Published: May 5, 2015
“Libraries Are Appreciated” by Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000), 1943. One of the great stars to emerge from the Harlem Renaissance, Lawrence achieved national recognition for his narratives of African American life and history, notably the iconic “The Great Migration” series, completed when he was in his 20s, which traces the movement of African Americans to the North. Later, he painted many works dignifying ordinary black workers, from carpenters to construction workers, and others striving to get ahead. In this work, set in the New York Public Library at 9 West 124th Street, he depicted three figures reading books, suggesting a thirst for knowledge that will enable them to succeed in life. The Louis E. Stern Collection, 1963 ©2014 the Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
PHILADELPHIA, PENN. — One of the most important developments in American art museums in recent years has been increasing collection of artwork by African American artists. The civil rights movement stimulated new interest in their work, and black museums were established as these artists gained credibility and acceptance in mainstream art circles. Slowly, but surely, art historians and museums have brought to public attention the accomplishments of black artists, many of whom overcame enormous racial obstacles to become talented interpreters of a broad range of stories, subjects, styles, mediums and traditions. Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which holds 2,000 African American works — the largest such collection in the world — has observed that “Once ignored or too narrowly considered, African American art is finally understood as an essential part of America’s culture.”
A good example of the historic development and continuing growth of African American art in a prestigious museum are the holdings of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Represent: 200 Years of African American Art,” on view January 10–April 15, showcases 75 works by 25 significant black painters, sculptors and photographers. The collection dates back to acquisition of a Tanner painting in 1899. Consulting curator for the show is art historian Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw. Organizing curator is John Vick, a curatorial assistant at the museum.
Timothy Rub, the museum’s director and chief executive officer, stresses the timely significance of the current exhibition at a time when “race remains a key topic of conversation in the United States…” Between the Seventeenth and Nineteenth Centuries, African American art in the South took the form of quilts, wrought-iron figures and ceramic vessels that often resonated with comparable crafts in Africa.
The exhibition begins with rare examples of fine and decorative arts crafted by free and enslaved artists before the Civil War, including early Nineteenth Century silhouettes made by Moses Williams, who worked in Charles Willson Peale’s Philadelphia museum, and a large storage jar with Bible excerpts inscribed across the lip by South Carolina potter David Drake.
Joshua Johnson (circa 1763–circa 1824), a black portraitist from Baltimore, is often considered America’s first person of color to make a living as a painter. Apparently self-taught, he created naïve but charming likenesses of Baltimore’s white, wealthy elite that are represented in the museum collection. Although he lacked formal training, Robert S. Duncanson (1821–1872) was hailed in his day as the “best landscape painter in the West.” Born in Canada, he traveled extensively around the Midwest and Europe, living primarily in Cincinnati, where he turned out portraits of the local gentry and romantic, pastoral, landscapes that put one in mind of Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School.
Canadian-born Edward M. Bannister (circa 1828–1901) settled in Detroit and set out to disprove a New York Herald Tribune comment in 1867 that “the Negro seems to have an appreciation of art, while being manifestly unable to produce it.” He rarely dealt with social injustices suffered by African Americans, choosing instead to paint idealized landscapes and seascapes influenced by the French Barbizon School, as well as portraits and biblical scenes. His “Under the Oaks” won a medal at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, but Bannister was temporarily refused entry to the gallery where it hung because of his race.
An important contemporary, Edmonia Lewis (circa 1840–1907), was a half-black and half-Native American sculptor who overcame enormous obstacles to become a star. While in Boston, her marble bust of martyred Colonel Robert Gould Shaw established her reputation and earned her money and patronage to relocate to Rome. There she became a member of the group of British and American women sculptors dubbed by Henry James “the white marmorean flock.”
Lewis created notable neoclassical sculptures of American Indians like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Hiawatha and Minnehaha, various biblical figures and an unforgettably moving marble of “The Dying Cleopatra.”
The standout work in the exhibition for many will be Henry O. Tanner’s compelling “The Annunciation,” 1898, in which a spectacular column of light (standing for Gabriel, the angel of annunciation) floods a room with golden light and spotlights Mary, who sits uneasily on the edge of a couch.
After being Thomas Eakins’ only African American student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and study in France, Tanner relocated permanently to Paris in 1892, seeking to escape discrimination in his homeland. His early work focused on genre scenes of African American life, notably “The Banjo Lesson” and “The Thankful Poor.” Before the turn of the century Tanner also created the wildly successful “The Resurrection of Lazarus,” 1896, and a heartfelt “Portrait of the Artist’s Mother,” 1897.
From France, Tanner traveled widely in the Holy Land, recording his observations of people and architecture, along with scenes from the Bible. With expressive use of light and subtle, restrained colors in simplified compositions, Tanner sought not to copy the facts of nature, but to effect a mood. His biblical scenes, at once unusual and powerful, clinch Tanner’s standing as the preeminent Nineteenth Century African American painter.
