Murals of the Harlem Renaissance We Should Know and See

January 5, 2021

In the early 20th century, the neighborhood of Harlem began to emerge as the premier black metropolis and a black cultural mecca in the United States. Followed by the intellectual, social and artistic explosion of African American culture which erupted in the neighborhood and spread across the cities of the greater Midwest, this development led to what we today refer to as the Harlem Renaissance.

This period saw a myriad of talented African American artists writers and musicians who seized upon the first chances for group expression and self-determination within their community. A truly groundbreaking moment in American cultural history, it provided artists the opportunity to explore their own identity through a range of media and exhibit their work in Harlem venues. It was also a prolific period for murals created by African American artists, which communicated the black experience and history.

Here are four seminal Harlem Renaissance murals you need to know about.

Aaron Douglas - Aspects of Negro Life, 1934

An African American artist and activist, Aaron Douglas was the first president of the Harlem Artist Guild, working with developing artists to help them attain employment. He was the first modern Black artist to use traditional African roots in his works, seeking to reveal the ideas and values exemplified during the Harlem Renaissance. Working in a strong, personal style, Douglas aimed to portray the history of Black Americans as seen through the eyes of a Black man.

In his 1934 set of murals Aspects of Negro Life, the artist drew on the history of the African American experience. The mural is comprised of four panels - The Negro in an African Setting, From Slavery Through Reconstruction, Song of the Towers, and An Idyll of the Deep South - starting with life in Africa and tracing the history of African Americans through slavery, emancipation, and the rebirth of African traditions. The murals are executed in his distinct style where figures are simplified into basic shapes of circles, triangles, and squares and objects are encircled to emphasize their significance in African American history. These concentric circles appear to represent the sun, which is one of the most important elements of life.

Straying away from the typical European style and turning to traditional African artwork for inspiration, Douglas's art was initially dismissed as grotesque. However, his style reflected the urgent search for African American identity and ideals of racial pride and social power, making a huge impact on African American artists.

The mural is housed in the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library, the Schomburg Cente.

Featured image: Aaron Douglas - Aspects of Negro Life: The Negro in an African Setting, 1934. New York Public Library / Public Domain

Archibald Motley - Stagecoach and Mail, 1937

Archibald Motley is best known for his portraits and narrative paintings of the street, cafe life and the jungle. Being of mixed ancestry and light-skinned, Motley became interested in skin tone. Working in a style characterized by a soft airbrushed aesthetic, he began to examine the diversity he saw in the African American skin tone. In his portraits, he revealed skin tone as a signifier of identity, race, and class.

Beginning to frequent the centre of African American life in Chicago during the 1930s, the Bronzeville neighbourhood on the South Side, he found inspiration in the bustling cultural life he found there and began creating multifigure paintings of lively jazz and cabaret nightclubs and dance halls. These works are characterized by more abstracted figures and color palettes of bright pinks, yellows, and reds against blacks and dark blues.

During the Great Depression, Motley was commissioned to work for the Works Progress Administration of the U.S. government. Among the works created in this period is Stagecoach and Mail from 1937, asked by the Mural Division of the Illinois Federal Arts Project. More of an easel-type painting, it features an American mail coach with oversized rear wheels and non-representational elements such as the tree roots and the tree branches. 

The mural Stagecoach and Mail is located inside the post office in Wood River, Illinois.

Featured image: Archibald Motley, Jr. - Stagecoach and Mail, 1937, via Jimmy Emmerson, DMV.

Hale Woodruff's Amistad Murals, 1938

An American painter, draftsman, printer, and educator, Hale Woodruff is probably best known for his murals, especially the Amistad mutiny murals. In his works, he depicted depicted the historic struggle and perseverance of African Americans. Combining a representational style with a modern idiom and African aesthetic, he created works that spoke to the black experience.

In 1938, Alabama’s Talladega College commissioned the artist to paint six large-scale murals portraying the Amistad mutiny and its aftermath, as well as the founding of Talladega College, one of the first colleges established for blacks in the United States. It depicts a story of the rebellion on the Spanish slave ship La Amistad, an event that was at the time conspicuously absent from most history books. After the failed attempt to turn the ship back to Africa, they ended up in New London, Connecticut, charged with piracy and murder. Luckily, abolitionists caught wind of the case, and after a few years, the prisoners were freed and sent back home. Portraying noteworthy events in the rise of blacks from slavery to freedom, the murals today remain symbols of the centuries-long struggle for civil rights.

The Amistad Mutiny murals are located at the Savery Library at Talladega College in Talladega, Alabama.

Featured image: Hale Woodruff - The Mutiny on the Amistad. Courtesy of High Museum of Art.

Charles Alston's Harlem Hospital Murals, 1936-40

An American painter, sculptor, illustrator, muralist and teacher, Charles Alston is celebrated for vital representations of black experiences and figures during the middle of the 20th century. His early work demonstrates affinities toward realism in his sympathetic portraits and large-scale public murals, while he later turned toward Cubism and began to exhibit sharper lines and mask-like characteristics.

In 1936, he became the first African American to supervise the New Deal mural project, commissioned by the Works Progress Administration/Federal Art Project. Working alongside few other artists, he designed narrative, celebratory images of Harlem, African-American life, children's fairy tales, and stories for New York's Harlem Hospital. Focusing on the theme of healing, he depicted traditional African healing methods beyond exotic and barbaric stereotypes in the work Magic in Medicine a racially egalitarian American present in its paired panel Modern Medicine. Depicting African culture and holistic healing, Magic in Medicine is considered one of "America's first public scenes of Africa".

When creating the murals, Alston was inspired by the work of Aaron Douglas and his piece Aspects of Negro Life created a year before. Initially, white hospital authorities rejected the works on the basis that they “contain too much Negro subject matter,” and the final approval of the murals did not come until 1940.

Featured image: Charles Alston - Modern Medicine, 1936. Image via Creative Commons.