Skip to Content

2014 Acquisition Highlights

Edward Steichen, An Apple, A Boulder, A Mountain

Edward Steichen, An Apple, A Boulder, A Mountain, 19211921

Edward Steichen, An Apple, A Boulder, A Mountain, 1921, platinum print, Patrons' Permanent Fund, 2014.114.1

An Apple, A Boulder, A Mountain, 1921, one of Edward Steichen's most distinguished works, was made as he embarked on a radically new phase in his art. Abandoning his soft-focus, painterly style, Steichen examined the apple with a clarity unknown in his earlier art. By inverting the apple, much as Paul Cézanne had done, he emphasized both its formal and tactile qualities and showed how a small object, when seen in a new light, can assume the monumentality and significance of a much larger one.

Steichen's early career was meteoric. Following an apprenticeship at a lithography firm in Milwaukee where he taught himself how to paint and make photographs, he exhibited his painterly photographs at an 1899 Philadelphia salon and was hailed by Alfred Stieglitz as the embodiment of the new fine art photographer. In the early 20th century as Stieglitz's protégé and collaborator, he moved between Paris and New York, where he made both paintings and photographs and established connections with such painters and sculptors such as Auguste RodinHenri Matisse, and John Marin. In 1905, he encouraged Stieglitz to open the 291 Gallery in New York and arranged for many of its initial groundbreaking exhibitions of modern European and American art. Yet their close friendship became strained before the outbreak of World War I when Stieglitz grew enamored of the Proto-Dada work of Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp; it ended during the war when Stieglitz voiced his pro-German sympathies and Steichen joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps.

After the war, Steichen was depressed, uncertain about his future, and conflicted about the merit of his previous art. While convalescing in France, he saw the naïve paintings of his gardener and recognized that they had a "curious charm and direct simplicity" lacking in his own work. Abandoning painting, he decided to focus exclusively on photography and began a self-imposed apprenticeship to better understand the basics of photography and gain greater control over his negatives. After spending months photographing a cup and saucer to learn about light and texture, he began to address the question of how to express volume in his pictures. He decided to use very dim light and exceptionally long exposures. Yet he serendipitously discovered that because his exposures were so long—from six to 36 hours—the dramatic changes in temperature and humidity (from day to night and back to day again) caused the camera, film, and even the objects he was photographing to expand and contract slightly, all of which was recorded in his negative. With this breakthrough, he was "for the first time in a photograph able to sense both volume and form," he later said. He then experimented with methods of making his prints, and determined that either platinum or palladium paper gave him both a long, subtle tonal range and a softness that enhanced the appreciation of volume.

An Apple, A Boulder, A Mountain, a stunning and exceptionally rare platinum print, is one of the most distinguished works from this series. His close-up scrutiny of a natural form closely links this photograph with works by other American modernist artists of the 1920s, such as Georgia O'Keeffe, Stieglitz, and Edward Weston, while its simple elegance predicts the best portraits and fashion photographs Steichen would make later in the 1920s.

Margaret Bourke-White, Fort Peck Dam, Montana

Four monumental concrete structures nearly fill the space of this vertical black and white photograph. The fortress-like architectural forms are arranged in a line so they move away from us at a diagonal to our right to create an almost abstract composition. Each structure seems to be made up of two parts: a form that tapers from a wide base to a narrow top, like a fin. Each of those brace a taller vertical panel, each of which has a semi-circular, crown-like crenellation. The top of the leftmost structure is cropped by the edge of the photograph and its bracing foot reaches halfway across the composition. Two people stand at the base of that structure, barely coming a tenth of the way up the lower bracing structure. Deep shadows on our side of the structures contrast with the brighter areas highlighted by the sun. Two clouds float in the sky above. A tall pole supporting a wire nearly reaches the top edge of the photograph to our right.

