Aaron Douglas

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Aaron Douglas
Aaron Douglas - NARA - 559198.jpg
Aaron Douglas
Born(1899-05-26)May 26, 1899
DiedFebruary 2, 1979(1979-02-02) (aged 79)
Nationality American
Education University of Nebraska, Teachers College, Columbia University
Known forPainting, illustration, murals
Style Jazz Age, Modernism, Art Deco
Movement Harlem Renaissance

Aaron Douglas (May 26, 1899 – February 3, 1979 [1] ) was an American painter, illustrator and visual arts educator. He was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance. [2] He developed his art career painting murals and creating illustrations that addressed social issues around race and segregation in the United States by utilizing African-centric imagery. [3] Douglas set the stage for young, African-American artists to enter public arts realm through his involvement with the Harlem Artists Guild. [4] In 1944, he concluded his art career by founding the Art Department at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He taught visual art classes at Fisk until his retirement in 1966. [5] Douglas is known as a prominent leader in modern African-American art whose work influenced artists for years to come. [6]

Visual arts art forms that create works that are primarily visual in nature

The visual arts are art forms such as ceramics, drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, design, crafts, photography, video, filmmaking, and architecture. Many artistic disciplines involve aspects of the visual arts as well as arts of other types. Also included within the visual arts are the applied arts such as industrial design, graphic design, fashion design, interior design and decorative art.

The Harlem Renaissance was an intellectual, social, and artistic explosion centered in Harlem, New York, spanning the 1920s. During the time, it was known as the "New Negro Movement", named after The New Negro, the 1925 anthology edited by Alain Locke. The Movement also included the new African-American cultural expressions across the urban areas in the Northeast and Midwest United States affected by the African-American Great Migration, of which Harlem was the largest. The Harlem Renaissance was considered to be a rebirth of African-American arts. Though it was centered in the Harlem neighborhood of the borough of Manhattan in New York City, many francophone black writers from African and Caribbean colonies who lived in Paris were also influenced by the Harlem Renaissance.

Mural piece of artwork painted or applied directly on a large permanent surface

A mural is any piece of artwork painted or applied directly on a wall, ceiling or other permanent surface. A distinguishing characteristic of mural painting is that the architectural elements of the given space are harmoniously incorporated into the picture.


Early life

Aaron Douglas was born in Topeka, Kansas, on May 26, 1899, [5] to Aaron Douglas, Sr, a baker from Tennessee, and Elizabeth Douglas, a homemaker and amateur artist from Alabama. His passion for art derived from admiring his mother's drawings. [6] He attended Topeka High School, during which he worked for Skinner's Nursery and Union Pacific material yard, and graduated in 1917. [7] [3]

Topeka, Kansas State capital city in Kansas, United States

Topeka is the capital city of the U.S. state of Kansas and the seat of Shawnee County. It is situated along the Kansas River in the central part of Shawnee County, in northeast Kansas, in the Central United States. As of the 2010 census, the city population was 127,473. The Topeka Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes Shawnee, Jackson, Jefferson, Osage, and Wabaunsee counties, had a population of 233,870 in the 2010 census.

Tennessee State of the United States of America

Tennessee is a state located in the southeastern region of the United States. Tennessee is the 36th largest and the 16th most populous of the 50 United States. Tennessee is bordered by Kentucky to the north, Virginia to the northeast, North Carolina to the east, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi to the south, Arkansas to the west, and Missouri to the northwest. The Appalachian Mountains dominate the eastern part of the state, and the Mississippi River forms the state's western border. Nashville is the state's capital and largest city, with a 2017 population of 667,560. Tennessee's second largest city is Memphis, which had a population of 652,236 in 2017.

Alabama State of the United States of America

Alabama is a state in the southeastern region of the United States. It is bordered by Tennessee to the north, Georgia to the east, Florida and the Gulf of Mexico to the south, and Mississippi to the west. Alabama is the 30th largest by area and the 24th-most populous of the U.S. states. With a total of 1,500 miles (2,400 km) of inland waterways, Alabama has among the most of any state.

After high school, Douglas moved to Detroit, Michigan, and held various jobs, including working as a plasterer and molding sand from automobile radiators for Cadillac. During this time, he attended free classes at the Detroit Museum of Art before attending college at the University of Nebraska in 1918. [5] While attending college, Douglas worked as a busboy to finance his education. [6] When World War I commenced, Douglas attempted to join the Student Army Training Corps (SATC) at the University of Nebraska, but was dismissed. Historians have speculated that this dismissal was correlated with the racially segregated climate of American society and the military. [5] He then transferred for a short time to the University of Minnesota, where he volunteered for the SATC and attained the rank of corporal. After the signing of the armistice, he returned to the University of Nebraska, [5] where he received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1922. [8]

Detroit Largest city in Michigan

Detroit is the largest and most populous city in the U.S. state of Michigan, the largest United States city on the United States–Canada border, and the seat of Wayne County. The municipality of Detroit had a 2017 estimated population of 673,104, making it the 23rd-most populous city in the United States. The metropolitan area, known as Metro Detroit, is home to 4.3 million people, making it the second-largest in the Midwest after the Chicago metropolitan area. Regarded as a major cultural center, Detroit is known for its contributions to music and as a repository for art, architecture and design.

