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Visual Arts

Who was the leading painter of the Harlem Renaissance?

At the urging of Alain Locke, W.E.B. Du Bois, and other influential leaders of the first three decades of the twentieth century, black creative artists began collaborating in literature, music, theater, and art to increase awareness of their culture. By the 1920s, this era became known as the Harlem Renaissance, named for the section of New York City where the transformation was based.

Aaron Douglas (1899–1979) became the leading painter of the Harlem Renaissance era. Active in New York from 1923 to 1925, he was the first of his generation to depict visual symbols—stylized African figures with overlays of geometric forms—that created a sense of movement and rhythm. The idea spread from Harlem, where many black intellectuals and artists from the Caribbean and elsewhere had settled, throughout the United States. This concept, while promoting ethnic awareness and pride, also counteracted the stereotypes and shallow interpretations prevalent in the popular culture of the time. Douglas’s works include murals on the walls of Cravath Hall (the former library building) at Fisk University, the Countee Cullen Branch of the New York Public Library (now incorporated into the Schomburg Center in Harlem), and the College Inn Room of the Sherman Hotel in Chicago. He designed bookplates and also painted portraits of Mary McLeod Bethune, Charles Spurgeon Johnson, and other black luminaries. Douglas promoted African art in America through his murals and other illustrations. The Topeka, Kansas, native became an eminent muralist, illustrator, and educator. In 1939, he went to Fisk University in Nashville, where he established the art department.


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