People may ask, what other than a tornado can come out of Kansas? Well, Aaron Douglas was born of May 26, 1899 in Topeka, Kansas. Aaron Douglas was a “Pioneering Africanist” artist who led the way in using African- oriented imagery in visual art during the Harlem Renaissance of 1919- 1929. His work has been credited as the catalyst for the genre incorporating themes in form and style that affirm the validity of the black consciousness and experience in America.
His parents were Aaron and Elizabeth Douglas. In 1922, he graduated from the University of Nebraska School of Fine Arts in Lincoln. Who thought that this man would rise to meet W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1921 challenge, calling for the transforming hand and seeing eye of the artist to lead the way in the search for the African American identity. Yet, after a year of teaching art in Kansas City, Missouri, Douglas moved to New York City’s Harlem neighborhood in 1924 and began studying under German artist Winold Reiss. His mentor discouraged Douglas’s penchant for traditional realist painting and encouraged him to explore African art for design elements would express racial commitment in his art. The young painter embraced the teachings of Reiss to develop a unique style incorporating African- American and black American subject matter. He soon had captured the attention of the leading black scholars and activists.
About the time of his marriage on June 18, 1924, to Alta Sawyer, Douglas began to create illustrations for the periodicals. Early the following year, one of his illustrations appeared on the front cover of Opportunity magazine, which awarded Douglas its first prize for drawing. Also, in 1925, Douglas’s illustrations were published in Alain Looke’s survey of the Harlem Renaissance, The New Negro. Publisher Looke called Douglas a “pioneering Africanist,” and that stamp of praise and approval for the artist influenced future historians to describe Douglas as “the father of Black American art.” His fame quickly spread beyond Harlem, and began to mount painting exhibitions in Chicago and Nashville, among the numerous other cities, and to paint murals and historical narratives interpreting black history and racial pride.
During the mid- 1920’s, Douglas was an important illustrator for Crisis, Vanity Fair, Opportunity, Theatre Arts Monthly, Fire and Harlem. In 1927, after illustrating an anthology of verse by black poets, Caroling Dusk, Douglas completed a series of paintings for poet James Weldon Johnson’s book of poems, God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. Douglas’s images for the book were inspired by Negro Spirituals, customs of Africans and black history. The series soon to became among the most celebrated of Douglas’s work. It defined figures with the language of Synthetic Cubism and borrowed from the lyrical style of Reiss and the forms of African sculpture. Through his drawings for the series, Douglas came close to inventing his own painting style by this combination of elements in his work.
During this time, Douglas collaborated with various poets. It was also his desire to capture the black expression through the use of paint. He spent a lot of time watching patrons of area nightclubs in Harlem. Douglas said that most of his paintings that were captured in these particular nightclubs were mainly inspired through music that was played. According to Douglas, the sounds of the music was heard everywhere and were created mostly during the Harlem Renaissance by well-trained artists. Douglas’s work was looked upon by most critics as a breath of fresh air. His work symbolized geometric formulas, circles, triangles, rectangles, and squares became the dominant design motifs for Douglas. It was in Douglas’s series of paintings called God Trombones that Douglas first expressed his commitment through the use of geometric shapes for Black artists. The faces and limbs in these series of paintings are carefully drawn to reveal African features and recognizable Black poses.
In God’s Trombones, Douglas achieved his mastery of hard- edge painting using symbolized features and lines. Through his use of these things he was able to bring to life the stiffness in the figures which symbolized Art Deco. But, unlike the decorative programs that exist in Art Deco, most of Douglas’s work capitalized on the movement that was influenced by the rhythms of Art Nouveau. Each of the paintings in the God’s Trombone series expresses the humanist concerns of Douglas. For example, in Judgment Day, one of the seven Negro sermons Douglas illustrated for James Weldon Johnson, he planned to place emphasize on the positive appearance of Black power. In this painting, Gabriel, who represents the archangel, sounds the trumpet to awaken the dead from their spiritual rest. He is portrayed in this Painting as a lean Black man from whom the last earthly vocal sound is heard. The sound, which is perceived to travel across the world, is the inventive music of the Black man, and his blues. The music, which is perceived to waken all nations, is the song of a bluesman or famous trumpet player. The musician, who is consequently the artist, stands in the center of the universe sounding the loud horn on Judgment Day. Douglas also has followed Johnson’s chronicle and used simplified figures and forms to permit his interpretation of the Black man’s place of position to dominate the theme. At the height of his popularity, Douglas left for Europe in 1931 to spend a year studying at L’Acadenie Scandinave in Paris. When he returned to New York in 1932, the Great Depression was engulfing America.
Douglas completed, for the New York Public Library in 1934, a series of murals depicting the entire African- American experience from African Heritage, the Emancipation, life in the rural South, and the contemporary urban dilemma. Three years later after Charles S. Johnson (an activist in the Harlem Renaissance joined the Fisk University faculty and became the University’s president in the 1940’s and a fellow black artist) recruited Douglas to establish an art department in Nashville’s Fisk University. Edwin Harlston of Charleston, South Carolina completed a series of highly significant murals. These murals depicted the course of Negro History. Douglas taught painting and was chair of the art department at Fisk from 1937 until his retirement in 1966.
Prior to Douglas’s death in Nashville of February 3, 1979, his work had been exhibited throughout the country and featured in companion volumes, including Paintings by Aaron Douglas (1971), by David Driskell, Gregory Ridley, and D. L. Graham and The Centuries of Black American Art (1976) by David Driskell. In the decade following his death, the innovative art of “pioneering Africanist” Aaron Douglas was features in numerous exhibitions and in critical publications.
Johnson, James Weldon, God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse.
New York: Penguin Books, 1990.
Kirschke, Amy Helene, Aaron Douglas: Art, Race, and the Harlem Renaissance.
Lewis, David Levering, The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader, Volume 1.
New York: Viking, 1994.