Referencing the AskART database, we offer the
following essay on Black American or African-American artists. Ranging from the
eighteenth century portraitist,
Joshua Johnston to the twentieth century narrative painter,
Kara Walker, the list illustrates a gradual emancipation in both
self-perception and public acceptance. AskART uses the term
Black American because the description defines a group apart from
Caucasians, and embraces those whose lineage is either African or
Otto Reinhold Jacobi (1812-1901),
Patrick Reason (1817-1856),
William H. Simpson (1818-1872), and
Robert Scott Duncanson (1821-1872) represent some of the names of the
early trailblazers who were the unusual combination of black, American,
and artist. A review of their work suggests that these vanguards did not
focus on the issues surrounding their racial acceptance in society; but
rather followed personal or business interests such as Duncanson's
extensive mural work resulting from his classical education in Paris.
Robert Scott Duncanson, considered by some art historians as
the first black man to earn his living as an artist, was a painter of both
Hudson River landscapes and floral still lifes.
Joshua Johnston, “ the first American artist of African
descent to create a sizeable body of work of high quality" according to
Romare Bearden’s Six Black American Artists, was
listed in a Baltimore directory from 1796 to 1824 as a portraitist.
Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901) was a well-known
landscape and genre painter from Providence, Rhode Island. Although he was the
first Black American artist to win a national art prize, a first-place at the
Philadelphia Exposition in 1876, he was denied admission into the hall to
accept the award because of his race. Specializing in making bird’s-eye
views of California and Nevada towns,
Grafton Tyler Brown (1841-1918) was the first recognized Black
American artist in the American West.
Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), known for religious and genre
paintings, was the first black artist to earn an international reputation.
Thomas Eakins encouraged him while a student at the
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Tanner experienced much prejudice in
Philadelphia, and chose to expatriate to Paris.
Ultimately, many black
artists became committed to addressing the issue of racial equality in their
work in response to their own bitter personal experiences. Brutally beaten by a
vigilante mob while enrolled at Oberlin College, Mary
Edmonia Lewis (1845-1911), the first important black sculptor
in America, created works, which explored her feelings of alienation. In 1899,
Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller (1877-1968) went to Paris where white
students refused to share lodgings with her. Although Fuller eventually
triumphed when she became a favored student of the acclaimed
Auguste Rodin, she embraced her racial heritage, and became the
first Black American artist to focus on African inspired themes.
Moving into the 20th Century, we find that Black
American artists became increasingly bold in their personal, political, and
artistic expressions of race.
Palmer Cole Hayden (1890-1973) was criticized for painting
grotesque often-humorous depictions of blacks with elongated, caricature-type
featuresó a disappointment to those who expected idealization or racial
loyalty, rather than parody. Showing the boxing victory of Joe Louis over Max
Schmeling. Robert Riggs
(1896-1970) created his famous painting The Brown Bomber, and
thus earned election in 1946 to the National Academy of Design.
Allan Randall Freelon (1895-1960), an Impressionist landscape
painter, a major figure in the Philadelphia art scene, and member of the Civil
Rights Movement, who worked diligently as a public speaker on the issue of
judgment for skill rather than skin color.
Alvin Carl Hollingsworth (1928-2000), comic-strip illustrator
for Catman and Crime Comics, was also a social activist. Highly
visible as a touring, demonstrating artist for NBC in a series titled "Youíre
Part of Art," Hollingsworth addressed Civil Rights, womenís struggles, and the
role of Black Americans who lived in New York.
Between 1916 and 1940, the Harlem
Renaissance fostered a celebration of black culture by both blacks and whites.
