Art History: Harlem Renaissance

“Sometimes I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry.
It merely astonishes me. How can anyone deny themselves the pleasure of
my company? It’s beyond me.” — Zora Neale Hurston

Getting Religion by Archibald Motley
Getting Religion by Archibald Motley

We are artists. Illustrators. Graphic designers.

Art unites us all, with an array of styles as diverse and unique as our heritage.

In this next part of our Art History series, we turn to the Harlem Renaissance, a 20th-century cultural and creative movement giving African Americans the platform to voice their stories through several artistic mediums.

The Harlem Renaissance

What if you were free?

Art is a humbling reminder of history. Though they were considered free, African Americans waited for a new life outside the borders of southern racist ideologies after the American Civil War. 

In turn, a new wave of dreamers migrated to the west, midwest, and northeastern US states in hopes of economic stability.

Migration Series Panel by Jacob Lawrence
Migration Series Panel by Jacob Lawrence

As the years progressed, the families of these great migrators gave way to the stunning artists and intellectuals of the 1920s. Today we honor a few of their legacies by taking a look at their incredible styles.

Sculptors

Her sculpture of President Franklin D. Roosevelt inspired the dime. Selma Burke was an extraordinary American sculptor whose sculptures influenced many during the Harlem Renaissance. Her style consisted of remarkable busts and wooden sculptures of maternal subjects. 

Roosevelt Plaque by Selma Burke
Roosevelt Plaque by Selma Burke

Similarly to Selma, artist Augusta Savage created small clay sculptures of animals as a child. Even early on, her work was impressive. She later went on to create realistic busts of several notable figures during the Harlem Renaissance like W.E.B. Du Bois and more.

Sculpture by Augusta Savage
Sculpture by Augusta Savage

Painters

Laura Wheeler Waring was an African-American artist and educator for more than 30 years. She specialized in textural oil paintings of unknown African Americans and notable Harlem Renaissance figures.

This portrait of civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois landed her major recognition within the movement. In turn, she went on to create many more portraits of important leaders and activists.

WEB Du Bois by Laura Wheeler Waring
W.E.B. Du Bois by Laura Wheeler Waring

Initially, her life as an educator slowed down her personal work, but she later used her love of travel to discover new artistic interests.  

For artists, the Harlem Renaissance gave way to new expressions of African-American life.

Anne Washington Derry by Laura Wheeler Waring
Anne Washington Derry by Laura Wheeler Waring

In the Migration Series (at the top of this post), artist Jacob Lawrence depicted colorful portrayals of the Great Migration. He used flat visuals and bright colors to abstract the material as a result of his influence of Mexican muralism.

Jacob Lawrence
Jacob Lawrence

Illustrators & Muralists

While the Harlem Renaissance is believed to have disappeared during the late 1930s, its influence would affect generations of black and brown artists to come.

These artists explored minimalist and abstract elements in their work, influenced by Pablo Picasso and others. Many even attributed Cubism to their early inspiration for working in design.

Early on in her career, graphic artist Elizabeth Catlett crafted wooden sculptures depicting the female experience. Her work revolved around Afrocentric themes which explored the human condition.

Sharecropper by Elizabeth Catlett
Sharecropper by Elizabeth Catlett

But if you were a designer during the 1930s then perhaps Aaron Douglas would have inspired you.

His work showcased a unique abstract style. Painting silhouettes of
African American men and women, he communicated scenes of social life and
struggle.

Aspiration by Aaron Douglas
Aspiration by Aaron Douglas

For our last artist, we’ll take a look at the extraordinary work of Charles Alston. An illustrator, painter, and sculptor, Charles contributed greatly to the rise of the modernist art styles in African-American work during this time.

His illustrations were usually of presidents, musicians, and prominent activists, but he also explored many other mediums in an effort to improve his skills.

Carter Woodson by Charles Alston
Carter Woodson by Charles Alston

Conclusion

Though the movement came and went as a result of the Great Depression, the Harlem Renaissance continues to be an inspiration for artists even today. Its wide range of culture and influence is a
true testament to
the evolution of art. And I hope you continue to learn more about these
amazing timelines on your own.

For more stories from the Harlem Renaissance, dive into the links below for further reading. And join me next month when we discuss Cubism.

The following sources were also included in this article: