Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance flourished between the two world wars, and was known as “the New Negro Movement”, after a 1925 anthology. Encompassing music, literature and art, it also encouraged cultural expression among Southern migrants in urban areas of the northern United States. Use an online art gallery to view any of the artists involved.

Visual art of the Harlem Renaissance favoured stylised images. Painters included Palmer C. Hayden, Malvin Gray Johnson and Laura Wheeler Waring, but it was Aaron Douglas who best represented the “New Negro” philosophy. His four panel series, Aspects of Negro Life, traces the journey from freedom to enslavement, and from post-Civil War liberation to city life.

Jacob Lawrence’s Migration also deals with migration from Africa, focusing in particular on the years in the southern American states. The first mainstream African American artist, he produced the series towards the end of the Harlem Renaissance period.

Lois Mailou Jones from Boston, now buried on Martha’s Vineyard, was the only female African American artist from the Harlem Renaissance to find fame abroad. Working in oil and watercolours, she wanted her most important achievement to be “proof of the talent of black artists”.

Harlem Renaissance sculptors like Richard Barthe, Sargent Claude Johnson, and Augusta Savage used such media as clay, wood and bronze. In 1934, Florida-born Augusta Savage was the first African American woman to be elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors also known as the National Association of Women Artists, and she continued to work for equal rights in the arts.

Literature of the Harlem Renaissance also carried visual representations in the form of etchings and drawings by Albert Alexander Smith, and block prints from James Lesesne Wells. Painter Aaron Douglas designed book covers as well as illustrating the inside pages.

Photographer James VanDerZee documented the lives of black New Yorkers, one of his most famous subjects being Marcus Garvey. His photographs recorded family life and individuals, situations and ceremonies; and street scenes like the 1924 demonstration of the immaculately uniformed Black Nurses of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Also a skilled musician, he experimented with techniques such as retouching, to bring an artistic interpretation to his pictures.

In questioning the stereotypes of “the Negro”, the influence of the Harlem Renaissance spread as far as Paris, home to French-speaking black writers and artists from the colonies. Its ideas evolved to feed into the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, as an important part of U.S. history.

Image: Betsy Graves Reyneau via wikipedia

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