The Modern World During and After the World Wars, C. 1914–1960

Modern Art Until C. 1960

What was the Harlem Renaissance?

The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural movement that grew from the nineteenth-century New Negro movement. Intellectuals such as Alain Locke (1886–1954) called on black artists, writers, musicians, and thinkers to draw inspiration from their African roots rather than white European traditions. Blues and jazz, played by musicians such as Bessie Smith and Duke Ellington, and poetry by writers such as Langston Hughes, were part of a cultural explosion that centered on the New York city urban experience. Visual artists, including the photographer James van der Zee, and painters Palmer Hayden (1890–1964) and Aaron Douglas, whose painting Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery Through Reconstruction (1934) is an example of the influence of African art styles on black artists during the Harlem Renaissance. The painting represents the history of black Americans, and is populated with figurative silhouettes reminiscent of ancient Egyptian paintings. With a limited color palette, Douglas’ painting is filled with energy, movement, and sound in its depiction of the Emancipation Proclamation, Civil War Reconstruction, and voting rights. At the far left of the scene, the Ku Klux Klan threaten on horseback, but repeating circles draw attention to a triumphant figure at the center, who holds a ballot in his hand.


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