Harlem Renaissance: 10 Visual Artists You Should Know
Facts and Images of Important Art
When picturing art history, most Westerners imagine the European Renaissance or the following years of that region. Following the Great Migration, America had its own Harlem Renaissance, where many talented American creatives pioneered aesthetics and turned a new chapter for generations.
Along with remarkable literature and performance during the period: sculptors, painters, photographers, and printmakers greatly molded the modern Afrocentric cultural movement and forged a visual avant-garde. This time is considered a golden age of Black culture that swelled into a tidal wave through art and society. This article paints a brief backdrop and illustrates artists’ stories and their captivating work in hopes to stimulate awareness and deposit important art into our visual memory banks.
Harlem buzzed as a hub for music, culture, and political activism, starting largely in part due to the Great Migration of the early 1900s, where millions of Black Americans moved from the South to the North and West, due to:
- Unfair Jim Crow laws and treatment in the South.
- In 1915 and 1916, natural disasters hit and put workers and sharecroppers out of work.
- Recruiters for industrial factories created ads in the local Black newspapers during World War I while many laborers left for war and the influx of European immigrants paused. Northern factories offered 3x the pay.
- Civil rights activists encouraged turning Harlem into a center for Black advancement, such as W.E.B. DuBois, who was a founder of NAACP.
- Because of the vibrant enchanting scene, many visual artists relocated to Harlem to join the creative movement.
At the time in the United States: art schools, galleries, and museums didn’t welcome Black artists; Black life was rarely the subject of Western art, less the hero in a White-dominant culture. With this movement, Black people became the muse for masterpieces, which was a positive turning point for artwork and society as a whole in America. These artists broke ground and paved the path for hundreds of years, highlighting rich culture. Activists teamed alongside to promote Black artists’ publicity nationally and internationally. W.E.B. DuBois fought for attention and credit for Black artistic contributions. Many, including Paul Robeson, rallied that arts and culture were the best routes for Black Americans to advance through a post-emancipation landscape. While they’re many influential names to celebrate, below is an introduction to 10 visual artists.
01 — Meta Warrick Fuller (1877–1968)
- Ethiopia anticipated the voice of the period as a rebirth for Black Americans. Fuller said, “Here was a group who had once made history and now after a long sleep was awaking, gradually unwinding the bandage of its mummied past and looking out on life again, expectant but unafraid and with at least a graceful gesture.”
- For the times, it was ground-breaking to paint Black themes in Western art. Along with depicting day-to-day life, Meta (pronounced “Meeta”) Warrick Fuller communicates change, racial injustice, and societal trauma through form.
- She became a protégé of Auguste Rodin, considered the father of modern sculpture. She’s known as the “sculptor of horrors” for expressive themes.
- W.E.B. DuBois commissioned her to create sculptures for the world fairs to proudly showcase Black contribution to the arts.
02 — Augusta Savage (1877–1968)
- Her work captures powerful emotions and emphasizes Black Americans’ rise. One of her most famous pieces is a sculpture of her nephew, Gamin, highlighting her skill in texture. The portrayed Black child was a first of its kind on exhibit and allowed thousands of children to see themselves as fine art.
- She established a free art school, influencing many artists’ careers, such as Jacob Lawrence.
- She was the first African-American member of the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors, the first director of the Harlem Community Art Center, and was commissioned by the New York World’s Fair of 1939 to create a sculpture capturing Black Americans contributions to music, The Harp.
03 — Richmond Barthé (1901–1989)
- He said, “All my life I have been interested in trying to capture the spiritual quality I see and feel in people, and I feel that the human figure as God made it, is the best means of expressing this spirit in man.”
- He focused on themes of the male figure, informed by his identity of a gay man. While he wasn’t open about his sexually due to the times, he did find camaraderie and love among other artists and intellectuals.
04 — Aaron Douglas (1899–1979)
- Called “the Father of Black American Art”.
- West African heritage inspired him: Benin, Congo, and Senegal, along with ancient Egyptian. For example, he uses the Egyptian device of oversizing the main character to show importance.
- He spoke a modern visual language that represented Black Americans in a new light of power.
05 — Laura Wheeler Waring (1887–1948)
- Created pieces that highlighted the sophistication and dignity for the Black middle class, using vibrant colors, shapes, and light inspired by French expressionists.
- Among the artists displayed in the country’s first exhibition of African-American art in 1927.
06 — Loïs Mailou Jones (1905–1998)
- Highly influential, internationally exhibited artist and teacher during the Harlem Renaissance, becoming a professor at Howard University in Washington D.C.
- She flourished in a seven-decade career and created in many styles: abstract, landscapes, portraits, prints, and more.
07 — Archibald Motley (1891–1981)
- He was one of the first Black Americans to attend The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (from 1914 to 1918).
- He focused on the richness of Black American life during the time, and created in a range of styles: from realistic portraits to expressive night scenes.
- He paints his grandmother in a dignified light. Her hands and face show visible signs of time and hard work while she was enslaved the first part of her life.
08 — James Van Der Zee (1886–1983)
- He filled his work with optimism and sought to separate from the past. He emphasized refinement and elegance, along with capturing day-to-day life in Harlem.
- He took thousands of photographs through the decades and was one to provide some of the most visual documentation of the time.
- Unique for the time, he painted luxurious backgrounds and showered subjects in perfect lighting. At times he would hand color sections of the developed images.
09 — Hale Woodruff (1900–1980)
- Woodruff studied art at Harvard University and at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as working in Paris, where he embraced modern art, along with murals and lithographs.
- He studied with Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, whom he admired for the social justice themes he pursued in his art.
- Woodruff also made politically charged work that dealt graphically with lynching, an issue he felt compelled to confront with his art.
10 — Elizabeth Catlett (1915–2012)
- Considered the most renowned Black artist of the generation that emerged from the Harlem Renaissance as a printmaker and sculptor.
- Maya Angelou called her “Queen of the Arts”, and her work lives in major collections.
- She created Sharecropper to highlight the trials and endless cycles of tenant farming, which forced many into debt that wasn’t possible to pay. She also portrays strength of the heroine.
- “I have always wanted my art to service Black people — to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential,” she said.
Famous female poet and author of the time, Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” During this awakening, art painted the picture of Black thriving.
This article is part of an ongoing project to share artwork and improve online resources. In this process, I updated the Wikipedia page, “List of figures from the Harlem Renaissance” and am compiling an artist database with a small team. I’m delighted to continue to share the articles in queue.