African-American Art from the Permanent Collection
This exhibition brings together the work of seven AfricanAmerican artists whose lives span the century between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. Their lives and works were intertwined with striving for both assimilation and separate identity, as they actively pursued achievements in art and social equity.
During the Civil War and Reconstruction, African-Americans had limited opportunities for education in the arts and few patrons to support them. Yet Edward Bannister, active in the Abolitionist movement, adopted the French Barbizon style and became a successful artist in Providence in the 1880s. The post-Reconstruction era saw a backlash against programs meant to foster better opportunities for Blacks. Henry Tanner suffered through the prejudice and violence of Philadelphia before a patron came forward to support a trip to Paris in the 1890s, where he assimilated the French impressionist style into his religious paintings.
By the 1920s, an expanding urban African-America middle class in New York and a growing pride in Black culture-music, poetry, dance and art--led to the Harlem Renaissance and the New Negro Movement. With this new encouragement for an African-American art, Aaron Douglas combined the linearity of Art Deco and the angularity of Precisionism to convey the history and rich cultural heritage of his race in paintings and murals, while James Van Der Zee recorded Harlem's proud citizens in his photography studio. Even those who worked outside the mainstream of the Black Art Movement consciously sought African subjects, like Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, whose own struggles against poverty and prejudice lend power to her sculptures.
The financial crash of 1929 ended the Harlem Renaissance. President Roosevelt's new Works Progress Administration, with its commissions for public murals, became crucial to the survival of Black artists. Jacob Lawrence, among many others, received his early artistic training through the WPA. Both Lawrence and Roy De Carava came to their artistic maturity during the Civil Rights Movement and reflected in their artwork the nation's struggle for social equality.
Many saw themselves as role models. They set out to prove their worth to those who challenged their abilities simply because of the color of their skin, and drove themselves to achieve monumental projects and subsequent acclaim. All influenced the course of social history as well as the history of American art, and it is only in this larger context that they may truly be appreciated.
Although a comprehensive exhibition of African-American art in this period would have to include the work of many more artists, such as Robert Stuart Duncanson (1821-1872), Mary Edmonia Lewis (1843-1912), Augusta Savage (1900-1962) and Romare Bearden (1912-1989), the seven shown here are those represented in the Museum's permanent collection, with additions from several local private collections. We hope that this small sampling will provide an historical background for the Studio Museum in Harlem exhibition in the Farago Wing, which covers the period 1968 to 1993.