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 Aaron Douglas  (1899 - 1979)

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Lived/Active: New York/Kansas      Known for: African-American genre painting, illustration, mural

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Aaron Douglas, who was born on May 26, 1899 in Topeka, Kansas, is the American artist perhaps most closely associated with the Harlem Renaissance, and for synthesizing formal and symbolic elements of African art with a modern European aesthetic.

He studied at the University of Nebraska, from which he graduated, as well as Columbia University Teachers College. His artistic career began as an illustrator, working in ink drawings.

In 1925, attracted by the presence of Alaine Locke, philosopher and cultural critic, Douglas moved to Harlem, New York to be part of Lockes' New Negro Movement. This movement expressed African Americans' new pride in their African heritage, manifesting itself in literature, song, dance, and for Douglas, most significantly art.

Shortly after his arrival in Harlem, Douglas made the acquaintance of German- American portrait artist Winold Reiss, who illustrated the March 1925 New Negro issue of Survey Graphic for Locke.  Locke recognized that the sculptural art of Africa had inspired the art of such leading modernists as Pablo Picasso and Constantin Brancusi and that it could lead to the creation of great art by African Americans.  Both Reiss and Locke encouraged Douglas to develop his own American black style from design motifs in African art.

Douglas followed their suggestions and sought examples of African art, which in the 1920s were beginning to be purchased by the collections of American museums and galleries.

Murals and drawings were his primary works, focusing on religious customs and favoring a geometric style which he developed in the 1920s while studying under Reiss.  Douglas reduced forms to their fundamental shapes, such as circles, triangles, and rectangles, and tended to represent both objects and black people as silhouettes. Most of these forms are hard-edged and angular, reminiscent of the Art-Deco designs popular in the United States during the early twentieth century. S ome figures, however, have a curvilinear character, apparently influenced by the contemporary Art Nouveau trend in France.  Their sense of movement has been compared to that of Greek vase paintings.

Douglas's entry into the art world came in 1925 illustrating Opportunity magazines cover, and a first-place award from The Crisis magazine for his drawing The African Chieftain.

In 1927, his visual exploration of African motifs and his use of black subjects attracted the attention of black intellectual and writer James Weldon Johnson, who commissioned Douglas to illustrate his book God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927).  Douglas considered his work for this book to be his most important and mature set of illustrations.  Douglas said, "I tried to keep my forms very stark and geometric with my main emphasis on the human body. I tried to portray everything not in a realistic, but in [an] abstract way, simplified and abstract as . . . in the spirituals."

Soon after the completion of the illustrations for God's Trombones, Douglas executed for Club Ebony a mural series inspired by Harlem's night life.  Like his illustrations, the mural was done in black and white.  Art collector and historian Albert C. Barnes was impressed with the murals and remarked that Douglas should try doing them in color.  He offered Douglas a year-long scholarship to study color at his art school outside of Philadelphia, and Douglas, who had very little experience in mixing colors, accepted.  As a result of this study, Douglas became to incorporate color into his murals.

Aspects of Negro Life, in 1934, at the Cullen Branch of the New York Public Library is Douglas best-known mural series and consists of four chronological compositions. The first, The Negro in an African Setting, highlights the African heritage of African-Americans through representations of African dance and music.  The second spans three stages of African American history: slavery, emancipation, and Reconstruction.  The Idyll of the Deep South, the third composition, portrays the problem of lynching and how African Americans, in spite of this omnipresent threat, continued to work, sing, and dance.  The final mural, Song of the Towers, charts three events: the mass migration of blacks to northern industrial centers during the 1910s, the flowering of black artistic expression in 1920s New York City known as the Harlem Renaissance, and the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s.

The technique used in the mural became his signature style a series of concentric circles expanded from a fixed point, imposing figure elements on its background and altering a person's or object's shade of color in the places where it intersected with a circle.  As a result, a person or object would bear several diffused shades of the same color.  This procedure lent to Douglas's murals a mystical, dreamlike quality.  This chromatic complexity and sophisticated design of Aspects of Negro Life is noteworthy compared to others done during the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP), the New Deal program that supported unemployed artists.

Douglas was not exclusively an illustrator and a muralist, although these two mediums occupied the majority of his career.  A Rosenwald grant took him to Paris in 1931, and influenced by a year of independent study at the Académie Scandinave there, he occasionally painted portraits and landscapes, which were more naturalistic than his other work.

A second grant allowed him to tour Haiti and the American South in 1938.  Douglas was also a social activist who, as the first elected president of the Harlem Artists Guild (1935), worked to obtain WPA recognition and support for African American artists.

As well as a painter, he was an educator, and after graduating from the University of Nebraska, taught art at Lincoln High School in Topeka, Kansas, from 1923 to 1925. Beginning in 1939, Douglas occasionally taught drawing and painting at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.  After earning a master's degree in art education from Columbia University in 1944, he became a permanent member of the Fisk University faculty, serving as a professor and chair of the art department there until his retirement in 1966.

One of the first African American artists to affirm the value of the black experience, Douglas continued to lecture and paint until his death, stating his refusal "to compromise and see blacks as anything other than a proud and majestic people."

Aaron Douglas died in Nashville in  on February 3, 1979.


