Aaron Douglas was a painter and graphic artist who used his talents to become a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the early to mid-20th century. His illustrations were inspired by several modern artistic styles, and his powerful depictions of segregation and racism became symbols of a movement that portrayed African American history and culture in a brand-new light.
As both a teacher and a leader, Douglas was more than just a passionate artist. He became a prominent voice alongside other artists and writers in a movement that reformed the art world while also changing the portrayal of and opportunities available to Black Americans. The Harlem Renaissance laid the foundation for African American art, and Douglas’ piece not only depicted the journey, but themselves became prominent pieces of the new movement.
The Early Years
Douglas was born in Topeka, Kansas on May 26, 1899. Despite coming from humble beginnings, his parents valued education and an optimistic mindset. At the same time, the rather large and politically active African American community that his family lived in instilled a sense of pride in his cultural roots.
His mother enjoyed drawing and watercolors, and this shared hobby quickly turned into a deep passion and a desire to pursue art as a career. Douglas graduated from Topeka High School in 1917 and took a brief break to travel with a friend to Detroit where he worked at a Cadillac plant. While at the plant, he was often the target of racism and discrimination, often resulting in having to do the least desired jobs available.
During his year hiatus, he attended art classes at the Detroit Museum of Art. After saving enough money for tuition, he went on to attend the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. There he studied creating art of all sorts, later earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1922.
He spent the next two years after graduating teaching art classes at Lincoln High School in Kansas City, Missouri, during which time he was also an active mentor in the Art Club. However, he was one of only two black teachers in the school, and he desired to live in a place where he could pursue his dreams and the life he desired without being restricted because of the color of his skin. The booming art scene in New York City had the right appeal, and in June of 1925, Douglas followed his dream into the big city.
Becoming a Part of the Harlem Renaissance
Douglas didn’t hesitate to immerse himself into the lively Harlem arts community. The city was unlike any other he had lived in, particularly in terms of the predominantly black demographic. Black folks in Harlem were positions of power within the community, and the area would soon become a central point in the development of African American culture.
Shortly after arriving in the city, Douglas won a scholarship to study with German-born illustrator Winold Reiss. Reiss encouraged Douglas to look to his African heritage for inspiration, and the illustrative styles that Reiss drew from became a major influence Douglas’ artistic language.
He also began contributing illustrations to various publications. These included Opportunity, which was published by the National Urban League, and The Crisis, published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. His illustrations primarily depicted the life and struggles of African Americans and other marginalized people.
Douglas’ illustrations were frequently recognized and some even won awards. He ultimately won a commission to illustrate The New Negro, an anthology of work from philosopher Alain LeRoy Locke. The publication went on to catch the eye of other writers of the Harlem Renaissance. His illustrations were also featured in other popular magazines such as Harper’s and Vanity Fair, and Douglas’ reputation rapidly grew.
By his second year in the city, Douglas became a co-founder of the magazine Fire!! A Quarterly Journal Devoted to the Young Negro Artists. The aim of the project was to shake the former perspective of African Americans and their place in society as writers and artists. However, the publication only ran for one edition after receiving negative reviews from others within the Harlem Renaissance who found the language to be vulgar and that the magazine actually promoted existing stereotypes.
For the next several years, Douglas continued to immerse himself in the New York art scene. He married Alta Sawyer, a teacher who became one of Douglas’ greatest inspirations. He also received a fellowship to study at Dr. Albert C. Barnes's collection of modern and African art in Merion, Pennsylvania. The collection was made up of over 120 pieces of African art that included ceremonial masks and household items. Barnes’s collection coincided with Douglas’ desire to shift the perspective of black folks by featuring these items as art rather than ethnographic artifacts
In 1930, Douglas was commissioned to paint a series of murals for the Cravath Memorial Library in Nashville, Tennessee, which led him to become an artist in residence at Fisk University. Upon the completion of this project, he went on to further his study at the Académie Scandinave in Paris, France.
Douglas moved back to Harlem a couple years later, and he went on to form and become president of the Harlem Artists Guild in 1935. The aim of the guild was to improve society’s understanding of the racism, poverty, and struggles that African Americans faced. The guild also promoted young African American artists and succeeded in getting the Works Progress Administration to improve on the opportunities available to African American artists.
By 1939, Douglas accepted a teaching position at Fisk University, a position that he would keep for the next 27 years. He established the school’s art department as well as the on-campus Carl Van Vechten Gallery. During this time he also earned his master's degree in art education from Columbia University's Teachers College. Despite his commitment to his teaching career, Douglas continued to create art and participate in exhibits throughout his time at the University.
