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Uncovering America

Harlem Renaissance

James Van Der Zee, Garveyite Family, Harlem, 1924, printed 1974

James Van Der Zee, Garveyite Family, Harlem, 1924, printed 1974, gelatin silver print, Corcoran Collection (Gift of Eric R. Fox), 2015.19.4388

How do visual artists of the Harlem Renaissance explore black identity and political empowerment?

How does visual art of the Harlem Renaissance relate to current-day events and issues?

How do migration and displacement influence cultural production?

“I believe that the [African American’s] advantages and opportunities are greater in Harlem than in any other place in the country, and that Harlem will become the intellectual, the cultural and the financial center for Negroes of the United States and will exert a vital influence upon all Negro peoples.” —James Weldon Johnson, “Harlem: The Culture Capital,” 1925

The Harlem Renaissance was a period of rich cross-disciplinary artistic and cultural activity among African Americans between the end of World War I (1917) and the onset of the Great Depression and lead up to World War II (the 1930s). Artists associated with the movement asserted pride in black life and identity, a rising consciousness of inequality and discrimination, and interest in the rapidly changing modern world—many experiencing a freedom of expression through the arts for the first time.

While the Harlem Renaissance may be best known for its literary and performing arts—pioneering figures such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Duke Ellington, and Ma Rainey may be familiar—sculptors, painters, and printmakers were key contributors to the first modern Afrocentric cultural movement and formed a black avant-garde in the visual arts.

Aaron Douglas (1899–1979) is known as the “father of African American art.” He defined a modern visual language that represented black Americans in a new light. Douglas began his artistic career as a landscape painter but was influenced by modern art movements such as cubism, in which subjects appear fragmented and fractured, and by the graphic arts, which typically use bold colors and stylized forms. He and other artists also looked toward West Africa for inspiration, making personal connections to the stylized masks and sculpture from Benin, Congo, and Senegal, which they viewed as a link to their African heritage. They also turned to the art of antiquity, such as Egyptian sculptural reliefs, of popular interest due to the 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb. Printmakers James Lesesne Wells (1902–1993) and Hale Woodruff (1900–1980) also explored a streamlined approach that drew from African and European artistic influences.

Sculptor Richmond Barthé (1901–1989) worked in a realistic style, representing his subjects in a nuanced and sympathetic light in which black Americans had seldom been depicted before. Painter Archibald John Motley Jr. (1891–1981) began his career during the 1920s as one of the first African American graduates of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In the early part of his career, he created intimate and direct portraits, such as Portrait of My Grandmother of 1922.

James Van Der Zee (1886–1983), a photographer, became the unofficial chronicler of African American life in Harlem. Whether through formal, posed family photographs in his studio or through photo essays of Harlem’s cabarets, restaurants, barbershops, and church services, his large body of work documents a growing, diverse, and thriving community.

The formation of new African American creative communities was engendered in part by the Great Migration—the largest resettlement of Americans in the history of the continental United States, mainly from rural Southern regions to more populous urban centers in the North. Pursuit of jobs, better education, and housing—as well as escape from Jim Crow laws and a life constrained by institutionalized racism—drove black Americans to relocate.

The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 deflated the artistic energy of the period as many people became unemployed and focused on meeting basic needs. Yet the Harlem Renaissance planted artistic seeds that would germinate for decades. Many of the visual artists associated with the Harlem Renaissance came to participate in the Federal Art Project (1935–1943), an employment program for artists sponsored by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration. Further, a key legacy of the Harlem Renaissance was the creation of the Harlem Community Art Center (HCAC) in 1937, part of a cross-country network of arts centers. The HCAC offered hands-on art making led by professional artists and maintained a printmaking workshop. The HCAC was critical in providing black artists continued support and training that helped sustain the next generation of artists to emerge after the war. In subsequent decades, the Harlem Renaissance inspired new waves of artists and laid critical groundwork for the civil rights movement and the Black Arts Movement.

As a final note, women artists were also part of the Harlem Renaissance and participated especially as singers, actors, dancers, and writers. Less well-known are the women visual artists of the period. Gaining access to the visual arts scene was more difficult than entry into the performing arts, as the practice of painting and sculpture in particular were not considered gender-appropriate or “feminine.” Two sculptors, Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller (1877–1968) and Augusta Savage (1892–1962), the latter an activist, artist, and director of the HCAC, made their mark during the period, but their work has been largely overlooked and is only coming into full assessment by art historians today.