Aaron Douglas (1898-1979) was the Harlem Renaissance artist whose work best exemplifies the New Negro Movement. Douglas was an active member of the thriving cultural milieu known as the New Negro Movement which sought to cultivate the Black American cultural experience and highlight the effects of racial injustice. Progressive at heart, he developed a distinctive painting style using silhouetted forms and fractured space to express both, the harsh struggles of African American life in 1920’s Harlem and the future hope of social progress.
Douglas was born in Topeka, Kansas, the son of a laborer and a homemaker. He earned a BFA degree at the University of Nebraska in 1922, and taught at an elite all‐black high school in Kansas City. He moved to New York in June 1925, drawn by an article in Survey Graphic magazine entitled “Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro.” Three months later, philosopher Alain Locke invited him to contribute illustrations to his forthcoming book The New Negro: An Interpretation.
Many of the avant‐garde artists and intellectuals Douglas met exemplified Alain Locke’s notion of the self‐determined “New Negro,” individuals who celebrated their African heritage and possessed a strong sense of cultural pride. Inspired by Locke and by W. E. B. Du Bois, a host of young artists, writers, dancers, and musicians believed that artistic expression could bridge the chasm between African American and white communities. Douglas was inspired by these progressive philosophical and political ideas and by Marcus Garvey’s back‐to‐Africa movement, which prompted him to look for sources in the images and forms of African art.
By the late 1920s, Douglas was a frequent contributor to Opportunity, the National Urban League’s journal, and Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Countee Cullen, and other noted writers asked him to create cover designs for their books, and in 1930, at the invitation of Nashville’s Fisk University, Douglas began a large mural cycle for the new library building. By the mid‐1930s, Douglas was in demand as a muralist, illustrator, and educator. In 1937 he returned to Fisk to found the art department, which he chaired until his retirement in 1966.
Throughout his life, Douglas provided a dignified voice of opposition, insight, and aspiration through powerful and provocative images. Known as the Dean of African-American painters, Douglas challenged the African-American community to commemorate their struggles through art:
…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.
Douglas explored multiple styles throughout his career. The modernist “public” style for which he is best known features flat, silhouetted figures, a limited color palette, and radiating bands and circles of light. He typically painted portraits, landscapes, and genre scenes with a looser brush and more naturalistic approach in which space, volume, and light are realistically rendered.
Aaron Douglas forged a powerful aesthetic that was conceptual yet optical, spiritual yet real, political yet visual. His portrayal of the hardships faced by African Americans, tempered by his triumphant scenes of future hope have influenced generations of young artists. At Douglas’s memorial service, Fisk University president Walter J. Leonard praised the artist as:
“one of the most accomplished of the interpreters of our institutions and cultural values. He captured the strength and quickness of the young; he translated the memories of the old; and he projected the determination of the inspired and courageous.”