11 Movement-Defining Artists of the Harlem Renaissance

July 22, 2020

In the current context of the racial tensions in the United States, it is more than mandatory to revisit the art history canon and explore the immense legacy of Black artists who started the fight for dignity, self-expression, and equality one hundred years ago.

Namely, in the 1920s and 1930s a cultural precedent developed in Harlem, one of the districts in New York. A large number of African-Americans arrived during the Great Migration that caused awful economic circumstances and increasing racial segregation in the Southern parts of the United States. This tremendous shift called the Harlem Renaissance was made possible by numerous artists, writers, and musicians who used art to criticize the pervasive nature of institutional racism and promote progressive or socialist politics, rooted in racial and social integration.

When it appeared, the Harlem Renaissance was described as the New Negro Movement, after The New Negro, a 1925 anthology edited by Alain Locke. Although it was based in the Harlem neighborhood, the movement empowered numerous francophone black writers from African and Caribbean colonies living in Paris at the time.

Overwhelmed by the racial pride and the belief that art and literature should serve to "uplift" the race, the artists who gravitated around the Harlem Renaissance organized new schools, educational programs, exhibitions, literary nights, and jazz concerts. The two initiatives that largely defined the activities of various artists in Harlem throughout the 1930s were the 306 Group, a collective of African American artists that included Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, Elba Lightfoot, and Augusta Savage, and The Harlem Artists Guild (1935–41), an organization which encouraged young talents by enabling the platform for the discussion of the visual arts in the community, focusing on issues of general concern to Black artists such as racism, poverty, and unemployment, etc.

I, Too, Sing America: The Harlem Renaissance at 100

Artists of the Harlem Renaissance Movement

The Harlem Renaissance was thoroughly examined with the exhibition I, Too, Sing America: The Harlem Renaissance at 100 The Columbus Museum of Art in 2018, and for this list we selected the most influential artists that emerged out of this movement, whose brief biographies will be explored in the text below.

Featured image: William H. Johnson - Training for War, 1941-42. Screenprint on paper, 11 1/2 x 17 1/2 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Augusta Savage

Augusta Savage's career blossomed during the Harlem Renaissance. After arriving in New York, Savage worked numerous jobs while attending the Cooper Union School of Art. During the mid-1920s, Savage operated in a small studio apartment as she earned a reputation as a portrait sculptor (who created busts of renowned personalities such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey), and she received a Carnegie Foundation grant that enabled her to visit France, Belgium, and Germany. By the 1930s, she was a well-positioned sculptor in Harlem, where she was also active as an art teacher, and community art program director at the Harlem Community Art Center. She was the first African-American member of the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors.

Featured image: Augusta Savage, circa 1938. Photo by Andrew Herman. Archives of American Art. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Aaron Douglas

Aaron Douglas, best known for outstanding murals, was also a fruitful socio-politically charged illustrator and visual arts educator. By focusing on the racial issues caused by segregation in the United States, Douglas developed a particular African-centric imagery presented in a modernist manner. The artist practically acted as a wise mentor as he empowered young, African-American artists to enter the art scene through his involvement with the Harlem Artists Guild. Douglas is responsible for the founding of the Art Department at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lectured until his retirement in 1966.

Featured image: Aaron Douglas - Study for mural in home of Dr. W.W. and Mrs. Grace Goens in Hockessin, Delaware, 1963. Oil on canvas board, 15.9 x 20 in (40.4 x 50.8 cm). Delaware Art Museum. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Hale Woodruff

Hale Aspacio Woodruff was an American figurative painter and printmaker best known for his socially engaged style dedicated to the racism and the poverty of African Americans in the South during the Great Depression. In 1926, he received the Harmon Foundation award which enabled him to enhance his skills in Paris from 1927-31 at the Académie Scandinave Maison Watteau and the Academie Moderne. The city had an enormous impact on his career since he was exposed to the grand museums; there he also befriended Henry Ossawa Tanner, the leading African-American artist, and met leading figures of the French avant-garde and began collecting African art. Woodruff acted as the art director and lecturer at Atlanta University, a historically Black college, and is responsible for launching the annual competition, Atlanta University Annual Exhibition of Paintings, Sculpture, and Prints by Negro Artists, which featured many African-American artists run from 1942 to 1970.

Featured image: Hale Woodruff. National Archives and Records Administration. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Archibald John Motley Jr.

The art of the celebrated painter Archibald John Motley, Jr. is widely appreciated for outstanding depictions of dance halls and nightlife infused with jazz during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s. Namely, Motley Jr. won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1929 which enabled him to study in France for a year. Unlike other Black artists inspired by Africa, this painter was triggered by the great Renaissance masters. However, during the 1930s he moved away from the Western artistic aesthetic and began depicting urban black settings with a very non-traditional aesthetic style.

