In This Case: African American Artists

In This Case is a series of posts on art in the Luce Foundation Center for the Study of American Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. This piece was written by Jill Paschal, an intern here at the Luce Center this past year.

The Luce Foundation Center is one of the hidden gems at the American Art Museum if you're looking for opportunities to broaden your knowledge of African-American art. The museum's extensive holdings of African-American art can be seen throughout the galleries—and especially in the Luce Center, where you can find more than forty paintings by the artists Henry Ossawa Tanner, William H. Johnson, Alma Thomas, Hale Woodruff, and Jacob Lawrence. I find myself drawn to these works because while they were all created by people who share a cultural history with me. Each conveys a personal story of the African-American experience through a individual style.

Henry O. Tanner is an artist well known for his paintings of biblical scenes, whereas William H. Johnson and Jacob Lawrence created genre scenes that depict everyday experiences in African-American communities. The paintings of Alma Thomas are heavily influenced by nature and abstract expressionism, whereas Hale Woodruff's work suggests a strong influence from African art and social realism. Each of these artists has a unique perspective that is immediately felt once you stand in front of one of their paintings.

One of my favorite works is William H. Johnson's Art Class. Johnson painted two students sitting at a desk drawing—a scene he took from his own experience as an art teacher in Harlem in New York City. The strong, vibrant, colors and prominent figures are visually captivating. Johnson's candid style of painting creates a sense of nostalgia for anyone who may have enjoyed drawing or painting or even daydreaming in grade school.

Related Program Note: Dr. Walter O. Evans, a major collector of African American art, will be speaking as part of our Collectors' Roundtable series on Collecting Outside the Canon. Tuesday, May 19, 7 p.m. Contact American Art's Public Programs Office at or (202) 633-8490

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