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 Augusta Christine Fells Savage  (1892 - 1962)

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Lived/Active: New York/Florida      Known for: African-American portrait sculpture, educator

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Ad Code: 3
Augusta Christine Fells Savage
from Auction House Records.
Nude Torso
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
An African-American sculptor who struggled with poverty and racist attitudes, Augusta Savage became a leading figure among African-American artists.  She was known for her skill with commissioned portrait sculptures, especially ones that emphasized racial identity and were identified with prominent persons in Harlem in New York City.  Later in her career, she focused more on ordinary people and the  integrity of their 'common' position in society.  Her mediums were bronze, clay and plaster.  One of her few surviving pieces is a portrait bust of W.E.B. DuBois in the New York Public Library, 135 Street Branch.

One of her biographers, Leslie King-Hammond, described Augusta Savage as a "true Renaissance woman." (472) Not only was she a recognized sculptor but she became a distinguished eductor, founding several art schools including the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts, the Harlem Artists Guild and the Vanguard, which was a salon she co-founded with Aaron Douglas as a meeting place for Harlem Renaissance intellectuals including artists and writers.   She also served as first Director of the Harlem Art Center and insisted it be staffed with black artists.   Hammond wrote that "young artists flocked to her studio workshops to study, and she is responsible for influencing the artistic careers of Norman Lewis, Marvin and Morgan Smith, William Artis, Ernest Crichlow, and Gwendolyn Knight.  Savage's studio became a center of creative activity and intellectual exchange with the constant presence of W.E.B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, Romare Bearden, Buford and Joseph Delaney, and Selma Burke." (471)

Her artistic career was most productive from the 1920s into the 1940s, and then waned due to a diminishing number of portrait commissions and illness. Very little of her work survives.  One of her lost pieces was titled The Harp, and was commissioned in 1939 for the New York World's Fair.  The work, sixteen feet high, was inspired by James Weldon and Rosamond Johnson's music, "Life Every Voice and Sing."  From photographs, it appears that the work shows extremely powerful with figures rising out of a harp that frames the figures.  However, she gained no patronage funding from the work, whose destruction after the Fair signaled a decline in her career as a sculptor.

Augusta Savage was born in Green Cove, Florida, the seventh of fourteen children, and her father, who was a strict Methodist minister, objected to her interest in sculpture.  But her talents prevailed, and she began teaching clay modeling in high school.  She left home in 1915, enrolled at Tallahassee State Normal School, the future Florida A & M, and then in 1921 went to New York City to study sculpture at Cooper Union. 

Extremely poor, she was given a scholarship arranged by her teachers, but she was not so accepted in Paris when she applied to the summer art school at the Palace of Fontainebleau and was rejected because of the color of her skin.  This treatment stirred public controversy, and Franz Boas, Columbia University anthropology professor, came to her defense.  But the French school held its ground, which stymied her career in finding dealers and galleries.

In 1930, she won a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship to study in Paris at the Académie de la Grande Chaumiere, and she worked with sculptor Felix Bueneteaux.  These two years gave her the credentials she needed in the art world.  Subsequently she won a Carnegie Foundation Grant so that she, in turn, could provide tuition for young black students.  She also taught numerous young blacks herself including Ernest Crichlow and Norman Lewis.  In 1932, she founded the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts in New York City, and in 1936, she was assistant supervisor of the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project.  Jacob Lawrence credits her for getting him involved as a WPA artist.  She was an elected member of the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors.

Exhibition venues included the Harmon Foundation, the New York Public Library, and the Grande Chaumiere and the Grand Palais in Paris.  Her work is in numerous collections including the Schomburg Center in New York City.

She married three times, the first time John T. Moore who died in 1907 and with whom she had a daughter.  Then she married James Savage, from whom she was divorced in the 1920s, and shortly after she married Robert Lincoln Poston who died in 1924.

Sources:
Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein, American Women Artists, 258-260
Leslie King-Hammond, "Augusta Savage", St. James Guide to Black Artists, 470-472

Biography from Michael Rosenfeld Gallery:
Augusta Savage was one of the most influential artists and educators of the Harlem Renaissance.  Born Augusta Christine Fells in Green Cove Springs, Florida, she received formal training at the Cooper Union School of Art (1921-1924).  In 1930 and 1931, Savage was the recipient of two successive Rosenwald Grants, which enabled her to travel to France and study at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris.

When she returned to New York in 1932, she opened the Savage School of Arts and Crafts in Harlem, where her students included William Artis, Jacob Lawrence and Norman Lewis.  Working in plaster, which was then painted to resemble bronze, Augusta Savage is known for her sensitive and skillful modeling of the human figure. The majority of her sculptures from this period are small-scale portraits of family and friends, and portrait busts of African-American notables, such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey.

In 1935, she was a founding member of the Harlem Artists Guild, and from 1936-1937 she worked for the WPA Federal Arts Project as the Director of the Harlem Community Art Center.  In 1937, she left the WPA to work what would become her most famous work, Lift Every Voice and Sing (also know as The Harp) for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

When she was finished with the commission, she was left unemployed and was virtually forced to give up her career as an artist due to lack of funds.  In the mid 1940s, Savage began living a reclusive life in Saugerties, New York, and she began to explore her interest in writing.  In 1962, Savage returned to New York City and died of cancer later that same year.

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Augusta Savage is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
Black American Artists

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