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Entries in African-American Art (8)


Alma Thomas: A Concentration on Beauty and Happiness

Alma Thomas - Atmospheric Effects I - 1970 - Acrylics and Pencil on Paper - 22 1/8 x 30 3/8 in. - Smithsonian American Art Museum - Washington D.C. (click photo for larger image)African-American Abstract Expressionist Alma Thomas (c. 1891-1976) was the first graduate of Howard University’s art department (in 1924). Though she’d always had dreams of becoming an architect—after college she began a 35-year career teaching in a Washington, D.C. junior high school. With the income she supported herself and her art.

Although Thomas earlier works were representational and realistic, she eventually developed her signature style in her 70s—large, abstract paintings filled with dense, irregular patterns of bright colors.

Thomas became an important role model for women, for African Americans, and for older artists. She was the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, and she exhibited her paintings at the White House three times.

“Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man's inhumanity to man.” - Alma Thomas


Faith Ringgold: A Storyteller…

Faith Ringgold - Street Story Quilt - 1985 - Acrylic, ink marker, dyed fabric, and sequins on canvas, sewn to quilted fabric - Overall: 90 x 144 in. (228.6 x 365.8 cm) - Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York (click photo for larger image)American artist Faith Ringgold (born 1930) is a multi-talented, multi-media artist, whose artistic practice has been broad and diverse. She is also an author and educator—who taught in public schools and was a professor at the University of California at San Diego.

Ringgold became famous for her innovative, quilted narratives, which express her political beliefs, and her deep concerns about racism and feminist issues. Perhaps ironically, the artist chose this form of narrative following an unsuccessful attempt to have her autobiography published.

Now eighty-six years old, Ringgold has received countless honors, including a National Endowment for the Arts Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship for painting and an NAACP Image Award. Her contributions as an artist and activist have finally been recognized, and her work continues to be exhibited in major museums around the world.

In Street Story Quilt, one stylized Harlem facade—a grid of fifteen windows—is depicted three times at different moments in a story that transpires over decades. Handwritten text fills panels above each window.” You can find a complete description of the work on MoMA’s website.


Aaron Douglas: Depicting A Social Narrative

Aaron Douglas - In an African Setting, 1934, gouache on board, The Art Institute of Chicago. (click photo for larger image)The flowering of African-American social thought that was expressed through the visual arts, as well as through music (Louis Armstrong, Eubie Blake, Fats Waller and Billie Holiday), literature (Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and W.E.B. DuBois), theater (Paul Robeson) and dance (Josephine Baker) was known as the Harlem Renaissance. While this movement—and some of its practitioners—have been previously discussed elsewhere on this site, we haven’t yet looked at American painter and graphic artist Aaron Douglas (1899-1979), who played a leading role in the Harlem Renaissance.

“Douglas incorporated synthetic cubist forms with stylized and geometric shapes drawn from African art. He used the rhythm of circles, diagonals, and wavy lines to energize his illustrations, which are widely known for their tonal gradations and Art Deco-style silhouettes. Through these techniques, he addressed the aspirations of the “New Negro” and depicted the realities of the black struggle for political and creative freedom.”

From the time he returned to New York City from Kansas, in 1925, Douglas was busy creating paintings, illustrations, murals through numerous commissions. The WPA asked him to paint four murals for the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library. “Collectively titled Aspects of Negro Life, these murals represent the pinnacle of his artistic achievement, depicting a social narrative that places progressive African American experience squarely within the scope of the American dream.”

By 1939, with the depletion of the Harlem Renaissance, Douglas left New York City to teach at Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee, where he remained for the next 27 years.


Alma Thomas: A Pioneer

Alma Thomas - Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers - 1968 - Acrylic on canvas - 58 7/8 x 50 in. - Gift of Franz Bader - The Phillips Collection - Washington, D.C. (click photo for larger image)African-American Abstract Expressionist Alma Woodsey Thomas (c.1891-1978) lived and worked in Washington, D.C. She was a major force as both and artist and an educator, and a pioneering figure in African American art history. Her experimentations with color field painting were and remain remarkable.


The Harlem Renaissance and Jacob Lawrence

Tombstones - Jacob Lawrence - 1942 - Gouache on paper - 28 3/4 x 20 1/2 in (73 x 52.1 cm) - Whitney Museum of American Art, New YorkThe Harlem Renaissance was a flowering of African-American social thought that was expressed through the visual arts, as well as through music, literature, theater and dance. Musical artists included the likes of Louis Armstrong, Eubie Blake, Fats Waller, and Billie Holiday. Important literary figures were Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and W.E.B. DuBois. Actor Paul Robeson) and dancer Josephine Baker were also significant figures. Centered in the Harlem district of New York City, the movement had a profound influence across the United States and even in other parts of the world. Visual artists at the core of the Harlem Renaissance movement included William H. Johnson, Lois Mailou Jones and the sculptor and printmaker Sargent Claude Johnson. Other prominent artists associated with the Harlem Renaissance included Jacob Lawrence, Archibald Motley and Romare Bearden..." (who we recently featured on What About Art?).

The work of Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) “...combines realism with abstract decorative design and deals primarily with the black experience in America. In narrative series of paintings, he has highlighted the lives of outstanding blacks and chronicled contemporary black history.” READ MORE...

The Jacob and Gwen Knight Lawrence Virtual Resource Center  has an enormous amount of information about Jacob Lawrence and his wife Gwen (also an artist), plus a searchable archive of nearly 1,000 artworks.