Margaret Bourke-White, Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936, gelatin silver print, Patrons' Permanent Fund, 2014.113.1

One of the most iconic works by the American photographer Margaret Bourke-WhiteFort Peck Dam, Montana was published on the cover of the inaugural issue of Life magazine on November 23, 1936. Assigned by Henry Luce to cover the massive New Deal project, Bourke-White photographed the dam, the spillway, and daily life in the surrounding boomtown. A striking representation of the machine age, this photograph depicts the construction of stark, massive flood gates as well as piers for an elevated highway on the spillway, some three miles from the dam. Monumental in stature, these structures tower over two workers located along the bottom center of the print. The two men not only provide the necessary indication of scale, but also quietly reveal the vulnerable position of the worker in the modern industrial landscape. Made in the prime of her career, Fort Peck Dam, Montana is a vivid, warm-toned, exhibition-sized photograph. The first by Bourke-White to enter the collection, it is a key work in the development of documentary photography during the 1930s and augments the Gallery’s rich holdings of photographs by Walker Evans and Berenice Abbott.

Trained at the Clarence H. White School of Photography in 1922, Bourke-White quickly became a successful commercial photographer and a pioneer of photojournalism, working for both Fortune and Life magazines. During her career, Bourke-White recorded the power and beauty of American industry as well as the social hardship and labor challenges facing individual Americans. Weaving the pageantry of capitalism with dramatic personal narratives, she established a mode of documentary photography infused with emotional appeal. Even her own persona was crafted in this manner as newspapers remarked on her daring feats to capture the most enthralling image, from climbing onto the steel frame of the Chrysler Building to standing on a steel mill floor amidst flying sparks of molten metal.

Besides important commissions for corporate patrons in the United States, Bourke-White made several trips to the Soviet Union in the early 1930s to photograph the country’s new manufacturing towns. She also authored around a dozen books, including the problematic You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), a documentary photography book examining the impoverished lives of sharecroppers in the South where Bourke-White and co-author Erskine Caldwell contrived a dialogue to accompany the photographs, rather than relying on the words of the subjects themselves. Bourke-White would later become a war correspondent. The first woman to fly a combat mission during World War II, she also photographed German bombs falling on Moscow and the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald.

Vincent van Gogh, Still Life of Oranges and Lemons with Blue Gloves

Vincent van Gogh, Still Life of Oranges and Lemons with Blue Gloves, 18891889

Vincent van Gogh, Still Life of Oranges and Lemons with Blue Gloves, 1889, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 2014.18.13

Vincent van Gogh painted this picture soon after his release from the hospital, where he was recovering from the disastrous final days of Paul Gauguin’s stay with him in Arles. In a long letter to his brother Theo posted January 23, 1889, he mentions creating this painting alongside several other issues, including the need to make money through picture sales. He likely had the market in mind in painting this still life.

The painter was clearly attracted to the shapes and hues of the citrus fruit arrayed in the wicker basket, and the way their varied orb shapes play against the weave of the dried sticks, the whole set off by the prickly needles of the cypress branches. Van Gogh refers in his letter to an “air of chic” in this picture, prompted perhaps by the inclusion of blue garden gloves. The painting reveals the artist’s extraordinarily original sense of color, as well as his richly expressive paint application as he struggles to evoke the nubby waxen skin of the various fruits, the spiky fur of the branches, and the limp material of the worn gloves.

In the letter to Theo, the artist also describes the melancholic departure of his close friend Joseph Roulin, who was temporarily leaving his family for a new post in Marseilles, and reports a particularly touching moment during which the father bounced his newborn daughter Marcelle on his knee. Van Gogh would return to the hospital within the month following a second mental breakdown.

With its reference to pruning and fruit gathering, the painting was likely a particular favorite of Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, who with her husband Paul Mellon bought the picture in 1962. Bunny Mellon was an ardent horticulturalist, landscape designer, and collector of rare garden books. Although her husband gave the painting to the National Gallery of Art in 1999, she lived with the picture hanging in her home until her own death in March 2014.

