Black American Artists    


Ranging from the eighteenth-century portraitist Joshua Johnston to the twentieth-century narrative painter Kara Walker, the list of Black American Artists 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 Caribbean.

The Pioneers | Return to Top

Joshua Johnston (1765-1830), 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 are early examples of 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. Although 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.

Finding a Voice | Return to Top

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, the sculptor Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller (1877-1968) went to Paris where whitestudents 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 features; 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 "You're Part of Art," Hollingsworth addressed Civil Rights, women's struggles, and the role of Black Americans who lived in New York.

Harlem Renaissance | Return to Top

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), who integrated the ancestral arts of Africa into a geometric symbolism style. 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 Center; an endeavor that caused her to neglect her sculpture, but one that was of great importance because she insisted only blacks should be employed at the center. One of Savage's 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.

The Moderns | Return to Top

Like other modernists, contemporary Black American artists deployed abstract styles, mixed media, and political commentary. 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 life.

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 argued; 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.

Conclusion | Return to Top

In conclusion, what can be said about the AskART 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.

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