James Lesesne Wells, Looking Upward, 1928, woodcut in black on laid paper, Ruth and Jacob Kainen Collection, 1994.87.9
Looking at the image set, you will see that artists explored different aspects of African American life and identity during the first part of the twentieth century.
Have students evaluate the images to discover what some of the connecting ideas among them may be. Students can start by examining elements of art including colors, forms, lines, textures, and shapes. Then they can move on to exploring what subjects are pictured (e.g., slavery, beauty, family, music) or what statement they believe the artist may be making.
Ask small groups of students working together to arrange the works according to three or four connecting ideas.
In France, the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro opened in Paris in 1878. Its ethnographic displays introduced both artists and the general public to objects from Africa, the Americas, and Asia. World’s fairs of the period, which took place in Europe and the United States, similarly offered expositions of cultures from around the world together with industrial and scientific exhibits and demonstrations.
In the United States, galleries and museums had been showing African works since about 1914, mostly as artifacts for ethnographic study rather than works of art. In 1935, the Museum of Modern Art in New York presented the first exhibition of African sculpture and artifacts as art in a modern art museum. The exhibition was called African Negro Art and showed approximately 600 works of African sculpture, textiles, masks, and other objects.
Aaron Douglas and Pablo Picasso created avant-garde works of art about 25 years apart. They came from different cultural perspectives, yet both took inspiration from African art. Douglas and fellow visual artists Hale Woodruff and Archibald John Motley Jr. lived in Paris for periods of time to paint and study European art, whose influences they absorbed in their work.
- Read short biographies of Douglas and Picasso on a trusted source.
- Look carefully at the works of art and respond to the following questions:
- How does each artist use line, shape, form, and color?
- How are the artists’ approaches similar or different?
- Consider the cultural context of the works of each artist and how it might have influenced his practice. What were the biographical/personal, political, social, economic, artistic, and geographic factors that may have influenced the artist?
- Develop lists of these factors for the Douglas and Picasso objects.
Artists during the Harlem Renaissance often worked collaboratively. Visual artists inspired one another and absorbed the influence of poets, writers, musicians, dancers, and actors. They captured the people, their aspirations, and the scenes of the time.
Some artists made personal connections to the stylized masks and sculpture from Benin, Congo, and Senegal, which they viewed as links to their African heritage.
Gospel, jazz, and blues music, developed by artists of the African diaspora, was a central feature of the Harlem Renaissance. Aaron Douglas often depicted musical instruments and people dancing in his art. An example includes his illustration in God’s Trombones on the page facing the verse “The Prodigal Son.”
James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938), author of God’s Trombones, wrote poems, editorials, and books that explored the shifts in racial attitudes, black empowerment, and civil rights building during the first part of the 20th century. His work brought him into contact with prominent figures of the period, including W. E. B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, and President Woodrow Wilson. Among his diverse accomplishments, Johnson also wrote the lyrics for the black spiritual song “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” in 1900 for a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.
In the preface to God’s Trombones, Johnson talks about the “old-time preacher” within the black community: a model of leadership, promoter of literacy, beacon of hope during dark times, and a uniter of diverse people of African and Caribbean descent who were brought to America and enslaved.
For Johnson, the trombones of the book’s title and Douglas’s illustrations had specific symbolism, relating to a sermon he heard delivered by a charismatic preacher:
“…He [the preacher] strode the pulpit up and down in what was actually a very rhythmic dance and brought into play the full gamut of his wonderful voice, a voice—what shall I say? Not of an organ or a trumpet, but rather of a trombone, the instrument possessing above all others the power to express the wide and varied range of emotions encompassed by the human voice—and with greater amplitude.” —James Weldon Johnson, preface, God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, 1927
Choose one of the following sermons from Johnson’s God’s Trombones: “The Creation,” “The Prodigal Son,” or “Noah Built the Ark.” Distribute copies and have students read the verse and write down the poem’s subject, its narrator or protagonist(s), and its tone. Does the language seem formal or informal? Vivid or subdued? Ask students to note any unfamiliar words. Ask students to identify parallel elements in Johnson’s text and Douglas’s illustrations.