African American Artists: Art & Paintings

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In the history of American arts, African American painters are often overlooked. In this lesson, we're going to discuss major artists and look at their works within the context of American and global movements.

African American Artists

In the United States, we love music. From jazz to rock n' roll to hip-hop, music has dominated American culture for generations. Of course, these musical genres do share something in common: they were all largely developed by African American musicians. Despite a history of inequality, African American artists have contributed substantially to American culture and this influence extends well beyond music. In terms of physical arts, African American artists have helped build, paint, and sculpt the national aesthetic since colonial times, frequently without recognition of any sort. For now, we're going to focus on painting exclusively, a field where African American artists are often overlooked, and consider African American contributions to America's place in the world of art.

The 19th Century

Prior to the 19th century, very few African American artists were recognized for their work. This remained largely true up into the early 20th century, but a few artists in the 1800s did begin to make names for themselves. One such artist was Robert Seldon Duncanson (1821-1872). This self-taught African American artist is known for both his landscapes and his still-life paintings. While these may seem uncontroversial to us, they made a strong statement at the time. For one, landscape painting was emerging as a distinctly American art form. Secondly, Duncanson's still-life paintings were directly engaging with one of the oldest and most respected genres of fine art. As an African American painter in the 19th century, this demonstrated not only the ability of African Americans to participate in intellectual culture but of Americans in general.

Still life by Duncanson

The Harlem Renaissance

Through the end of the 19th century, African American artists mainly participated in mainstream American styles to communicate their right to participate in American society. However, that interpretation would change in the 1920s and 1930s. The urbanization of African Americans concentrated intellectuals in places like New York, where new artistic communities flourished. In particular, Harlem became such a hotbed of African American artistic and intellectual outpouring from the 1920s through 1940s that we call this period in art history the Harlem Renaissance.

Artists of the Harlem Renaissance were the first to really begin exploring what it meant to be Black in America through their paintings. Few artists exemplify this better than Aaron Douglas (1899-1979). His paintings broke from the traditions of fine art and presented flattened, often silhouette-like forms that drew from both traditional African folk art and contemporary African American culture. Themes ranged from slavery to religion to jazz, all presented in a style that interacted with European modernist ideas while still being entirely unique.

The Harlem Renaissance saw an outpouring of art, embracing African American histories, identities, and aesthetics. William Henry Johnson (1901-1970) also combined modernist ideas with African folk traditions to create scenes of African American history and daily life in a less-Westernized style. Lois Mailou Jones (1905-1998) was one of the first female African American artists to gain international recognition, studying in Paris and being heavily influenced by the lack of racial discrimination she found there. Her 1938 painting Les Fétiches was one of the first visual articulations of the international ''Négritude'' movement that advocated for a global Black identity.

Going to Church by William H. Johnson
Going to Church by William H. Johnson

African American Artists After World War II

After 1945, African American artists continued interacting with modern styles and interpreting art through their own distinct lenses. Many transitioned to a focus on Civil Rights and the African American struggle for racial equality. One notable example is Charles Wilbert White (1918-1979), an artist who had painted public murals of Black history in the Great Depression. At the end of WWII, he transitioned into lithographs, showing scenes of daily life for African Americans that dealt with struggles of racism, patriotism, and daily existence on personal levels.

Part of this movement included a greater focus on the traditions of African art and a continued rejection of purely Western motifs. Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) traveled to Nigeria in the 1960s and found inspiration in the colors and aesthetics of life there. He brought those motifs back into the United States, participating in an artistic movement that looked less to Europe and more to Africa for inspiration.

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