the Harlem Renaissance, The New Negro was a breakthrough publication for Douglas. Commissions for book and journal illustrations soon followed. Within months of arriving in Harlem, Douglas had met the key figures of the New Negro movement, found an artistic mentor, contributed to a major publication, and begun to forge a signature style. It was a remarkable debut.

Among the most important of Douglas’s new contacts was James Weldon Johnson, a prominent novelist, poet, lyricist, and political activist who contributed an essay (“The Making of Harlem”) to the Harlem issue of Survey Graphic as well as a poem (“The Creation”) to The New Negro.[7] Johnson had composed and published the poem several years earlier, but he would soon recast the piece as the introductory “sermon-poem” in his masterwork, God’s Trombones: Seven Sermons in Verse, published in 1927. In a later autobiography, Johnson recounted the event that had inspired God’s Trombones. In 1918, while traveling as field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), he had been asked to speak during an evening service at a black church in Kansas City.[8] A celebrated black evangelist, famous for his oratorical skills, was the featured speaker. The hour was late and when the preacher began speaking from a formal text, his audience started drifting toward sleep. Aware that he was losing the congregation, the preacher “slammed the Bible shut, stepped out from behind the pulpit” and began to deliver, indeed to perform, a traditional Negro folk sermon. As Johnson recalled, “He was free, at ease, and the complete master of himself and his hearers. . . . He strode the pulpit up and down, and brought into play the full gamut of a voice that excited my envy. He intoned, he moaned, he pleaded—he blared, he crashed, he thundered.”[9] Enormously impressed by what he had witnessed, Johnson made notes on the spot, but he did not translate the experience into a poem until later. “The Creation,” the first of the sermon-poems Johnson would eventually compose, was written in 1918 and published independently as early as January 1920 in Freeman and later in The New Negro (1925). During the winter months of 1926–1927, Johnson completed the six additional poems and introductory prayer that would become God’s Trombones.[10]

Initially inspired by a gifted preacher’s performance in Kansas City, Johnson also drew on his own memories of southern church services and on his skills as a songwriter 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 rhythm and cadence of the inspirational language. Identifying black preachers as God’s instruments on earth (God’s trombones) and their impassioned sermons as an art form, Johnson celebrated a key element of traditional black culture.[11] Upon publication, God’s Trombones attracted considerable attention not only for Johnson’s uniquely original verse, but also for the bold illustrations that Aaron Douglas created to accompany the poems.

Impressed by Aaron Douglas’s early illustrations in Opportunity, the National Union League’s monthly journal, Johnson invited the young artist to create visual counterparts for his sermon-poems. Douglas embraced the opportunity and produced eight strikingly modern compositions [fig. 1] [fig. 2] [fig. 3] [fig. 4] [fig. 5] [fig. 6] [fig. 7] [fig. 8] that were immediately recognized as the visual equivalent of equally important contemporary breakthroughs in African American literature, music, and theater. Reviewing God’s Trombones for The Crisis, the monthly publication of the NAACP, editor W. E. B. Du Bois declared that it “blazes a new path toward the preservation of the Negro idiom in art.” He concluded his review by praising Douglas’s illustrations as “wild with beauty, unconventional, daringly and yet effectively done.”[12]

Among the most dramatic of these illustrations was the image Douglas created for "The Judgment Day," the final poem in Johnson’s series.[13] In a preliminary study in gouache [fig. 9], Douglas  arranged the key compositional elements. At the center is God’s messenger, a powerful black Gabriel, standing astride earth and sea. With the key to heaven in one hand and a trumpet in the other, the archangel summons the living and the dead to judgment. Concentric bands of color mimic the sound of Gabriel’s horn.[14] A beam of light and a bolt of lightning direct the viewer’s attention to silhouetted figures rising to Gabriel’s call.[15]

Douglas’s use of a flat, angular, and fractured style (echoing art deco and cubist innovations) reflects the counsel of both Alain Locke and Winold Reiss, who were acutely aware of works by European modernists inspired by African art. Eager to encourage the development of a new visual aesthetic for the New Negro, Locke and Reiss urged Douglas to study the ancestral roots of black America. African sculpture, for example, could be seen at the American Museum of Natural History, the Brooklyn Museum, and in Merion, Pennsylvania, at the home of collector and art patron Albert C. Barnes.[16] In Barnes’s home, the African/modernist link was physically reflected in the installation, with modernist paintings hung side by side with African objects.

As Douglas worked to forge both a personal style and one that would serve the aspirational mandate of his mentors, he drew inspiration from multiple sources. Among the most important of these was Egyptian art. Howard Carter’s 1922 discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb had brought increased attention to the distinctive figural style of Egyptian wall painting. Douglas’s incorporation of pictorial elements with Egyptian roots is clearly evident in the figure of Gabriel in The Judgment Day: the archangel’s head is seen in profile, his torso from the front. Perhaps the key component of Douglas’s emerging style was his adoption of the abstract and reductive graphic technique favored by Reiss, which included the abandonment of any illusion of three-dimensional space and the use of abstract, hard-edged pictorial elements. Douglas’s embrace of Reiss’s abstract geometry did not, however, preclude his use of narrative, whether historical, political, or biblical.

James Weldon Johnson was 56 and a distinguished author when he invited Douglas to illustrate God’s Trombones. Douglas was 28 and still learning his craft. The collaboration resulted in Johnson’s most celebrated publication and the emergence of Douglas’s signature style. Deftly weaving elements drawn from his study of African sculptural objects, cubist and precisionist paintings, Egyptian wall paintings, art deco geometry, and abstract graphic design, Douglas created a distinctive visual vocabulary.

