Robin Urton: dimensional paintings on glass


The Harlem Renaissance


Aaron Douglas, Idylls of the Deep South, 1934


Between 1920-1930 an unprecedented outburst of creative activity among African-Americans occurred in all fields of art. This African-American cultural movement became known as "The New Negro Movement" and later as the Harlem Renaissance. Harlem attracted a prosperous and stylish black middle class from which sprang an extraordinary artistic center. Like avant-garde movements in Europe, it embraced all art-forms, including music, dance, film, theatre and cabaret. Harlem nightlife, with its dance halls and jazz bands, featured prominently in the work of these artists. More than a literary movement and more than a social revolt against racism, the Harlem Renaissance exalted the unique culture of African-Americans and redefined African-American expression. African-Americans were encouraged to celebrate their heritage and to become "The New Negro," a term coined in 1925 by sociologist and critic Alain LeRoy Locke. One of the factors contributing to the rise of the Harlem Renaissance was the great migration of African-Americans to northern cities (such as New York City, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.) between 1919 and 1926. In his influential book The New Negro (1925), Locke described the northward migration of blacks as "something like a spiritual emancipation."


"...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." - Aaron Douglas
Aaron Douglas (1898-1979) was the Harlem Renaissance artist whose work best exemplified the 'New Negro' philosophy. He painted murals for public buildings and produced illustrations and cover designs for many black publications including The Crisis and Opportunity. In 1940 he moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he founded the Art Department at Fisk University and tought for twenty nine years.

Aaron Douglas, study for God's Trombones




Aaron Douglas completed the sketches above in preparation for a mural he painted under WPA sponsorship for the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library in Harlem (now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture). The four-panel series Aspects of Negro Life tracks the journey of African Americans from freedom in Africa to enslavement in the United States and from liberation after the Civil War to life in the modern city. In this study for the first panel, a man and woman in Africa dance to the beat of drums as concentric circles of light emphasize the heat and rhythm of their movements. A sculpture floating in a central circle above the dancers' heads suggests the importance of spirits in African culture.
Song of
the Towers represents the African-Americans' climb from slavery to self-emancipation in the cities of America.




Lois Mailon Jones, Buddha, 1927
Lois Jones attended the School of the Museum of Fine Art, Boston, at a time when racial prejudice and discrimination were omnipresent features of American life. Jones engineered her professional art career in spite of barriers. Sometimes she entered works in exhibitions that did not recognize African-American artists by having white friends deliver the paintings. In other cases, prizes initially awareded to her on merit were subsequently taken away and given to white competitors. Despite these trials, Jones prevailed on the basis of her talent, energy, and persistence. She refused to be discouraged.

from "The life and art of Lois Mailou Jones" Tritobia Hayes Benjamin. 1994




William H. Johnson arrived in Harlem when the Renaissance was in the making. He had come to New York in 1918 from Florence, South Carolina, and became a student at the national Academy of Design. He remained there for five years, absorbing the teachings of George Luks and Charles Hawthorne, and readying himself for a career in art that would take him to places in North Africa and Europe in search of a permanent residence. It was through the influence of Hawthorne that Johnson traveled first to Paris in 1926, where he settled, painted, and studied the works of modern European masters.

from "Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black America"

William Johnson, Chain Gang



Jacob Lawrence, Dreams
I've always been interested in history, but they never taught Negro history in the public schools... I don't see how a history of the United States can be written honestly without including the Negro.
ÑJacob Lawrence, 1940


Lawrence was the first American artist of African descent to receive sustained mainstream recognition in the United States. His success came earlyÑat the age of twenty-fourÑbut lasted almost uninterrupted until his death in June 2000. His renown is mostly in his "Migrantion" series, in which he documents the migration of blacks from Africa to America, focusing mostly on their history in the South. In the last ten years of his life, he received numerous awards, including the Presidential Medal of Arts and more than eighteen honorary post-doctorate degrees.




Female Laborer





Romare Bearden


Jammin' at the Savoy



Soul History


Romare Bearden can best be described as a "descendent" of the Harlem Renaissance, for the majority of his works were created a couple of decades after the movement had ended. His paintings, collages and prints celebrate black history, black music (jazz primarily an invention of black musicians), and black lifestyles. Bright colors, unusual spatial compositions, and a jubilant attitude frequently occupy his works.