University of Nebraska–Lincoln public university in Lincoln, Nebraska, United States

The University of Nebraska–Lincoln, often referred to as Nebraska, UNL or NU, is a public research university in the city of Lincoln, in the state of Nebraska in the Midwestern United States. It is the state's oldest university, and the largest in the University of Nebraska system.

World War I 1914–1918 global war originating in Europe

World War I, also known as the First World War or the Great War, was a global war originating in Europe that lasted from 28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918. Contemporaneously described as "the war to end all wars", it led to the mobilisation of more than 70 million military personnel, including 60 million Europeans, making it one of the largest wars in history. It is also one of the deadliest conflicts in history, with an estimated nine million combatants and seven million civilian deaths as a direct result of the war, while resulting genocides and the 1918 influenza pandemic caused another 50 to 100 million deaths worldwide.

After graduating, Douglas worked as a waiter for the Union Pacific Railroad until 1923, when he secured a job teaching visual arts at Lincoln High School in Kansas City, Missouri, staying there until 1925. During his time in Kansas City, he exchanged letters with Alta Sawyer, his future wife, about his plans beyond teaching in a high-school setting. He wanted to take his art career to Paris, France, as many of his aspiring artist peers did. [6]

Kansas City, Missouri City in western Missouri

Kansas City is the largest city in the U.S. state of Missouri. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the city had an estimated population of 488,943 in 2017, making it the 37th most-populous city in the United States. It is the central city of the Kansas City metropolitan area, which straddles the Kansas–Missouri state line. Kansas City was founded in the 1830s as a Missouri River port at its confluence with the Kansas River coming in from the west. On June 1, 1850 the town of Kansas was incorporated; shortly after came the establishment of the Kansas Territory. Confusion between the two ensued and the name Kansas City was assigned to distinguish them soon after.



In 1925, Douglas intended to pass through Harlem, New York, on his way to Paris to advance his art career. [6] He was convinced to stay in Harlem and develop his art during the height of the Harlem Renaissance, influenced by the writings of Alain Locke about the importance of Harlem for aspiring African Americans. [2] [6] [3] While in Harlem, Douglas studied under Winold Reiss, a German portraitist who encouraged him to work with African-centric themes to create a sense of unity between African Americans with art. [9] Douglas worked with W. E. B. Du Bois, then-editor at The Crisis , a monthly journal of the NAACP, [2] and became art editor himself briefly in 1927. [10] Douglas also illustrated for Charles S. Johnson, then-editor at Opportunity , the official publication of the National Urban League. [10] [2] These illustrations focused on articles about lynching and segregation, and theater and jazz. [10] Douglas' illustrations also featured in the periodicals Vanity Fair and Theatre Arts Monthly . [11] In 1927, Douglas was asked to create the first of his murals at Club Ebony, which highlighted Harlem nightlife. [12]

Winold Reiss American artist

F. Winold Reiss was a German-born American artist and graphic designer. He was born in Karlsruhe, Germany, the second son of Fritz Reiss (1857–1914) and his wife. He grew up surrounded by art, as his father was a well-known landscape artist and his brother became a sculptor.

W. E. B. Du Bois American sociologist, historian, activist and writer

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was an American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, author, writer and editor. Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Du Bois grew up in a relatively tolerant and integrated community, and after completing graduate work at the University of Berlin and Harvard, where he was the first African American to earn a doctorate, he became a professor of history, sociology and economics at Atlanta University. Du Bois was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.

<i>The Crisis</i> official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

The Crisis is the official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). It was founded in 1910 by W. E. B. Du Bois (editor), Oswald Garrison Villard, J. Max Barber, Charles Edward Russell, Kelly Miller, W. S. Braithwaite, and Mary Dunlop Maclean. The Crisis has been in continuous print since 1910, and it is the oldest black oriented magazine in the world. Today, The Crisis is "a quarterly journal of civil rights, history, politics and culture and seeks to educate and challenge its readers about issues that continue to plague African Americans and other communities of color."


In 1928, Douglas received a one-year Barnes Foundation Fellowship in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where Albert C. Barnes, philanthropist and founder of the Barnes Foundation, supported him in studying the collection of Modernist paintings and African art. [5] During this same year, Douglas participated in the Harmon Foundation's exhibition organized by the College Art Association, entitled "Contemporary Negro Art." [6] In the summer of 1930, he moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he worked on a series of murals for the Fisk University Library. [5] While in Nashville, he was commissioned by the Sherman Hotel in Chicago, Illinois, to paint a mural series. In addition, he was commissioned by Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina, to create a mural with Harriet Tubman as its primary figure. [6] He then moved in 1931 for one year to Paris, France, where he received training in sculpture and painting at the Académie Scandinave. [5]

Barnes Foundation Art Museum, Horticulture in Pennsylvania, United States

TheBarnes Foundation is an art collection and educational institution promoting the appreciation of art and horticulture. Originally in Merion, the art collection moved in 2012 to a new building on Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The arboretum of the Barnes Foundation remains in Merion, where it has been proposed to be maintained under a long-term educational affiliation agreement with Saint Joseph's University.

