Building More Stately Mansions
Building More Stately Mansions, 1944
Oil on canvas board
50.8 x 40.6 cm (20 x 16 inches)
Purchased with the Frederick Lippitt Bequest 2008.30
Kansas-born Aaron Douglas came to New York in 1925 at the outset of the Harlem Renaissance. Intense engagement with other African American artists, writers, and musicians influenced the development his unique modernist style. Building More Stately Mansions, a study for a larger work Douglas painted while teaching at Fisk University in Nashville, symbolizes the labor of black men and women. Their active figures are silhouetted against a utopian background, while concentric bands of muted color suggest the continuum of history and knowledge. The implied passage of time links the builders of pyramids, temples, and churches to those of modern skyscrapers and anticipates the intellectual and artistic achievements of African Americans in the future.
Kansas-born Douglas came to New York in 1925 at the outset of the Harlem Renaissance. Intense engagement with other African-American artists, writers, and musicians influenced the development of his unique Modernist style, seen here in Building More Stately Mansions, a study for a larger work painted while Douglas was teaching at Fisk University in Tennessee. The painting symbolizes the labor of black men and women in the creation of great architectural monuments, silhouetting their active figures against a utopian background. Concentric bands of muted color suggest waves of history and knowledge, linking the builders of pyramids, temples, and churches to the constructors of skyscrapers in the present time and anticipating their future intellectual and artistic achievements.
About the work
Intended as a study for a larger painting, Building More Stately Mansions provides a rich record of Aaron Douglas’s artistic process. He breaks the flat canvas into three distinct regions, contrasting the large, static, multi-dimensional architectural forms of the background with the dark, flat human silhouettes in the foreground. The muted earth tones of the background further energize the faceless but active figures. As they ascend or rise from triangular mounds suggesting rock, dirt, and rubble, the figures grip or cluster around tools, as if both their past and present work were the construction of the monuments behind them.
A range of architectural forms are depicted here, including a skyscraper, arches, a ziggurat, a church spire, and a pharaonic head. These refer not only to the Americas, but to the longer history of human civilization, and specifically to the anonymous but often skilled contributions of laborers forced to build the empires that would dominate them. To clarify the relationships between the foreground and background, and between the past and the present, Douglas paints two contrasting bands of color along the middle plane, suggesting the continuity of cultural memory and the passage of time.
Best known during his lifetime as an illustrator and a muralist, Douglas was formally trained as a landscape and portrait painter. During the 1920s and 1930s, he developed a distinct technique blending Egyptian figurative abstraction and West African sacred geometry with Cubist and Art Deco concepts within a color palette of muted earth tones. His illustrations for novels, pamphlets, poems, and magazines, as well as his murals for the New York Public Library and historically black colleges and universities around the country, were well known during the Harlem Renaissance and Great Depression. These stylized representations of Africans and Americans of African descent in gestures of dignified labor inspired pride in communities that still remembered the indignities and exploitations of slavery.
How would you describe the mood of this painting? What details in the work help you articulate your position?
Though the study includes imagery drawn from past eras, Douglas’s title is in the present tense. What might this dichotomy suggest?
In the larger work created after this study, the dark, curvilinear line here that begins in the bottom left corner and skims the shoulders and heads of the silhouettes has been taken out. Why do you think Douglas might have made that choice?
Douglas celebrates the neglected and often anonymous contributions of black, African, and other laborers of color. Ask students to list jobs that go unnoticed. Is there a pattern in the kinds of work these include? How would they propose to celebrate the people who perform those jobs?
Aaron Douglas moved to New York in 1925, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. There he became a collaborator and a friend to many of the great writers, intellectuals, performers, and visual artists of his day. To further understand the relationship between Douglas’s work and that of other prominent persons within the Harlem Renaissance, consider the following exercise, which helps students make connections between literature and objects.
Below are eight quotes from various literary sources. Project More Stately Mansions at the front of the classroom or print copies to distribute to students. Divide students into groups and give each group one of the quotes. Have students read the quote silently, then have one member read it aloud to other members of their group. Give each group ten minutes to reflect, discuss, and write down how the quote impacts their individual ideas about the painting. During an additional ten-minute block, challenge each group to collaborate to write four to six sentences showing how their quote helps them interpreting the painting. At the end of this time, have each group share their quote and their interpretation with the class.
The American Negro must remake his past in order to make his future. Though it is orthodox to think of America as the one country where it is unnecessary to have a past, what is a luxury for the nation as a whole becomes a prime social necessity for the Negro. For him, a group tradition must supply compensation for persecution, and pride of race the antidote for prejudice. History must restore what slavery took away, for it is the social damage of slavery that the present generations must repair and offset. So among the rising democratic millions we find the Negro thinking more collectively, more retrospectively than the rest, and opt out of the very pressure of the present to become the most enthusiastic antiquarian of them all.
–Arthur Schomburg, “The Negro Digs Up His Past,” March 1925
Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!
–From Oliver Wendell Holmes’s poem “The Chambered Nautilus,” 1895
African sculpture has been for contemporary European painting and sculpture just such a mine of fresh motifs, just such a lesson in simplicity and originality of expression, and surely, once known and appreciated, this art can scarcely have less influence upon the blood descendants, bound to it by a sense of direct cultural kinship, than upon those who inherit by tradition only, and through the channels of an exotic curiosity and interest.
But what the Negro artist of to-day has most to gain from the arts of the forefathers is perhaps not cultural inspiration or technical innovations, but the lesson of a classic background, the lesson of discipline, of style, of technical control pushed to the limits of technical mastery. A more highly stylized art does not exist than the African. If after absorbing the new content of American life and experience, and after assimilating new patterns of art, the original artistic endowment can be sufficiently augmented to express itself with equal power in more complex patterns and substance, then the Negro may well become what some have predicted, the artist of American life.
–Alain Locke, “The Legacy of the Ancestral Arts,” 1925
With nearly every great European empire to-day walks its dark colonial shadow, while over all Europe there stretches the yellow shadow of Asia that lies across the world. One might indeed read the riddle of Europe by making its present plight a matter of colonial shadows, speculating on what might happen if Europe became suddenly shadowless—if Asia and Africa and the island were cut permanently away. At any rate here is a field of inquiry, of likening and contrasting each land and its far-off shadow.
–W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Negro Mind Reaches Out,” 1925
It’s because you are young—
You do not understand.
You are too young to understand yet.
Build another skyscraper
Touching the stars.
We sit with our backs against the tree
And watch skyscrapers tumble
And stars forget.
Solomon built a temple
And it must have fallen down.
It isn’t here now.
We know some things, being old,
You do not understand.
–Langston Hughes, “Being Old,” 1951
I am a Negro: Black as the night is black, Black like the depths of my Africa.
I’ve been a slave: Caesar told me to keep his door-steps clean. I brushed the boots of Washington.
I’ve been a worker: Under my hand the pyramids arose. I made mortar for the Woolworth Building.
–Langston Hughes, “Negro,” 1925
Art must recover and reveal the beauty which prejudice and caricature have overlaid.
–Alaine Locke, from The New Negro, 1925
I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me… . You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy… . Invisibility, let me explain, gives one a slightly different sense of time, you’re never quite on the beat. Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around. That’s what you hear vaguely in Louis’ [Armstrong’s] music.
–Ralph Ellison, Prologue, Invisible Man, 1952
Selected Works. Providence: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 2005, 247.
Amy Helene Kirschke. Aaron Douglas: Art, Race, and the Harlem Renaissance. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.
“Social Visions: The Arts in the Depression Years, 1929–1941” (ch. 16), in American Encounters: Art, History, and Cultural Identity. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2008.