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 John Anansa Thomas Biggers  (1924 - 2001)

About: John Anansa Thomas Biggers
 

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Lived/Active: Virginia/Texas      Known for: narrative mural painting-African-American subjects

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BIOGRAPHY for John Biggers
Facts/Data
Birth
1924 (Gastonia, North Carolina)
 
Death
2001 (Houston, Texas)

Lived/Active
Virginia/Texas

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narrative mural painting-African-American subjects

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Black American Artists
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Following are excerpts from The New York Times obituary, January 30, 2001, by Holland Cotter:


John Biggers, a painter, printmaker and sculptor known for his meticulous depictions of African and African-American life, died on Thursday at his home in Houston. He was 76.

The cause was a heart attack, said Carl Ards, Mr. Biggers's brother-in- law.

Mr. Biggers's art, often in the form of public murals, was grounded in the humanistic spirit and social realist narrative style of the 1930's and 40's. Over the years it grew increasingly emblematic, with figures and architectural forms arranged in intricate patterns that suggested quilts, African textiles and modernist geometric abstraction.

Mr. Biggers was born in Gastonia, N.C., in 1924, the youngest of seven children, in a house built by his father, a schoolteacher, farmer and Baptist minister.  In 1941 he enrolled at Hampton Institute, later Hampton University, in Virginia,  He intended to study plumbing, and included a boiler room drawing with his application. But in his first year, he enrolled in a class taught by the influential emigre art educator Viktor Lowenfeld, who became his mentor.

Lowenfeld included Mr. Biggers's mural Dying Soldier in "Young Negro Art," an exhibition of work by Hampton students at the Museum of Modern Art in 1943.  Mr. Biggers also studied at Hampton with Elizabeth Catlett and Charles White, who became his close friends.

After two years in the Navy, he entered Pennsylvania State University, where he earned a master's degree in art education in 1948 and a Ph.D. in 1954.  He also created a series of murals for the University.

In 1949 Mr. Biggers joined the faculty of Texas State University for Negroes in Houston, now Texas Southern University, where he established and was chairman of the art department.

He was awarded first prize in 1950 for his painting The Cradle at the annual exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.  Segregationist policies, however, allowed black visitors into the museum only on Thursdays, so he could not attend the show's opening.  Later he completed many public murals in Houston and elsewhere, including two in 1991 for Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina.  Most of his murals are still in place.

In 1957 Mr. Biggers and his wife, Hazel, spent six months traveling in Ghana, Benin, Nigeria and Togo on a Unesco grant to study Western African cultural traditions.  Afterward, African design motifs and scenes of African life became important parts of his work.  He returned to Africa in 1969, 1984 and 1987.

He had one-man exhibitions at the Houston museum (1962), the African-American Cultural Center in Dallas (1978), the California Museum of Afro- American History and Culture in Los Angeles (1983) and Hampton University Museum (1990).  In 1995 the Houston and Hampton museums organized a retrospective, "The Art of John Biggers: View from the Upper Room," that traveled to Boston, Hartford and Raleigh, N.C.

Mr. Biggers retired from Texas Southern University in 1983.  He was awarded an honorary doctor of letters degree from Hampton University in 1990.


Biography from Michael Rosenfeld Gallery (Artworks Wanted):
Known for his narrative murals and outstanding draftsmanship, John Biggers dedicated his work to the depiction of the human condition. Born to Paul and Cora Biggers, John was the youngest of seven children, and grew up in segregated Gastonia, North Carolina. After an early death of his father, his mother sent him away to Lincoln Academy to receive the best education possible. The principal at Lincoln, who had been a missionary in West Africa, instilled in his students a greater understanding of the value of African culture, which Biggers would carry with him throughout his career.

In 1941, Biggers entered Hampton Institute (later renamed Hampton University), where he studied art under the guidance of Viktor Lowenfeld. At Hampton, Biggers also met and befriended artists Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett. In 1943, Biggers’ mural, Dying Soldier, was featured in the landmark exhibition Young Negro Art, organized by Lowenfeld for the MoMA. That same year, his studies at Hampton were interrupted when he was drafted into the U.S. Navy. After receiving an honorable discharge from the Navy, Biggers enrolled in 1946 at Pennsylvania State University to continue his studies with Lowenfeld, receiving his BS and MS degrees in 1948 and a Ph.D. in 1954.

In 1949, Biggers moved to Houston, Texas where he chaired the nascent art department at Texas State University (later renamed Texas Southern University), and remained a vital member of the faculty until his retirement in 1983. In the 1950s, Biggers won purchase prizes from the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and from the Dallas Museum of Art, but his victories were marred by both museums’ segregationist policies which prevented the young African-American artist from attending the receptions. In 1957, Biggers won a UNESCO fellowship and became among the first black American artists to travel to Africa. His trip to West Africa had a profound impact on his worldview that went even beyond the publication of his award-winning illustrated book Ananse: The Web of Life in Africa (1962).

Over the course of his career, Biggers moved from paintings that were overtly critical of racial and economic injustice to more allegorical compositions. Whether sketching an African woman dancing or painting one of his twenty-seven public murals, Biggers drew inspiration from African art and culture, from the injustices of a segregated United States, from the stoic women of his own family and from the heroism of everyday survival. Biggers’ work continually evolved over five decades, and in 1995, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Hampton University Art Museum organized his first comprehensive retrospective, exposing the depth of his rich legacy. In 2004, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery presented the artist’s first gallery exhibition and the first opportunity to view in New York City more than a singular work.

