The Harlem Renaissance

African American Art

By Richard J. Powell

The social and political anxieties that many African Americans felt just after World War I (1914-1918) were alleviated, in part, by mass migrations to the urban North. Northern cities offered a respite from the repressive attitudes and mandates of the old Southern order. The new racial compositions of cities like Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, and Saint Louis, in combination with a heightened social consciousness and a seemingly unbound desire for leisure and escapism, conspired to help create the cultural phenomenon known as the New Negro movement. Part social engineering and part spontaneous expression, this Harlem Renaissance (as the cultural movement later became known) was realized by a mix of American movers and shakers: social reformers, political activists, cultural elites, progressives in public policy and education, and, of course, artists. Although each of these constituencies had its own reasons for promoting African American achievements in the literary, musical, visual, and performing arts, the collective results of these endeavors was an unprecedented, broad-based focus on African Americans, their art, and the connections to a larger, modernist vision.

Visual artists played a key role in creating depictions of the New Negro. Alongside their counterparts in literature, music, and theater, painters Palmer C. Hayden, Malvin Gray Johnson, and Laura Wheeler Waring, among others, exhibited bold, stylized portraits of African Americans during this period, as well as scenes of black life from a variety of perspectives. Sculptors Richmond Barthé, Sargent Johnson, and Augusta Savage used clay, wood, and bronze to create comparable representations.

Book and magazine publishers of the 1920s and 1930s also helped to disseminate Harlem Renaissance imagery. Published in the pages of The Crisis, Opportunity, and New Masses were the blockprint illustrations of James Lesesne Wells, the etchings and drawings of Albert Alexander Smith, and the illustrations and jacket covers of one of the period’s most prolific artists, Aaron Douglas.

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