Although the movement began in New York, it sparked an international trend,
which fermented the reversal of prejudice experienced by black artists in
America, instilled a sense of racial pride among artists, musicians, and
writers, and planted seeds for the Civil Rights Movement. Black American
artists were sanctioned to look to their unique racial experience as the source
of artistic inspiration. Many of the Harlem Renaissance artists exhibited with
the Harmon Foundation whose personnel organized the first Black American
exhibitions in 1928. One of the most prominent artists of the Harlem
Renaissance was Aaron
Douglas (1898-1979), painter in geometric design. Influenced by
jazz music and folk traditions, Douglas created many illustrations of black
subjects, cultivated wealthy patrons to support the movement, and worked as an
activist. In 1931,
Augusta Christine Savage (1892-1962), the creator of busts of
prominent African Americans, opened the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts where
she taught sculpture. Savage worked to assure that black artists were equally
represented in the Federal Arts Project of the Works Progress Administration,
and in 1937, Savage became the first director of the Harlem Community Art
Centeró an endeavor that caused her to neglect her sculpture, but one that was
a great import because she insisted only blacks should be employed at the
center. One of Savageís students was narrative painter
Jacob Armstead Lawrence (1917-2000), perhaps the most highly
regarded of the Black American artists of the mid to late 20th century and one
of the primary subjects of writings by
David Clyde Driskell (b. 1931), artist, historian, curator, and
protégé of James A. Porter
(1905-1970), the father of African American art history. Lawrence was fortunate
to grow up in New York where he benefited from the positive elements injected
into Harlem culture by artists such as
Charles Henry Alston (1907-1977),
William Henry Johnson (1901-1970),
Aaron Douglas and
Augusta Christine Savage.
Like other modernists, contemporary
Black American artists deployed abstract styles, mixed media, and political
Alma Woodsey Thomas (1891-1978), the first black woman to have
a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York, was an activist for
modernist art, art education for blacks, and the needs of the young people in
Washington DC. Merging elements of African-American, Native American, and
Mexican art, Elizabeth
Catlett (b.1915) advanced a new era of multicultural
expressionism in her work. Her series of paintings called "I Am a Negro Woman."
is based on her experiences in Harlem as an educator.
Romare Howard Bearden (1914-1988), working in a modernist
style, expressed with paint and collage the complexities of living as a
minority member of American society, yet his tone was affectionate and
celebratory, replete with themes of a happy childhood and a contented daily
In marked contrast to
Beardenís lighthearted work is that of
Kara Walker (b.1969). Walker was so challenged by stereotypical
black imagery that she created harsh paper cutout silhouettes to parody
characteristics she perceived people attribute to blacks, and was subsequently
criticized by the black community for being confrontational. Another artist
accused of denigrating her own race with images in poor taste is
Betye Saar (b.1926); for example, her "Aunt Jemima" series
focused on the stereotypical domestic role of black women.
Among Black American
artists, one of the most successful in the market place, but perhaps one of the
least successful in his personal life is
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988). His paintings, purportedly
expressive of life as a struggling Black American in New York City, were often
inspired by drug-induced frenzies, which led to manic swings of productivity
and artistic paralysis, and finally brought about his early death. Although it
is for scholars to debate the question of his status as a representative Black
American artist, one aspect of his career cannot be arguedó according to our
database, Basquiat has commanded the highest prices at auction of any black
artist, and is among the top thirty artists in the nation irrespective of race
when the hammer falls.
In conclusion, what can
be said about the AskART.comô list of Black American artists? The most obvious
assessment is that as a group, like all other classifications of artists, it
has variations of personalities, life experiences, methods of expressions,
personal agendas, and interactions with political and social events. Although
the color of their skin created unique personal burdens, the pursuit of art
provided Black American artists with a universal voice.
For anyone assessing in a relative way
how these notable black artists fared amongst their black artist peers in terms
of recognition, we offer the following based on July 2001 data:
Highest prices earned in the AskART.com auction database in the last ten years
are Basquiat at $3,302,500,
Martin Puryear at $764,750, and
Jacob Lawrence at $277,500.
Artists with the
highest number of book references in the AskART.com database are
John James Audubon, 180;
Jacob Lawrence, 153;
Romare Bearden, 105; and,
Henry Tanner at 102.
Among the women,
the highest prices paid as reflected in the AskART.com database are
Edmonia Lewis, $87,750;
Alma Thomas, $63,500;
Kara Walker, $25,300; and the highest number of book references
are those of Lois
Edmonia Lewis, 36;
Alma Thomas, 27.
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