Biography from Michael Rosenfeld Gallery:
Known for his narrative murals and outstanding draftsmanship, John Biggers dedicated his work to the depiction of the human condition. Born in Gastonia, North Carolina, he studied at Hampton Institute (1941-1946) - later renamed Hampton University - under Victor Lowenfeld and Charles White.

In 1943, Biggers’s mural "Dying Soldier" was featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s landmark exhibition "Young Negro Art", organized by Lowenfeld.

After serving in the United States Navy (1943-1945), he enrolled in Pennsylvania State University (where Lowenfeld had relocated), earning a B.S. and M.S. (1948), and Ph.D. (1954). In 1949, Biggers moved to Houston, Texas where he founded and then chaired the art department at Texas Southern University.

In 1950, he was awarded first prize at the annual exhibition of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston for his painting, "The Cradle". In 1957, he traveled to Africa on a UNESCO grant to study Western African cultural traditions, becoming one of the first black artists to travel to Africa. This opportunity, which he described as “the most significant in my life’s experiences,” led to the publication of "Ananse: The Web of Life in Africa" (1961), a book of drawings and text based on his journeys in Ghana, Nigeria and other parts of Africa.

Whether drawing African women dancing or creating one of his twenty-seven public murals, Biggers drew inspiration from his ancestral heritage, African art, Southern black culture, nature, and everyday experiences. Often labeled a social realist for his figurative social commentary of the 1940s, Biggers did work continually evolved over five decades, and in 1995, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and Hampton University Art Museum organized his first comprehensive retrospective, exposing the depth of his oeuvre.

John Biggers died in 2001, leaving behind a body of work that, as Maya Angelou stated, “leads us through his expressions into the discovery of ourselves at our most intimate level.”

Michael Rosenfeld Gallery is the exclusive representative of the Estate of John Biggers.

Biography from RoGallery.com:
Often labeled as a Social Realist for his figurative social commentary of the 1940s, James Bigger did work that continually evolved over five decades, and in 1995, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and Hampton University Art Museum organized his first comprehensive retrospective exposing the depth of his oeuvre.

John Biggers died in 2001, leaving behind a body of work that, as Maya Angelou said, "leads us through his expressions into the discovery of ourselves at our most intimate level."

Master Artist, Educator, Author, and Mentor, John Biggers (b.1924) has been a major contributor to the evolution of American art and culture as well as the changing consciousness of the African American experience.  With a career spanning 50 years, this prolific artist continues to document the human experience with a rich universal visual language.

In 1957, Biggers was one of the first black American artists to visit Africa, sponsored by a UNESCO fellowship. The landmark painting, Jubilee: Ghana Harvest Festival was created by Biggers between 1959 and 1963 and has come to represent the artistic breakthrough of this period as well as Biggers' profound vision and consummate skill.

Biography from The Johnson Collection:
One of the most important African American artists of the twentieth century, John Biggers believed “that self-dignity and racial pride could be consciously approached through art," especially his own social realist murals and late career symbolic paintings. Biggers’ parents were dedicated to the education of their seven children born and raised in Gastonia, North Carolina. As a boy, Biggers attended Lincoln Academy, an all-black boarding school in nearby Kings Mountain, where pride in the students’ African heritage was stressed. In 1941, he matriculated at Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia with the intent of studying plumbing. A first semester course with the Jewish émigré artist-educator Viktor Lowenfeld shifted the course of the young man’s life. Lowenfeld became a mentor to Biggers and encouraged him to explore themes of racism, as did fellow teachers Elizabeth Catlett and Charles White. White, Hampton’s artist-in-residence, engaged Biggers as a studio assistant while the elder artist executed The Contribution of the Negro to American Democracy. While at Hampton, Biggers also met other prominent African Americans, including Hale Woodruff and the writer-philosopher Alain Locke. Lowenfeld included Biggers’ powerful mural, Dying Soldier, in the landmark exhibition Young Negro Art, held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1943.

Following two years of service in the United States Navy during World War II, Biggers went on to pursue both a master’s (1948) and doctoral (1954) degree at Pennsylvania State University, where Lowenfeld was then teaching. During this period, he refined his artistic mission and style. A technically gifted draughtsman and skilled lithographer, Biggers—working primarily in conté crayon and oil paints—created striking images of unidealized figures coping with poverty and despair. In 1949, Biggers moved to Houston, Texas, where he served as founder and chairman of Texas State (now Texas Southern) University’s art department, a post he held until 1983.

In the 1950s, Biggers’ social realist emphasis evolved, largely as the result of the artist’s travel in Africa. A UNESCO fellowship funded study of West African cultural traditions in 1957 and thereafter African themes were at the center of Biggers’ work. Published in 1962, Biggers’ book Ananse: The Web of Life in Africa featured eighty-nine drawings and text he hoped would “portray what was intrinsically African.” A 1969 Danforth Award funded further travel on that continent.

Following his retirement from teaching, Biggers continued to paint murals and increasingly symbolic abstract works grounded in African heritage and black culture; the latter often included everyday objects such as patchwork quilts, cooking pots, gourds, and the shotgun houses so familiar from his Southern childhood. In 1995, he was the subject of a major one-man traveling exhibition, The Art of John Biggers: View from the Upper Room, curated by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, a museum that, in 1950, had not allowed Biggers to attend a reception in honor of his prize-winning entry at the then segregated institution.

Biggers’ murals may be seen at several public locations in Houston, as well as Hampton University and Winston-Salem State University. His work is represented in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Brooklyn Museum, Mint Museum of Art, and Gibbes Museum of Art, among others.

The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina


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