Albert C. Barnes American chemist

Albert Coombs Barnes was an American chemist, businessman, art collector, writer, and educator, and the founder of the Barnes Foundation in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania.

The Harmon Foundation was established in 1922 by wealthy real-estate developer and philanthropist William E. Harmon (1862-1928). It originally supported a variety of causes, including playgrounds and nursing programs, but is best known for having served as a large-scale patron of African-American art that helped gain recognition for African-American artists who otherwise would have remained largely unknown. Mary B. Brady was the director of the foundation from 1922 until its cessation in 1967.


Douglas returned to Harlem in the mid-1930s to work on his mural painting techniques. In 1934, he was commissioned by New York’s 135th Street YMCA to paint a mural on their building, as well as by the Public Works Administration to paint his most acclaimed mural cycle, Aspects of Negro Life, for the Countee Cullen Branch of New York Public Library. [5] He used these murals to inform his audiences of the place of African Americans throughout America's history and its present society. [6] In a series consisting of four murals, Douglas takes his audience from an African setting, to slavery and the Reconstruction era in the United States, then through the threats of lynching and segregation in a post-Civil War America to a final mural depicting the movement of African Americans north towards the Harlem Renaissance and the Great Depression. [12] During the height of his commissioned work as a muralist, Douglas served as president of the Harlem Artists Guild in 1935, an organization designed to create a network of young artists in New York City to provide support and inspiration during the Harlem Renaissance. [4]


In 1937, the Rosenwald Foundation awarded Douglas a travel fellowship to go to the American South and visit primarily Black universities, including Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1938, he again received a travel fellowship from the Rosenwald Foundation to go to the Dominican Republic and Haiti to develop a series of watercolors depicting the life of these Caribbean islands. [5] [6]

Upon returning to the United States in 1940, he worked at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, while attending Columbia University Teacher’s College in New York City. He received his Master of Arts degree in 1944, and moved to Nashville, to found and sit as the chairman of the Art Department at Fisk University. [5] During his tenure as a professor in the Art Department, he was the founding director of the Carl Van Vechten Gallery of Fine Arts, which included both White and African-American art in an effort to educate students on being an artist in a segregated American South. [1] He used his experiences as an artist in the Harlem Renaissance to inspire his students to expand on the movements of African-American art. He also encouraged his students to study African-American history to fully understand the necessity for African-American art in predominantly White-American society. [6] Douglas retired from teaching in the Art Department at Fisk University in 1966. [5]


Aaron Douglas died at the age of 79 on February 2, 1979. [5]


Aaron Douglas pioneered the African-American modernist movement by combining aesthetic with ancient African traditional art. He set the stage for future African-American artists to utilize elements of African and African-American history alongside racial themes present in society. [11]

In 2007, the Spencer Museum of Art organized an exhibition called Aaron Douglas: African-American Modernist. It was held in Lawrence, Kansas, at the Spencer Museum of Art between September 8 to December 2, 2007, and traveled to the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tennessee, from January 18 to April 13, 2008. It was then on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C,. between May 9 and August 3, 2008. Finally, it traveled to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York, New York, from August 30 to November 30, 2008. An exhaustive catalog of this exhibition was put together through collaboration between Spencer Museum of Art and The University of Kansas, and is entitled Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist. [13] [8] [14] [1]

In 2016, with the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, an archive of artworks created by or having to do with Aaron Douglas became available on their website. Users can access the full references of these pieces of art to determine the creation date, subject of the art, and its current residence. [15]


Aaron Douglas developed two art styles during his career: first as a traditional portraitist, then as a muralist and illustrator. [1] Influenced by having worked with Winold Reiss, Douglas incorporated African themes into his artwork to create a connection between Africans and African Americans. His work is described as being abstract, in that he portrayed the universality of the African-American people through song, dance, imagery and poetry. [9] Through his murals and illustrations for various publications, he addressed social issues connected with race and segregation in the United States, and was one of the first African-American visual artists to utilize African-centered imagery. [10] [3]

His work features silhouettes of men and women, often in black and white. [9] [12] [8] His human depictions have characteristically flat shapes that are angular and long, with slits for eyes. Often, his female figures are drawn in a crouched position or moving as if they are dancing in a traditional African way. [9] He adopted elements of West African masks and sculptures into his own art, [11] with a technique that utilized cubism to simplify his figures into lines and planes. [6] He employed a narrow range of color, tone and value, most often using greens, browns, mauves, and blacks, with his human forms in darker shades of the present colors of the painting. He created emotional impact with subtle gradations of color, often using concentric circles to influence the viewer to focus on a specific part of the painting. [9]

His artwork is two-dimensional, and his human figures are faceless, allowing their forms to be symbolic and general, so as to create a sense of unity between Africans and African Americans. [9] Douglas’ paintings include semitransparent silhouettes to portray the struggle of African Americans and their relative successes in various aspects of social life. [8] His work is described as unique in creating a link between African Americans and their African ancestry through visual elements that are rooted in African art, and thus give the African-American experience a symbolic aesthetic. [12]

Notable works


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