Michelangelo Pistoletto, Donna che indica (Woman who points)

Michelangelo Pistoletto, Donna che indica (Woman who points), conceived 1962, fabricated 1982conceived 1962, fabricated 1982

Michelangelo Pistoletto, Donna che indica (Woman who points), conceived 1962, fabricated 1982, silkscreen print on polished stainless steel, Gift of the Collectors Committee, 2014.28.1

A painter, sculptor, and performer, Michelangelo Pistoletto is part of a generation of Italian artists that emerged during the 1960s and became identified with the Arte Povera (Poor Art) movement. He is also the most important Italian artist associated with the international new realism/pop art movement. Pistoletto was born in Biella, near Turin, in 1933. His father Ettore, a conservator, was his first art teacher, and introduced him to the techniques of old master painting. While enrolled in a commercial art school in Turin, Pistoletto ran an advertising studio and made his first paintings on canvas from 1956–1961. He discovered the technique of applying painted tissue paper to polished stainless steel in 1962. The resulting series of Mirror paintings catapulted Pistoletto’s career. Instantly seen as a kind of Italian pop art, these works were exhibited by the influential dealers Ileana Sonnabend and Gian Enzo Sperone, and were acquired by American collectors and museums (including the Walker Art Center, where Pistoletto had a one-man show in 1966). Pistoletto’s forays into sculpture during this period, such as the Minus Objects (1965–1966) and works incorporating rags and light bulbs (1967–1968), became identified with a new kind of Italian sculpture using natural and industrial materials known as Arte Povera. Donna che indica (Woman who points) is from the second series of Mirror paintings, which Pistoletto began in 1973. In the earlier works, Pistoletto affixed tissue paper hand-drawn and -painted from a photographic print to the sheet of stainless steel; in this second series, he attached a silkscreened image of the photographic source to the metal surface. The silkscreened works appeared more anonymous in execution and more ethereal than his previous Mirror paintings. Inspired by Byzantine icons and Renaissance art, the Mirror paintings are both illusionistic and literal, incorporating the reflections of the spectator and gallery within the scenarios they create. One of the artist’s rare double-panel works, Donna che indica extends this illusionistic conceit across a wall, encompassing more spectators and a larger portion of reflected space than most of Pistoletto’s works. The five-centimeter division between the two sheets reveals the wall, interrupting the work’s seamless illusionism.  Donna che indica is the first work by Pistoletto to enter the Gallery’s collection. It is a significant example of late 20th century Italian art, an area in which the Gallery is keen to expand. Related works include Mimmo Rotella’s collage Muro Romano, 1958, Mario Merz’s sculpture Lingotto, 1969, and photographs by Arte Povera figures Giovanni Anselmo (Entering the Work, 1971), Giuseppe Penone (To Unroll One’s Skin, 1970–1971 and Untitled, 1974), and Gilbero Zorio (Radical Fluidity, 1971).

Carrie Mae Weems, May Flowers

Three young Black girls lie on the grass in this closely cropped, sepia-toned, circular photograph so their faces roughly line up near the center. At the bottom of the composition, one girl lies on her back and looks up into the sky. Her head, torso, and right arm are visible. She wears a floral-patterned dress and holds her right hand up to the top of her head. The second girl reclines on her right side behind the first, so she is angled to our left. She props her head in her right hand and looks steadily at us. Her face hovers at the center of the composition. She wears a white t-shirt and a garland encircles her head. The third girl, at the top of the composition, seems to prop her body up on her left elbow. She wears a floral dress and looks down and to our right. Grass and paving rocks fill the space behind her.

Carrie Mae Weems, May Flowers, 2002, printed 2013, chromogenic print, Alfred H. Moses and Fern M. Schad Fund, 2014.3.1

May Flowers, a compelling photograph of three young African American girls, succinctly addresses the issues of race, class, and gender that the American artist Carrie Mae Weems (b. 1953) has explored for more than 30 years. Part of a series Weems made in 2002 (titled May Days Long Forgotten, evoking both spring’s renewal and the May Day celebrations of International Workers’ Day), May Flowers depicts girls from working-class families in Syracuse, New York, wearing floral-print dresses. Its tondo format, truncated foreground space, and tight focus on the figures harks back to Renaissance paintings of the Madonna and child, while its subject—adolescent girls with flowers in their hair, lounging on the grass—recalls both 19th-century paintings and photographs, such as those by Julia Margaret Cameron. Weems intensified this historical character by printing the photograph in sepia tones and placing it in a circular frame that makes the piece seem as if it would be perfectly at home in a nineteenth-century parlor.

