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Entries in Harlem Renaissance (10)


William H. Johnson: A Major American Artist  

William H. Johnson - Soldiers’ Morning Bath - ca. 1941-1942 - tempera and pen and ink with pencil on paper - 16 x 20 1/4 in. - Smithsonian American Art Museum - Washington, D.C. (click photo for larger image)By almost any standard, William H. Johnson (1901–1970) can be considered a major American artist. Yet he died in poverty and obscurity. Johnson produced hundreds of works in a virtuosic, eclectic career that spanned several decades as well as several continents. It was not until very recently, however, that his work began to receive the attention it deserves.

Born in South Carolina to a poor African-American family, Johnson moved to New York at age seventeen. Working a variety of jobs, he saved enough money to pay for an art education at the prestigious National Academy of Design. His mastery of the academy's rigorous standards gained him both numerous awards and the respect of his teachers and fellow students.

Johnson spent the late 1920s in France, absorbing the lessons of modernism. As a result, his work became more expressive and emotional. During this same period, he met and fell in love with Danish artist Holcha Krake, whom he married in 1930. The couple spent most of the '30s in Scandinavia, where Johnson's interest in primitivism and folk art began to have a noticeable impact on his work.

Returning with Holcha to the U.S. in 1938, Johnson immersed himself in the traditions of Afro-America, producing work characterized by its stunning, eloquent, folk art simplicity. A Greenwich Village resident, he became a familiar, if somewhat aloof, figure on the New York art scene. He was also a well-established part of the African-American artistic community at a time when most black artists were still riding the crest of the Harlem Renaissance.

Although Johnson enjoyed a certain degree of success as an artist in this country and abroad, financial security remained elusive. Following his wife's death in 1944, Johnson's physical and mental health declined dramatically. In a tragic and drawn-out conclusion to a life of immense creativity, Johnson spent his last twenty-three years in a state hospital on Long Island. By the time of his death in 1970, he had slipped into obscurity. After his death, his entire life's work was almost disposed of to save storage fees, but it was rescued by friends at the last moment. Over a thousand paintings by Johnson are now part of the collection of the Smithsonian Institution's Smithsonian American Art Museum.


"The Harlem Renaissance: A Cultural Awakening” - An OAC ‘Art Speaks’ Program

(click photo for larger image)The Harlem Renaissance (c. 1918–37) was a blossoming of African American culture, particularly in the creative arts, and the most influential movement in African American literary history. Embracing literary, musical, theatrical, and visual arts, participants sought to re-conceptualize “the Negro” apart from the white stereotypes that had influenced black peoples’ relationship to their heritage and to each other. They also sought to break free of Victorian moral values and bourgeois shame about aspects of their lives that might, as seen by whites, reinforce racist beliefs. The movement was never dominated by a particular school of thought. Rather, it was characterized by intense debate. The Harlem Renaissance laid the groundwork for all later African American literature and art, and had an enormous impact on subsequent black consciousness worldwide. While the renaissance was not confined to the Harlem district of New York City, Harlem attracted a remarkable concentration of intellect and talent and served as the symbolic capital of this cultural awakening.

Join us at the OAC Steamer Firehouse Gallery on Sunday, February 3rd, from 2—3:30 PM, to learn all about this extraordinary movement. Dr. Jill Kiefer will deliver the presentation and together we will discover how "art speaks" about an era and a culture.

The OAC Steamer Firehouse Gallery is located at 117 Main Street - 2nd Floor - Ossining, NY

FREE Admission / Light Refreshments / Donations Welcome


Allan Rohan Crite: Artist-Reporter

Allan Rohan Crite, Sunlight and Shadow, 1941, oil on board, 25 1/4 x 39 in. (64.2 x 99.1 cm), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. (click photo for larger image)Born in North Plainfield, New Jersey, Allan Rohan Crite (1910-2007) moved with his family to the Boston area, at an early age. During the course of his long life, Crite enjoyed an extensive career as a painter, draftsman, printmaker, author, librarian, and publisher.

Although he’s often labeled a Harlem Renaissance artist, Crite’s lifelong objective was to depict the life of African-Americans living in Boston as ordinary citizens of the middle class, rather than the stereotypical jazz musicians or sharecroppers featured in many other Harlem Renaissance works. Through his art, Crite intended to tell the story of African Americans as part of the fabric of American mainstream society and its reality. By using a more representational style, rather than an ultra-modern approach, Crite felt that he could more adequately "report" what he saw. He described himself as an “artist-reporter” noting that, “I've only done one piece of work in my whole life and I am still at it. I wanted to paint people of color as normal humans. I tell the story of man through the black figure.

Crite’s full body of work can be categorized into three basic themes: Negro spirituals; religious themes that emphasize non-European aspects of the Bible; and, general African American experiences. Crite also contributed to the African American art scene in Boston by creating the Artist’s Collective, a forum for emerging African American artists.

In the work featured here, three generations of neighbors gather in Madison Park, located in Boston's South End, to spend a pleasant afternoon beneath the shady trees.


Charles Henry Alston: A Pivotal Harlem Renaissance Artist

Charles Henry Alston - Painting - 1950 - Oil on canvas - 50 x 36 in. (127 x 91.4 cm) - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New YorkCharles Henry Alston (1907-1977) was an African American painter, sculptor, and illustrator born in the early 20th century. He was an important artist of the Harlem Renaissance. Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, his father died when he was three years old. Soon after, his mother moved to New York and married Harry P. Bearden—the uncle of artist Romare Bearden (featured elsewhere on this site). Alston attended DeWitt Clinton High School, taught there, and graduated from Columbia University in 1929. In 1931, he received a master’s degree from Columbia’s Teachers College.

Alston directed art programs and community centers in the New York area including the Harlem Workshop. Jacob Lawrence (also featured on What About Art?) was one of his students at Utopia House. He directed the 35 artists who created the Harlem Hospital murals for the Federal Arts Project in 1935 and 1936, painting two of the murals himself. Many of Alston’ works were published in the New Yorker, Fortune, and Collier’s magazines. In 1950, he sold the painting featured here to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He also became the first Black instructor at the Art Students league.

Alston later taught at the Museum of Modern Art and City College of New York. The winner of numerous awards, he was the first recipient of Columbia University’s Distinguished Alumni Award, bestowed on him in 1975. 

Alston and his wife, Myra A. Logan (a surgeon) died of cancer within months of each other in 1977.


Dox Thrash: A Harlem Renaissance Master

Dox Thrash - Life - 1939 - carbograph on paper - plate: 8 1/2 x 8 3/4 in. (21.6 x 22.2 cm) - Smithsonian American Art Museum (click photo for larger image)African American Harlem Renaissance painter and printmaker Dox Thrash (1893-1965) finished his education and worked odd jobs, moving from place to place and struggling to support himself. Finally settling in Philadelphia, he continued to pursue his art while working as a janitor. A poster he created for the 2nd Annual National Negro Music Festival earned him local recognition and opened the door for new artistic endeavors. 

Thrash is most widely known for his work on the Federal Art Project, from 1936 to 1939. While working on this project, he invented the process of carborundum mezzotint, a printmaking technique that uses a carbon-based abrasive to burnish copper plates, creating an image that can produce a print in tones ranging from pale gray to deep black. This became Thrash’s primary medium for much of his career, and he created his greatest works with it.

Thrash spent the later years of his life mentoring young African American artists. He died in 1965 and was posthumously honored—almost 40 years later—with a show called, Dox Thrash: An African-American Master Printmaker Rediscovered, mounted in Philadelphia. He is best known for his realistic depiction of African American life in the twentieth century.