Featured image: Archibald Motley - Self-portrait, circa 1920. Oil on canvas, 30 x 22 in (76.3 x 56 cm). Art Institute of Chicago. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Beauford Delaney

Beauford Delaney was a distinguished American modernist painter celebrated for his outstanding portraits made during the 1930s and 1940s, as well as his later works in abstract expressionism produced in Paris in the 1950s. Delaney was a part of the queer bohemian circle In Greenwich Village; he was friends with notable figures such as Countee Cullen, artist Georgia O'Keeffe, and writer Henry Miller, and a spiritual father of the young writer James Baldwin. Alongside the interest in exploring the issues concerning black representation, Delaney was focused on the modernist aesthetics in Europe and the United States under the influence of his friends, photographer Alfred Stieglitz and the Cubist painter Stuart Davis.

Featured image: Left: Beauford Delaney - Portrait of James Baldwin, c. 1957. Image by smallcurio via Wikimedia Commons / Right: Carl Van Vechten - Portrait of American artist Beauford Delaney, 1953. Library of Congress. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller

Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller was an African-American painter, poet, and sculptor who developed an authentic practice by combining classical modes of representation with the themes affiliated with the Black experience, especially the racial injustice. By the end of the 19th century, Fuller was an established sculptor in Paris and a protégée of Auguste Rodin. The way she approached and expressed the subject reflected her profound concern for the complexities of religion, identity, and nation. Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller is generally considered one of the first and most important African-American female sculptors.

Featured image: Left: Meta Warrick Fuller - Dark Hero. National Archives and Records Administration. Image via Wikimedia Commons / Right: Meta Warrick Fuller, 1919. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

James Van Der Zee

James Van Der Zee was an American photographer acclaimed for his exceptional portraits of Black New Yorkers, among them the famous proponents of the Harlem Renaissance such as Marcus Garvey, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Countee Cullen. During World War I, this notable figure ran the Guarantee Photo Studio that gained huge popularity outside the neighborhood, especially the idealistic portraits of Harlem's growing middle class. Van Der Zee is especially saluted for the series featuring the victory parade of the returning 369th Infantry Regiment, which was predominantly African American.

Featured image: James Van Der Zee - Evening Attire, 1922. Gelatin silver print, 10 x 8 in (25.4 x 20.3 cm). Smithsonian American Art Museum. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Jacob Lawrence

Jacob Lawrence was an American painter, storyteller, and educator known for his Cubist-oriented portraits of African-American life. By exploring the history and struggles of African Americans, with an emphasis on important moments in their history, Lawrence developed an authentic style both in the thematic and formal sense. His lively, colorful aesthetic is most of all inspired by Harlem, the place which inspired him and where his career reached the peak after the national recognition with his 60-panel Migration Series. Due to immense innovation and contribution to the struggle for racial equality, Lawrence is recognized as one of the leading 20th-century African-American painters.

Featured image: Jacob Lawrence - During World War I there was a great migration north by southern Negroes. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Loïs Mailou Jones

Another significant artist on our list who felt empowered by the Harlem Renaissance is Loïs Mailou Jones. Although she started her career as a textile designer, Jones shifted to painting and gained critical acclaim during the 1930s and 1940s in Paris. In general, she was very drawn to Africa and the Caribbean, inspired by the Harlem Renaissance and her numerous voyages, and so as an effect, her paintings were among the first ones by an African-American artist to move away from portraiture. Throughout her life, she was also active as an educator, while producing artwork until her death at the age of ninety-two.

Featured image: Lois Jones. Photo by Judith Sedwick. Schlesinger Library, RIAS, Harvard University. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Richmond Barthé

James Richmond Barthé, also known as Richmond Barthé, was an established sculptor best known for his astounding portrayal of black subjects. In 1930 he received the Julius Rosenwald Fund fellowship that enabled him to establish his studio in Harlem; however, a year later, he moved his studio to Greenwich Village. At the end of the third decade, the sculptor had his first public commission from New York City's Federal Art Project and that was a bas-relief for the embellishment of the Harlem River Houses complex that was eventually installed in Brooklyn. As Barthé felt the city become too violent, he moved to Jamaica in the West Indies in 1947 where his career blossomed until the mid-1960s when violence forced him to yet again move. Then he lived elsewhere in Europe, until settling in California where he passed away in 1989.

Featured image: Richmond Barthé at work in his studio in Harlem in the 1920s/1930s. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

William H. Johnson

William H. Johnson, also known as just William Johnson, studied at the National Academy of Design in New York despite being poor. During his career, he spent some time in Paris, where the beginnings of Modernism influenced his practice. Upon his return to the States, Johnson started working as a teacher at the Harlem Community Art Center, while at the same time creating work that could be described as Folk art with premises of Expressionism and Realism. Today, the Smithsonian American Art Museum holds more than 1000 paintings and watercolors and prints by William H. Johnson; the institution also hosted a major exhibition of his artwork in 1991.

Featured image: William H. Johnson - Going to Church, 1940-41. Oil on canvas, 13 1/4 x 17 1/2 in (33.5 x 44.5 cm). Smithsonian American Art Museum. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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