Yet, the color of the girls’ skin belies such a history, even as their beauty and knowing expressions—especially the authoritative look of the central figure—challenge viewers to question why they have been excluded for so long. Further complicating and enriching the work, Weems glazed it with a piece of convex glass of the type commonly used in 18th- and 19th-century mirrors, as if to suggest that the image represents a reflection of the world at large.

May Flowers is the first work by Weems, who won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2013, to enter the collection of the National Gallery of Art. It was acquired with the Alfred H. Moses and Fern M. Schad Fund. Like other recent additions to the collection from artists such as Kerry James MarshallGlenn Ligon, and Byron Kim, it is a powerful statement on the role of race in American society.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Two Workmen at Tables (recto)

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Two Workmen at Tables (recto), early 1770searly 1770s

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Two Workmen at Tables (recto), early 1770s, pen and black/brown ink on laid paper, The Ahmanson Foundation, 2014.2.1.a

Seizing rare opportunities as they arose over the last 40 years, the Gallery has been extremely lucky to build the world’s finest collection of Piranesi etchings and illustrated books. Our collection of his outstanding drawings has also come a long way, now numbering 18. Before this acquisition, the Gallery owned five Piranesi figure drawings, all much smaller, which offered a greatly varied view of the artist’s output from the 1750s through the 1760s, but we held none from the last decade of Piranesi’s life.

This magnificent late figure drawing was rediscovered last year in a French private collection and acquired by the National Gallery of Art in January 2014 from the Parisian dealer Paul Prouté. It is a superb example of Piranesi’s late style: much more monumental than his early figure drawings; bold and dark in stroke, with the broad lines of a reed pen quickly outlining and shading the figures; and focused on bodily form and gesture rather than psychology. The subject is wonderfully personal, and first appears in his late drawings: Piranesi’s printers working at presses he kept in his own house. Their aprons and rolled-up sleeves are typical of the time and trade. They labor at tables or platforms, undoubtedly on Piranesi’s copperplates laid flat. The man on the right appears to hold a container of thick printing ink in his left hand and wipes ink into the grooves of the copperplate with his right.

Piranesi was frugal. He frequently saved and reused paper by cutting up drawings or artist’s working proofs to use their blank versos as scratch paper, usually for figure drawings. In contrast to his French contemporaries, the pragmatic Piranesi was less concerned about selling working drawings or etching proofs to collectors or connoisseurs. Once even a beautiful drawing had served its purpose, he saw no need to preserve or sell it and instead cut up the drawing and used the back to draw other subjects.

The verso of Two Workmen at Tables exemplifies Piranesi’s frugality. It appears to be about half of an earlier drawing of a big feline. The deep shadow indicates it was probably drawn from a bas relief. In fact, Piranesi’s cat is taken from an antique relief of a lion discovered at Tivoli in central Italy and installed in the Palazzo Barbarini in Rome. Seeing the complete lion sculpture reveals that Piranesi used this drawing to create similar lions in one of the final etchings for his famous series, Carceri (Prisons). The first 14 prints of Carceri were etched c. 1750, but the final two were added in 1761. This is the only drawing, or fragment of a drawing, known to exist for the final two Carceri.

Interestingly the verso also shows round, brownish spots in all four corners: remains of glue where the figure drawing was mounted to an album page in the late 18th century, thus assuring us it is complete as Piranesi finished it. The ink and paper were well preserved in the album and they are beautifully fresh—as if the drawing had just been removed.

Nicolò Boldrini, Hercules and the Nemean Lion

Nicolò Boldrini, Raphael, Hercules and the Nemean Lion, c. 1566c. 1566

Nicolò Boldrini, Raphael, Hercules and the Nemean Lion, c. 1566, chiaroscuro woodcut printed from two blocks in tan and black ink on buff laid paper, Pepita Milmore Memorial Fund, 2014.1.1