Sources:
Richard J. Powell, "Art of the Harlem Renaissance", American Art Review, April 1998, p. 132
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art
Theresa Cederholm, Afro-American Artists: A Bio-bibliographical Directory


This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born Topeka, May 26, 1899; died Nashville, TN, Feb. 2, 1979. Illustrator. Watercolor, easel, and mural painter. Educator. African-American. Studied in Topeka and graduate of the University of Nebraska. Additional study at the Weinold Rice School in New York, the Barnes Foundation in Marion, PA, and Academi Scandinave in Paris under Charles Despiau and Othen Frieze. Became known as “father of black American art” and a key figure during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

First black artist to incorporate African iconography into American art. Taught art at Lincoln High School in Kansas City from 1923-25. Taught and founded the Art Department at Fisk University, Nashville, TN, and served as the chairman for 29 years. Illustrator of God’s Trombones by James Weldon Johnson (1927); illustrator of Black Magic by Paul Morand.
Source:
COLLECTIONS:
Murals for College Inn at Sherman Hotel, College (destroyed); Fisk University, Nashville; University of Nebraska; New York Public Library; YMCA, New York; Spencer Museum of Art.

SOURCES:
Susan Craig, "Biographical Dictionary of Kansas Artists (active before 1945)"
Topeka Cap & Topeka J (Topeka Capital, Topeka J (aka Topeka J) newspapers—usually reports of the Kansas Artists Exhibition 1st= Topeka Cap Nov. 11, 1925 9th= Topeka J Nov. 11, 1933 2nd= Topeka Cap Nov. 10, 1926 10th= Topeka J Nov. 10, 1934 3rd= Topeka J Nov. 19, 1927 11th= Topeka J Jan. 7, 1936 4th= Topeka J Nov. 3, 1928 12th= Topeka J Nov. 11 & 14, 1936 5th= Topeka J Nov. 2, 1929 14th= Topeka J Jan. 22, 1938 6th= Topeka J Oct. 18 & Nov. 1, 1930 15th= Topeka J Mar. 10, 1939 7th= Topeka J Oct. 24, 1931 16th= Topeka J Feb. 2 & 10, 1940 8th= Topeka J Oct. 22, 1932 17th= Topeka J Mar. 8 & 17, 1941) (Sept. 15, 1939); Sain, Lydia. Kansas Artists, compiled by Lydia Sain from 1932 to 1948. Typed Manuscript, 1948.; Who’s Who in American Art. New York: American Federation of Arts, 1936- v.1=1936-37 v.3= 1941-42 v.2=1938-39 v.4=1940-47. 1, 2, 3; Newlin, Gertrude Dix (Development of Art in Kansas. Typed Manuscript, 1951); Federal Writers’ Project of the Work Projects Administration for the State of Kansas. Kansas: A Guide to the Sunflower State. (American Guide Series) New York: Viking Press, 1939.; Dawdy 2: Dawdy, Doris Ostrander. Artists of the American West: A Biographical Dictionary. Volume 2. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1981.; Who’s Who in American Art. New York: American Federation of Arts, 1936- v.1=1936-37 v.3= 1941-42 v.2=1938-39 v.4=1940-47. 1; AskArt, www.askart.com, accessed Sept. 2, 2005; Kirschke, Amy Helene. Aaron Douglas: Art, Race, and the Harlem Renaissance. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995)
This and over 1,750 other biographies can be found in Biographical Dictionary of Kansas Artists (active before 1945) compiled by Susan V. Craig, Art & Architecture Librarian at University of Kansas.

Biography from The Johnson Collection:
Aaron Douglas is widely recognized as one of the leading American artists of the twentieth century, and a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Originally from Topeka, Kansas, Douglas earned his BFA from the University of Nebraska and briefly worked as a high school art teacher. Feeling that he had a higher calling, Douglas moved to New York City in 1925 to be part of the exciting cultural movement spearheaded by the teachings of Alain Locke, an African American philosopher and social activist. The “New Negro” movement put forth by Locke promoted self-respect and pride among black Americans, and the enormous creative outpouring that resulted became known as the Harlem Renaissance.

When Douglas arrived in Harlem, he was painting in an academic and realistic style based on European traditions. Fellow Renaissance artists and friends encouraged him to look to traditional African art and motifs as he developed his unique artistic voice. Through his study with the artist Winold Reiss, Douglas developed his penchant for strong lines and clean edges. Douglas' mature style combined simple African imagery with geometric patterning and angular silhouettes. The starkness of the figures combined with the complex compositional design contributed to the emotional impact of his work.

During the twenties Douglas also illustrated many Afro-centric books and magazines and painted murals for Harlem businesses. His best known mural series, Aspects of Negro Life (1934), a large four-paneled visual history of blacks in America, was painted for the Countee Cullen Branch of the New York Public Library in Harlem (now known as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture). Throughout his career, Douglas strove to capture the complexity and grand scope of the African American experience.

In 1931, Douglas received a grant to study in Paris. While there he took classes at the Académie Scandinave and began to work in a more naturalistic style, including portraits and landscapes. He received a second grant in 1935 to travel to Haiti and through the Southern states. This trip served to strengthen his dedication to promoting social change for his fellow African Americans, and he actively sought to obtain WPA recognition for black artists throughout the Depression. In 1937, Douglas began to teach art classes at Fisk University, a historically black college located in Nashville, Tennessee. He accepted a full time professorship at the school after earning his MFA from Columbia University in 1944. Douglas taught at Fisk and served as the art department chair until his retirement in 1966.

The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina


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