Developing an Artistic Language
Douglas arrived in New York in the early days of the Harlem Renaissance, and the other artists and teachers he met during this time helped him develop his voice through a unique blend of artistic influences and social endeavors.
One of the earliest influences that would shape Douglas’ artistic style was his teacher Winold Reiss. Reiss drew artistic inspiration from around the world, including elements of the Art Deco movement, from Egyptian wall paintings, and from the silhouette style of German paper cut-out illustrations.
Douglas became particularly inspired by elements of Cubism which he applied in the form of flattened images and two-dimensional silhouettes. He used a narrow range of colors, but created dramatic focal points that gave his illustrations dynamic movement. These bold images brought the story behind each painting to life and made his pieces emotionally powerful.
Throughout his career, Douglas went on to collaborate with many other artists from around the world as well as within the Harlem Renaissance. He worked with different types of media that included painting, illustration, murals, and prints. Through these projects, he combined African culture and modern art to create pieces that were both a celebration of the African American experience as well as a call to action against racism and segregation.
The Father of Black American Art
Today, Aaron Douglas is known to many as “The father of Black American Art”. Not only did he build a career by creating illustrations that made powerful statements about the social conditions of and notions around black Americans at the time, but he also worked to reform the system and to improve socioeconomic opportunities for African American artists.
As a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance, Douglas was part of a greater “New Negro” movement. During this time, organizations were founded to promote civil rights for Black Americans and to redefine the narrative that suppressed them based on racist stereotypes.
The movement aimed to retaliate against White dominance and racial violence at a time when an increasing number of African Americans were migrating to cities and joining the military. Through their art, artists like Douglas aimed to portray African American heritage and culture in ways that had not previously been seen.
Douglas received honors and recognition throughout his career, including an invitation by President John F. Kennedy to celebrate the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation at the White House. After his retirement from Fisk University, Douglas continued to lecture and paint, and even went on to earn an honorary doctorate from the school.
After Douglas passed in 1979 at the age of 79, a special memorial was held for him at Fisk University. Walter J. Leonard, who was the president of the school at the time, remembered Douglas’ lifetime of work and influence with the following statement:
“Aaron Douglas was one of the most accomplished of the interpreters of our institutions and cultural values. He captured the strength and quickness of the young; he translated the memories of the old; and he projected the determination of the inspired and courageous."
Notable Paintings and Illustrations
Many of the most notable illustrations by Aaron Douglas were in collaboration with other artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance. It wasn’t long after moving to New York that Douglas became immersed in the movement, and his desire to tell the story of the African American plight would remain the focus of his career as an artist and a teacher.
One of Douglas’ earliest projects remains one of his best-known works to this day. In 1927, James W. Johnson requested for Douglas to create seven illustrations to accompany Johnson’s collection of poems entitled God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. The compilation drew inspiration from Johnson’s childhood impression of the powerful delivery of African American religious rhetoric, and Douglas’ imagery combined religious symbolism with depictions of the struggles understood by Black Americans.
Arguably the most famous piece of the series, titled The Judgement Day, depicts the archangel Gabriel atop the earth and sea as he calls those living and dead to judgement. Both Johnson and Douglas received awards for the work in the following year, and Douglas’ newfound reputation would lead him to create illustrations for several popular magazines. He also created illustrations for a second book entitled Black Magic, in which French author Paul Morand recounted his travels through Africa.
In 1929, Douglas was commissioned to paint a series of murals on the walls of library at Fisk University. The murals depicted African American culture beginning on the shores of Africa and leading to the Black experience in modern America.
Douglas would later be asked to do several more murals, including a series in the reading room in the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture at the New York Public Library titled Aspects of Negro Life. In 1935, Douglas painted another mural titled Evolution of Negro Dance for the Harlem YMCA that depicted the history of African Americans from slavery to modern day through dance.
One of Douglas’ most important works came out of eight paintings that he created based on his earlier works in God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. The painting Let My People Go portrays the story of God’s order to Moses to lead Israelites out of enslavement from the Old Testament, a story that has become synonymous with the plight of African Americans. The painting can currently be found in the eight-panel series hanging in the New York city Met Museum.
Aaron Douglas lived a life rich with purpose and passion. As an artist and a teacher, he became a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance and in the greater mission to change how Black Americans were seen and accepted in society. Douglas’ unique style layers vivid color pallets with silhouettes and Art Deco elements to create striking images that showcase the culture, struggles, and history of African Americans. Throughout his career, Douglas not only helped to change the acceptance of Black artists, but he laid the foundation for the artistic language of African American art.