Aaron DouglasJun 3rd, 2014 | By BHS | Category: Arts & Entertainment
1899-1979 Aaron Douglas combined traditional African motifs with cubism and graphic design to create a unique and potent style of illustration during the Harlem Renaissance. He is widely considered to be the father of modern African American art.
A Self-Motivated Man
Douglas was born in Topeka, Kansas, on May 22, 1899. Both of his parents were highly creative as individuals. Aaron Douglas, Sr., was a baker of specialty breads, and his wife, Elizabeth, was a passionate amateur landscape and genre painter. Douglas had many siblings, but outpaced them all in his eagerness for knowledge and new horizons. As a teenager attending Topeka’s segregated schools, he was an eager reader, willing to tackle Shakespeare and Emerson when other students were anxious to work or play.
When Douglas announced his intention to pursue a college education, his parents were supportive but too poor to offer any financial assistance. In order to raise the necessary funds, he left for Detroit, Michigan, in search of work on the growing assembly lines of the automotive industry He was able to secure work as a bottom-of-the-ladder laborer, but it was adequate to keep him going. Privately, Douglas drew still-life scenes and portraits of urban life to satisfy his restless creativity His small batch of drawings was enough to convince the art department at the University of Nebraska to allow him admission, even though he had no transcripts from his earlier education. In college, Douglas turned his appreciation for literature from traditional, European-influenced books, toward the more politicized works of WE.B. Du Bois and the growing number of African American writers confronting the reality of race in America. Intimations of poverty, oppression, and the struggle for freedom and equity began to seep into his artwork.
After graduating with a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1922, Douglas accepted a teaching position at Lincoln High School in Kansas City, Missouri. He discovered that he had both a passion and a gift for teaching, but he could not escape the sense that, should he settle into such a life, he would forfeit his own potential. In 1925, having never been to New York City and having no family or friends in the area, Douglas moved to Harlem to pursue a career as a working artist. In need of a job, he took his portfolio to the office of Crisis magazine, the journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which was edited by Du Bois. Impressed by both Douglas’ talent and gumption, Du Bois hired him for the position that was available: mailroom clerk. But the agreement was that opportunities to provide illustrations for the magazine would be forthcoming.
A Hero of Harlem
Harlem was one of the vibrant creative centers of the world during the 1920s, with black novelists, poets, actors, and photographers all participating in a lively and liberating era of creative expression. Even European artists, such as the German modernist Winold Reiss who had come to the United States to sketch Native Americans, were drawn to Harlem. Douglas found a mentor in Reiss, who relayed the techniques and theories of current European art—such as modernism and cubism— but also encouraged him to look to his African ancestry In late 1925, illustrations by Douglas appeared alongside those of Reiss in Alain Locke’s seminal book on African American culture, The New Negro. The seamless blending of tradition and modernity in the new work by Douglas was a perfect match for Locke’s essay, The Legacy of the Ancestral Arts.
When Douglas infused bold, African motifs into his work, Du Bois quickly realized that he was capable of lending powerful visual weight to the essays on African American life in Crisis. Once Douglas had established himself as a successful artist, he felt comfortable enough, in 1926, to marry Alta Sawyer, a woman he had been courting for some time. The following year, Douglas was made art director of Crisis, and his illustrations regularly graced the cover. The powerful, African-inspired geometric designs that he combined with iconic and strong black figures ignited the imagination of the Harlem Renaissance. The movement centered on literature, but in each new work by Douglas, a sense of pride and inner strength among Blacks was plain to see.
At the height of the Harlem Renaissance, Douglas illustrated books for prominent writers such as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, and Wallace Thurman. His impressive creative output was rewarded with a study fellowship in Pennsylvania in 1928, and then a year-long fellowship in Paris. Inspired by the salon atmosphere in France, Douglas and his wife opened their Harlem home to friends and peers on a regular basis. Their home became a chief gathering point for the artistic and cultural elite of the Renaissance. But the Great Depression of 1929 took a heavy toll on New York and Harlem, and the lively spirit of progress began to wane in the following years as people turned to the business of surviving personal and financial hardships.
Unlike many others, Douglas had steady work in the early 1930s. He received several large commissions for notable frescoes and murals, including one for a library at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. By 1937, administrators at Fisk had convinced him to return and establish an art department at the university. Douglas remained in Nashville, heading the department, until he retired in 1966. His wife died in 1958. Douglas himself died on February 2, 1979.
In his storied career, Douglas defied conventional artistic styles by creating a fusion of influences that visually represented a dynamic period of African American history. The spirit he captured, and which can still be seen in murals at Fisk, Bennett College in South Carolina, and the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library, laid the conceptual groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement that followed. The decades Douglas spent as an educator were rewarding ones. He cherished his accomplishments, but often claimed that they paled when compared to encouraging students to follow their own dreams.