Woodcuts printed in color from multiple blocks are usually termed “chiaroscuro,” an Italian word meaning “light and dark"—a reference to their broad areas of contrasting tone. From their origin in the early 16th century, such woodcuts have been admired for their striking effects, resemblance to finished drawings, and demanding production process. These works require separate blocks, and thus separate printing runs, for the outline of the design and for each color. The print is successful only when the sheet is aligned precisely each time it is run through the press. In Italy the technique flourished in Rome during the late 1510s and early 1520s, in Bologna during the 1530s and 1540s, and in Mantua at the end of the century. In Venice the chiaroscuro woodcut took a distinctive form—elaborate line work with large areas of a single tone—and appeared throughout the century in special projects amid that school’s production of conventional woodcuts. Venetian chiaroscuros are many fewer in number than those from other areas of Italy, and impressions are usually limited to later printings of the line block. The most significant and accomplished group of Venetian chiaroscuro woodcuts is attributed to Nicolò Boldrini. The attribution is based upon a single signed work as well as the style of a group of woodcuts after designs by Titian. Of these prints, Hercules and the Nemean Lion is by far the most elaborate in composition and articulate in execution. It is also the rarest: only four other impressions of the completed print are recorded in public collections.

One of the 12 Labors of Hercules, this depiction transforms the hero’s combat with the lion of Nemea into a single figural group rendered in profile and subtended by a continuous curve. This motif was frequently used in ancient Roman coins and cameos. Images of the Labors survived in the Middle Ages as symbols of Virtue overcoming Vice; this combat was often represented because of its simple shape and the clear duality of good versus evil. The subject was newly appreciated in the Renaissance as a conflation of mythological narrative, antique form, and Christian meaning. A monumental marble relief of the struggle located in the Villa Medici, Rome, was widely copied by artists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Whether inspired directly by an antique prototype or by a contemporary copy, the present composition was the most developed version of the period, with the principal group ascribed to Raphael (though probably by another artist in his circle) and set within an extensive landscape that relates to Venetian paintings and drawings of the mid-16th century. The only interpretation with such spatial extension and narrative, this woodcut began a vital naturalistic tradition distinct from the motif’s classical legacy. It also had the greatest influence, inspiring Peter Paul Rubens and Eugène Delacroix.

This impression is also exceptional. The image is complete, including a border. The two blocks are in exact registration, avoiding the shadow of tone that lies outside the contours in many early chiaroscuros. And the printing of both the tone and line blocks is practically uniform, avoiding the weaker patches and pronounced squash of ink that are also common in early examples of the technique. The same is true of condition. The sheet has a faint vertical centerfold and a few printing creases, but it is otherwise unblemished by damage, repair, or later strengthening in pen. This is unusual for an early woodcut and exceptional for a chiaroscuro of the period, distinguishing this impression from all but one, in Vienna’s Albertina Museum.

Yves Tanguy, Untitled

Yves Tanguy, Untitled, 19361936

Yves Tanguy, Untitled, 1936, gouache on brown paper laid down on board, Gift of Robert and Mercedes Eichholz, 2014.17.27

Yves Tanguy did not set out to be an artist. Born in Paris in 1900, he joined the merchant marines when he was 18, and subsequently was drafted into military service. Upon his return to Paris in 1922, he held various odd jobs (newsboy, packer, and streetcar driver, to name a few) before a chance encounter—the sight of an enigmatic painting by the Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico in the window of an art gallery—prompted him to start making small-scale drawings and watercolors. In 1925 he met André Breton, spokesman for the surrealists, and soon took up painting.

Here Tanguy depicts an illusionistic space that appears as dreamlike as it does real, a no-man’s-land that suggests “a kind of absolute reality—a surreality,” as Breton wrote in the Manifeste du surréalisme. Tightly executed, the work portrays a scene frozen in time, populated with biomorphic forms that look hyperreal, forsaken, and otherworldly. The sense of mystery is all the more heightened by the absence of an identifiable horizon line and the presence of elongated black shadows.

Eight paintings and five drawings by Tanguy were included in Alfred Barr’s seminal exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1936, sanctioning, in a sense, both Tanguy and the surrealist movement. Indeed, the movement secured a solid foothold in the United States that year, which was an especially active one for Tanguy. In addition to being featured in the MoMA exhibition, he enjoyed solo shows at New York and Los Angeles galleries and at the Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco. Three years later, with war in Europe imminent, Tanguy emigrated from France to the United States, where he lived for the remainder of his career.