For reasons that remain unclear, and over a period of more than a decade, Douglas translated the small illustrations (approximately 4 ½ x 6 inches) that he had created for God’s Trombones into large easel paintings (approximately 48 x 36 inches). Not all the paintings are dated, but The Judgment Day, the last in the series, is inscribed '39.[17] Freed from the limited palette of the 1927 illustrations, Douglas employed a broad range of colors in the enlarged paintings. For The Judgment Day, he chose tonal variants of green, yellow, and lavender. The compositional elements of the original gouache (see comp fig), created more than a dozen years earlier, remain relatively unchanged. The expanded format and the addition of color, however, allowed Douglas to amplify a key element present in the original illustration but substantially enhanced in the larger painting: sound.

In his poems—his “sermons in verse”—James Weldon Johnson mimicked the rhythm and cadence of black preachers fully engaged in the dynamic call-and-response form of traditional folk sermons. This pattern is particularly evident in the “The Judgment Day.” The narrative begins with God calling to Gabriel, charging him, in turn, to call the living and the dead to judgment by sounding his horn. When Gabriel asks how hard he should blow his horn, God responds, “Blow it calm and easy,” establishing the call-and-response structure of the poem. As the poem progresses, the preacher assumes the role of questioner, asking the members of the congregation where they will stand on “that day.” The aural quality of the poem is unmistakable. As the chosen illustrator of God’s Trombones, Aaron Douglas was challenged with creating the visual equivalent of a poem filled with sound.

Even within the limited tonal range available in the 1927 publication, Douglas’s illustration for “The Judgment Day” pulses with sound and energy. The full force of his design, however, is even more evident in the later painting, in which he  enlarged the image and recast the composition elements in vibrant shades of green, yellow, and lavender. Sound—the sound of Gabriel’s trumpet—is the stimulus that sets the composition in motion. Concentric circles of energized color simulate the waves of sound streaming from Gabriel’s horn. The living and the dead rise to the call. Lightning strikes, thunder rolls—deafening dissonant sounds mark the end of the world.

In The Judgment Day, Douglas revisited an image he had created not long after arriving in Harlem in 1925. As a young artist, he had skillfully mixed disparate artistic influences with bold experimentation to create a distinctive personal style that also answered the call for a new visual aesthetic reflecting the ambitious cultural, social, and political aspirations of a generation of African Americans. Returning to the original image more than a decade later, Douglas enlarged the scale of the composition, added the dynamic interplay of color, and created an image as rhythmic and powerful as the sermons of the black preachers celebrated in God’s Trombones.

Nancy Anderson

September 29, 2016


lower right: A. Douglas '39


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

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.

Technical Summary

The painting is executed on the textured side of a ¼-inch-thick piece of tempered hardboard. The oil paint is layered on top of a brush-applied white priming layer. The priming remains intermittently visible along the edges of the painting support, indicating that it was probably applied by the artist. The painted design extends to the top and bottom edges of the support, but a full quarter inch on both the left and right sides is left unfinished; in these areas Douglas’s paint application process can be discerned. Intermittent lines of chrome green applied against a straight edge are found in these unfinished areas and give the only visible evidence of a drawing. Infrared examination reveals that these same lines extend into the painting along with an extensive drawing that delineates all the major compositional elements. The x-radiograph shows no significant artist’s changes, which comes as no surprise given the comprehensive planning exhibited by the drawing. The pastelike paint varies from smoothly applied passages of nominal thickness that don’t conceal the texture of the panel to vigorous, low-relief impasto. A thick, discolored natural resin varnish and other disfiguring stains were removed in a 2015 conservation treatment and the painting was left unvarnished. Additionally, small areas of loss around the edges, along with a 2.5-inch-long scratch in the upper right corner, were filled and inpainted in the course of this treatment.


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).
"The Browsing Reader." The Crisis 34, no. 5 (July 1927): repro. 159 (reference to the 1927 illustration on which the NGA painting is based).
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.
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).
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).
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).
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).
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).
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).
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).
Detroit Institute of Arts. African American Art from the Walter O. Evans Collection. Preview section of the website for the exhibition:; accessed 15 August 2014, repro. (reference to a 1927 opaque watercolor of the same image as the NGA painting).
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).
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)..
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).
Gilbert, James. "The Judgment Day." In Essays on Illustration, the website of the Norman Rockwell Museum:; published 18 February 2010, accessed 13 September 2016, repro. (reference to a 1927 opaque watercolor of the same image as the NGA painting).
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).
Anderson, Nancy. "Gifts and Acquisitions: Aaron Douglas, The Judgment Day." National Gallery of Art Bulletin no. 52 (Spring 2015): 20, repro. 21.
"Art for the Nation: The Story of the Patrons' Permanent Fund." National Gallery of Art Bulletin, no. 53 (Fall 2015): 34, repro.
Kennedy, Randy. "The Met and the National Gallery Buy Harlem Renaissance Paintings." New York Times (14 May 2015): C20.
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.
Meier, Allison. "A Rare Encounter with an Aaron Douglas Painting that References Slavery's Past." Hyperallergic: Sensitive to Art & Its Discontents;'s-past; published 4 January 2016, accessed 9 March 2016.
National Gallery of Art. Highlights from the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Washington, 2016: 305, repro.
Donovan, Patricia A. "Permanence in This Changing World: The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Endowment Challenge Grant." Art for the Nation no. 64 (Fall 2021): 5, repro.

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