The flourishing of black pride, creative innovation and interest in artists’ African roots in the 1920s and 1930s Harlem Renaissance made it a period of African American cultural renewal with a profound effect on the direction of black artists. It was guided by Howard University philosopher Alain Locke, who encouraged modern but distinctively African American achievement and a return of black artists to their African origins.
Among the major painters of the movement: Aaron Douglas, Palmer Hayden, William H. Johnson, Jacob Lawrence and Archibald Motley Jr. Important sculptors included Richmond Barthe and Augusta Savage. An often overlooked star, Douglas (1899–1979) painted shadowy, evocative murals that contrasted the myth and reality of black life in the South. He also painted in a Cubist manner, as in the museum’s “Birds in Flight.”
The incomparable William H. Johnson (1901–1970) was an academically trained expressionist painter who returned from Europe and employed a colorful, deliberately primitive style to convey the African American experience.
Self-taught artist Horace Pippin (1888–1946) overcame the crippling of his painting arm in World War I by developing means to create appealing primitive compositions that offered glimpses of wartime battlefields and African American life. In “Mr Prejudice,” he depicted slavers, Ku Klux Klan members and other racists seeking to undermine freedoms for which African Americans had fought.
The greatest of all African American artists, Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000), blended abstract and figurative art with vibrant flat color and sharp contours to convey the universal quest for freedom, justice and human dignity. His 60-image series chronicling the Great Migration of blacks from the agrarian South to the industrial North is arguably the most important series in American art history.
Toward the end of his career Lawrence documented the value and constructive role of people who work with their hands and/or provide valuable community services, as in “The Libraries Are Appreciated.”
Among black sculptors, standouts include Meta Warrick Fuller, Augusta Savage, Richmond Barthe and self-trained William Edmundson, who created charming limestone works depicting animals and African Americans.
“Represent” showcases standouts among selftaught black painters, such as Minnie Evans, who worked for years at a North Carolina botanical gar- den and incorporated her observations into bright, vivid compositions of exotic flowers and fantastic foliage. Clementine Hunter spent a lifetime on a Louisiana plantation, where she created endearing naïve vignettes of cotton picking, wash day, church rituals and other aspects of plantation life. Bill Traylor’s whimsical figures and objects have an enduring appeal.
By contrast, Beauford Delaney (1901–1979) received academic training in Boston and Harlem and specialized in depicting creative people he met, such as James Baldwin. He rendered them with perception, empathy and expressionist fervor.
Alma Thomas (1891–1978), a Howard University graduate who taught for nearly four decades in District of Columbia schools, was an important member of Washington’s Color Field group. Her explorations of color and abstraction led to paintings with striking swatches of bright hues arranged in mosaiclike patterns in themes derived from nature. Longtime Howard University teacher Lois Mailou Jones (1905–1998) melded extensive academic training with an interest in African American, Haitian, African and European subjects in developing a varied oeuvre over the course of an extended career. Early on she used a Post-Impressionist style and a subdued palette to depict Parisian street scenes and Cezannesque landscapes. Later work reflected Jones’ interest in African masks, American social injustices including lynching, and Haitian culture.
Two of Jones’ students at Howard, Elizabeth Catlett and David Driskell, have made important contributions to the evolution of African American art. Catlett (1915–2014), a Washington native, was a gifted painter, printmaker and sculptor who made her career in Mexico, but focused her art on the African American experience and the need for social and economic freedom. Her riveting, iconic image of a weathered, elderly woman, “Sharecropper,” reflects her concerns about the plight of working-class black women. Catlett’s wood and metal sculptures, made with sinuous curves and minimal details, run the gamut from intertwined images of mother and child and female poets to energetic female nudes.
Driskell (b 1931), a Howard graduate now retired from a distinguished career in academia, has played a central role in increasing appreciation for African American artists and art history. His own art is bold, colorful, semiabstract and often drawn from nature, religious themes or African subjects. The latter, influenced by visits to Africa, brought the geometry, forms and brilliant palette of African artists into his paintings, collages and prints.
Bob Thompson (1937–1966), was a standout colorist from Louisville, who studied, painted and lived in New York and Paris, evolving a style mixing realism with large swatches of brilliant color often depicting Biblical themes. In the exhibition, “Deposition,” incorporating a crucifixion scene, is typical of his work; he died at 28 before reaching his full potential. The Philadelphia collection includes examples of African American photography by James VanDerZee, Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems and others and a brilliant array of quilts made by black craftspeople. The show places strong emphasis on the modern era, when black artists began to have greater access to artistic training and professional opportunities. Many contemporary African Americans directly confront issues of racism and discrimination. Glen Ligon’s text paintings and Kara Walker’s silhouettes stand out in this regard.
The exhibition hints at the grand future potential of African American artists like Moe Booker and Barkley L. Hendricks with numerous works that blaze with color and often convey messages against racism and for greater freedoms for black painters and sculptors.
The Philadelphia Museum is on Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 26th Street. For information, 215-763-8100 or www.philamuseum.org.
All images, unless otherwise noted, are courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art.
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