While the National Gallery of Art has an important painting by Tanguy, The Look of Amber (1929), this new work is the first gouache by Tanguy to enter the collection. It comes as part of a larger bequest of twenty-nine works from Mercedes Eichholz (1917–2013), including paintings and drawings by Georges BraqueJuan Gris, Wifredo Lam, André MassonJoan Miró, and Pablo Picasso.

Richard Diebenkorn, Green

Richard Diebenkorn, Crown Point Press, Marcia Bartholme, Hidekatsu Takada, Lawrence J. Hamlin, Renee Bott, Green, 19861986

Richard Diebenkorn, Crown Point Press, Marcia Bartholme, Hidekatsu Takada, Lawrence J. Hamlin, Renee Bott, Green, 1986, color spitbite aquatint, soapground aquatint, and drypoint on Somerset paper, Eugene L. and Marie-Louise Garbáty Fund and Patrons' Permanent Fund, 1996.77.77

Best known for his Ocean Park paintings to which Green is related, California artist Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) began making prints at Crown Point Press in 1963, a year after its founding, and worked there almost annually from 1977 until his death. Whether engaged in a purely abstract mode, a figurative mode, or with favored motifs such as clubs and spades, revision was integral to Diebenkorn’s creative process.

Green is widely considered to be Diebenkorn’s greatest print and was a highlight of the Yes, No, Maybe: Artists Working at Crown Point Press exhibition, presented at the National Gallery in 2013. The print came into the collection in 1996, and now three outstanding preliminary impressions, known as proofs, of Green have been added. The earliest proof of Green has so much gray wash, it is arguably more watercolor than print; and the last has so many pasted-on elements, it is arguably more collage than print. 

After roughing out a composition and printing it in black, Diebenkorn would work back in—“attacking,” he said, select passages and revising through gradual, often numerous, changes. These modifications would typically occur in the print’s periphery. Although seemingly minor, their cumulative effect could be transformative. A mark resembling an infinity sign in the upper left of the first proof is camouflaged in the last one. And a curve in the lower left of the first proof gradually morphs into what looks like the upturned tail of a cat. In the final print, that tail is absorbed into a volcano-shaped mound. Diebenkorn was alert to how each change in a composition, no matter how minor, could alter its dynamics. He set his artistic course to an elusive “rightness,” a term he regularly invoked and navigated by following an intuitive sense of what worked, reassessing and adjusting as he went along.

In conjunction with the purchase of the three proof impressions of GreenKathan Brown, founder of Crown Point Press, has donated three more related proofs, each one unique, plus an additional fifty-seven works, from 1972 to 2010, by twenty-four Crown Point artists, including Chuck CloseSol LeWittJulie MehretuChris OfiliKiki SmithWayne Thiebaud, and Fred Wilson.

Aaron Douglas, The Judgment Day

A winged person blowing a horn stands silhouetted in lilac purple against a field of alternating celery and muted lime-green bands in this abstracted vertical painting. The person’s body is angled toward us but they look over their shoulder, to our left in profile, as they hold a horn to their lips. The horn reaches into the top left corner of the composition, and the wings extend off the top edge of the canvas. A shallowly curving slit indicates the eye. The person stands with each foot on two rounded forms like stylized hills. The mound on our right is higher so the knee is bent, and the person holds a skeleton key in the hand propped on that knee. The hill to our right has wavy bands of muted pine and sage green, and the hill to our left has a zigzag line of the sage across the darker green. Farther from us, four people, smaller in scale, are outlined as amethyst-purple silhouettes. One person to our right of the angel kneels and raises their hands high overhead, face turned to the sky. Two more people standing on or behind the left mound are framed between the trumpeter’s legs. The fourth person stands with hands clasped, also looking up. Concentric arcs of lemon yellow and pale green suggest a sun in the upper left corner. The artist signed and dated the work with dark green paint in the lower right corner: “A. Douglas ’39.”

Aaron Douglas, The Judgment Day, 1939, oil on tempered hardboard, Patrons' Permanent Fund, The Avalon Fund, 2014.135.1

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.