Aaron Douglas (1898-1979)
Aaron Douglas (1898-1979)
“I refuse to compromise and see blacks as anything less than a proud and majestic people.”
“The pulse of the Negro world has begun to beat in Harlem.”
--Alain Locke, The New Negro
Born Topeka, Kansas, 1899
B.F.A., University of Nebraska, Lincoln, 1922
Studied under Winold Reiss in New York, 1924-1927
L'Académie Scandinave, Paris, 1931
M.A., Columbia University Teachers College, New York, 1944
Founder/Chair of art department, Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee, 1937-1966
D'Caz-Delbo Gallery, New York, 1934
Howard University, Washington, D.C., 1937
Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee, 1948, 1952, 1953
Newark Museum, New Jersey, 1971
Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, 1982
He painted murals for public buildings and produced illustrations and cover designs for many black publications including The Crisis
. In 1940 he moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he founded the Art Department at Fisk University and taught for twenty nine years.
A painter associated with the Harlem Renaissance, Aaron Douglas was the unsurpassed example of a visual artist exemplifying the beliefs of both W.E.B. DuBois and Alain Locke.
Douglas’ earlier works like The Window Washer have a sense of quiet dignity and, if not pure satisfaction, the air that contentment in terms of the American Dream was within reach. This beautifully rendered genre scene, our voyeuristic point of view, Douglas’ use of the color patch, and the universal theme of the working class are moving but not yet uniquely African American in style or theme. We had already seen the ability for African Americans to achieve success in the international art world with the impressionist Henry O. Tanner in the late 1800’s at the time when the seeds of the Harlem Renaissance were sown. While Douglas’ early work fulfills the call of W.E.B. DuBois for African American artists and literati to realize that they can produce works comparable to those of their white counterparts, it is his later works that are truly his major contribution to both the art and African American communities.
The total of Douglas’ work would surely hold its own next to works by impressionist and post impressionist painters like Seurat, Pissarro, Renior, or van Gogh, yet his mature style would stand apart from these artists in its new interpretation of painting style and its unflinching dedication to the African American experience. Douglas’ later works answer Alain Locke’s call for African American artists to avoid the temptation to visualize their connections to African roots by looking at works by Picasso (which were not even close to the African American experience even if they did draw directly on African aesthetics).
Douglas’ works of note include a series of black and white paintings promoting the play Emperor Jones which are reminiscent of the collage style of Matisse and several color paintings including Building More Stately Mansions, a look at the role of Africans in the creation and support of civilizations now and in the future, Into Bondage, and Aspects of Negro Life. Douglas’ use of pseudo-pointillism, which adds a diffused quality to his work, is paired with a layered and flat collage-like overlapping. A general tendency towards a monochrome or near monochrome palette with complementary colors used to draw attention to certain parts of the work, particularly in Into Bondage, is a visual theme in his work.
His blending of these techniques creates a new and innovative visual experience, but his integration of imagery that is both African and American connected the experience of his people on both continents. This is best viewed in the series Aspects of Negro Life. These works may be realted to the storyline style of the muralist Diego Rivera. In these paintings, Douglas chronicles the cultural transition from Africa to America in a narrative form, highlighting the differences in the experiences and cultures of his people on both continents from tribal jubilations to jazz as well as marking an evolution in culture and connecting the similarities of both. These brilliant juxtapositions of the old and new continent are poignant and enlightening as well as uniquely and amazingly rendered.
Douglas’ high level of expertise would surely please DuBois, but his creation of a new style wholly African American as well as his use of uniquely African American content would satisfy Locke as well. Douglas was the ideal in both sides of the New Negro debate: he is both a great painter and a great African American painter.
"...Our problem is to conceive, develop, establish an art era. Not white art painting black...let's bare our arms and plunge them deep through laughter, through pain, through sorrow, through hope, through disappointment, into the very depths of the souls of our people and drag forth material crude, rough, neglected. Then let's sing it, dance it, write it, paint it. Let's do the impossible. Let's create something transcendentally material, mystically objective. Earthy. Spiritually earthy. Dynamic."