African American Art History

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever heard of the Harlem Renaissance or seen art by Joshua Johnson or Aaron Douglas? What kinds of art have African American artists made? In this lesson, learn about famous artists and works connected to African American art history.

Colonial Art and Artists

African American art history begins with a sad but inescapable fact: the earliest African American artists were slaves. We don't know their names, but when slave traders forcibly brought them to America, they came with skills and traditions from their home countries, including metalworking, woodcarving, and basket weaving. Spectacular examples of traditional arts such as hand-sewn quilts and clay vessels also speak to a historic artistic abilities.

The first documented professional African American artist was Joshua Johnson (1760s - 1832). Possibly born in the West Indies, he might have begun his life in slavery -- but most of his early life is a mystery. By 1810 Johnson was listed in the U. S. census as a free black man and he was included in Baltimore city directories between 1795 and 1825.

Making a living as an artist, Johnson painted in a traditional European style, creating mostly portraits. For example, in Mrs. Hugh McCurdy and her Daughters Mary Jane and Letitia Grace, the figures face the viewer. Johnson strove to get accurate likenesses and paid careful attention to clothing details. Common in all portraiture of the colonial period, their stiff figures grasp symbolic props flowers or fruit.

Mrs. Hugh McCurdy and her Daughters Mary Jane and Letitia Grace by Joshua Johnson, oil on canvas, ca. 1804
McCurdy portrait

International Fame

The first African American artist to gain international fame had to go abroad to find a more equal society. Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the son of a minister and a schoolteacher. When he was young his family moved to Philadelphia, which opened up opportunities for him. He wanted to be an artist by the time he was 13 and studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and with famed realist painter Thomas Eakins.

In his early work, Tanner explored African American daily life, which you can see in his painting The Thankful Poor. It's a beautiful scene of an intimate moment, sensitively rendered -- the figures feel like they could rise from the table. Tanner became famous, but he eventually fled to Paris for social and artistic freedom. He remained there the rest of his life, creating highly spiritual works, many based on biblical scenes.

The Thankful Poor, by Henry Ossawa Tanner, oil on canvas, 1894
thankful poor

Early Twentieth Century

Between 1920 and 1930, a movement rose in New York City called the Harlem Renaissance. African American writers, musicians, performing artists and fine artists living in Harlem, an African American neighborhood in the city, focused on documenting and reflecting on the African American experience. But more than that, they wanted to explore character and identity, and define African American culture on their own terms.

Among these artists was Aaron Douglas (1899-1979). Born in Kansas, he arrived in Harlem in 1925 and illustrated philosopher and educator Alain L. Locke's groundbreaking book The New Negro. As a result Douglas became sought after as an illustrator and painter. He created public murals, illustrated books and magazines, and, interested in encouraging young artists, later founded the Art Department at Fisk University.

Aaron Douglas had a bold, distinct style with human figures often presented in silhouette. His sense of color and space echoed graphic design and Art Deco style. One striking example is Into Bondage. Slaves in chains are forced out of their homeland while ominous sailing ships appear in the background. It's a history painting and a powerful symbolic work.

Into Bondage by Aaron Douglas, oil on canvas, 1936

After World War II

Into the 1950s, a younger generation of artists who'd grown up influenced by the Harlem Renaissance came to prominence. They included Romare Bearden (1911 - 1988), who worked in the medium of collage (creating an image by using pieces of newspaper, prints and textures as well as paint) and later printmaking. His works are multilayered and colorful and they express the vibrancy of African American culture.

Another artist, Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), came to Harlem as a teen. He studied art during the Harlem Renaissance and later traveled to Nigeria to explore African culture. His paintings feature bold colors and flattened perspective, and they tell the story of African American history and oppression.

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