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Harlem Renaissance: Respond and Relate | Activity

James Lesesne Wells, Looking Upward, 19281928

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.

Harlem Renaissance: Of and For African Americans | Activity

Richmond Barthé, Head of a Boy, c. 1930

Richmond Barthé, Head of a Boy, c. 1930, painted plaster, Corcoran Collection (The Evans-Tibbs Collection, Gift of Thurlow Evans Tibbs, Jr.), 2014.136.295

Werner Drewes, Harlem Beauty, 1930

Werner Drewes, Harlem Beauty, 1930, woodcut in black, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1974.84.1

Archibald John Motley Jr., Portrait of My Grandmother, 1922

Archibald John Motley Jr., Portrait of My Grandmother, 1922, oil on canvas, Patrons' Permanent Fund, Avalon Fund, and Motley Fund, 2018.2.1

“We younger negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.” —Langston Hughes, published in the Nation, 1925

Mainstream publications of the 1920s circulated racially stereotyped images and ideas that rankled the black intelligentsia and writers of the time. In response, the artists in this module and figures such as philosopher Alain Locke and activist W. E. B. Du Bois introduced complex and nuanced concepts of black individuality through publications such as The Crisis, Opportunity: The Journal of Negro Life, Messenger, and Fire!

These three images represent individualized portraits of African Americans, which were infrequent in popular culture and art prior to the Harlem Renaissance. Study each image and notice the details that make the works of art specific portrayals of individuals.

  • Make comparisons. Pair the Richmond Barthé sculpture and Werner Drewes woodcut. Discuss what they have in common and how they are different. Start with basic information, such as the fact that the works are in different mediums, that one is a boy and the other a woman, and then try to go deeper, looking at how each artist chose to represent his subject.
  • Next compare the Drewes woodcut with the painting by Archibald John Motley Jr. Repeat the exercise detailed above.
  • Why does Langston Hughes, in the quote above, claim the right for African Americans to be beautiful “and ugly too”? How are standards of attractiveness determined?

Harlem Renaissance: African Art, Modern Life, and a Changing World | Activity

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.

Harlem Renaissance: Music, Art, and Collaboration | Activity

Aaron Douglas, The Judgment Day, 1939

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

James Weldon Johnson, God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, illustrated by Aaron Douglas, first edition (New York, 1927).

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.