African American Arts: A Brief Introduction
“African American arts” is a comprehensive description, referring to any art created by American artists identifying as black. It thus covers a vast array of fascinating art and artists.
This brief introduction examines some of the most famous African American paintings and painters.
When did African American art start?
The earliest evidence of black American art in the United States stems from enslaved people and craftspeople working in New England during the seventeenth century. Examples include personal sculpted items as well as objects created for public sale.
These include quilts (for instance, those created by Harriet Powers) and powder horns (carved by John Bush). Drawings, engravings, ceramic vessels, baskets, and metal figurines were all also produced.
This art gradually became a more significant part of the Southern Colonial economy. Here, enslaved Americans engaged in cabinet making, goldsmithing, engraving, carving, portraiture, and carpentry.
By the late eighteenth century, some paintings by black artists garnered considerable fame, particularly amongst abolitionist families in Northern cities, who sometimes sponsored artists. Northern urban centers (notably New York) emerged as hubs of artistic creation during this time.
What is African American art history?
It refers to any art created by African Americans living in the USA or elsewhere. Nonetheless, many scholars use the term to describe the visual art of the Harlem Renaissance.
Art from the Harlem Renaissance arose from a massive flourishing of creativity during the 1920s. Based around the Harlem District of New York (although not exclusive to the city), notable artists included Aaron Douglas, Palmer Hayden, William H Johnson, and Horace Pippin. The area soon became known as the “cultural capital of Black America.”
In 1922, William E Harmon founded the “Harmon Foundation.” With this philanthropic organization, he financed artists of color until the mid-1960s.
While funding briefly stopped during the Great Depression (which started with the Wall Street Crash of 1929), it quickly resumed once the economy revived in the 1930s. This saw artists such as Jacob Lawrence and Ernest Crichlow rise to prominence.
What is African American art called?
There are several names for different eras. Here are four of the most famous movements:
- The Harlem Renaissance: Beginning around the end of the First World War (1918), the Harlem Renaissance saw cross-disciplinary creativity flourish. Oil painting artists and music (from the likes of Duke Ellington), theater, literature, philosophy, and dance gave birth to the “Golden Age” of culture.
- Black Abstract Expressionism: Many black American artists turned to Expressionism in the 1950s. Alongside developments in abstract art, this became a defined movement called “Black Expressionism.” Black Abstract Expressionism aimed at communicating raw emotion. It often depicted African Americans' painful and triumphant history in the USA.
- Black Social Realism: In the aftermath of the two World Wars, many artists adopted this style. It drew attention to the socio-political realities of working-class black people. The movement often critiqued power and privilege, trying to hold governing classes accountable for their actions.
- The Black Arts Movement: This was an artistic movement active during the 1960s and 1970s. Using a mixture of activism and art, the Black Arts Movement fostered black social and cultural pride. They often resisted traditional Western artistic ideals and explored new ways to communicate the contemporary black experience.
How would you describe African American art?
There is no single definition. For instance, the art of the eighteenth century often reflected African artistic traditions. On the other hand, commercial fine art produced in the nineteenth century frequently used Western academic styles, mainly inspired by French classical painting.
However, the Harlem Renaissance was the twentieth century's most influential black American artistic development. Artists in this era used bright, bold colors, strong outlines, and paintings with balanced perspectives. Their creations were full of energy, exemplified by artists such as Jacob Lawrence and Horace Pippin.
While the Second World War meant much artistic production stopped, African American art rebounded during the 1950s. Now dominated by trends such as Black Abstract Expressionism and Social Realism, leading artists included Charles Alston and James Wells.
As the twentieth century progressed, black American art (like art all over the world) explored developments in new contemporary abstraction.
Despite these differences, African American artists commonly grapple with the complex issues of identity and black history. In varying ways, paintings by black artists often deal with everyday experiences, social justice, injustice, and cultural identity.
Who is the most famous African American painter?
Jacob Lawrence created some of the most famous paintings. In addition, he painted several narrative works, such as the “Migration of the Negro” series, which features striking black figures silhouetted against vividly colored backgrounds.
His paintings often dealt with America’s troubled history of slavery, poverty, and social injustice. For instance, the Harriet Tubman series depicts figures bounding over the dry earth against a blue sky.
These works celebrated Harriet Tubman’s extraordinary life. Tubman escaped slavery and then helped free over 70 individuals.
Later in his career, Lawrence also painted many scenes of everyday work. Still using contrasting and vivid primary colors, he highlighted the honor and beauty of manual labor. Characteristic paintings of this period include Workshop (1972) and Tools (1977).
Lawrence also worked as a professor at several academic institutions (including the University of Washington in Seattle), where he continued teaching until the late 1980s.
He worked on several large-scale mural commissions in later life. In addition, Lawrence produced limited edition prints raising money for social causes such as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Lawrence continued painting until a few weeks before his death on 9 June 2000.
Who are some famous black artists?
In addition to Jacob Lawrence, many more famous black artists worked during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Other artists include William H Johnson, Eldzier Cortor, Horace Pippin, Palmer Hayden, Ernest Crichlow, and Charles E Porter.
Charles E Porter's meticulous paintings inspire a generation of later African American artists. His early artworks (Peonies in a Bowl and Mountain Laurel) often focus on still-life paintings in a classical European style.
Painters such as Horace Pippin (working during the height of the Harlem Renaissance) deal with themes of racism and segregation in America.
Pippin frequently depicts singular figures in his artwork, with paintings often dealing with the loneliness of the black experience (for instance, The Park Bench, 1946). However, Pippin never shied away from the violence and hypocrisy of modern American society. Several of his paintings deal with such issues, including The Whipping and Mr. Prejudice (1943).
Other African American painters, such as William H Johnso,n also depicted everyday social reality. Like Pippin, Johnson drew on his time serving in the American military. However, he also heavily references folk art tradition, creating a dynamic, colorful style.
Johnson’s art (with paintings such as At the Café and Going to Church) addresses themes of society, religion, and the everyday landscape for African American people.
Why is African American art important?
It is important not only for the individual artists’ painterly skill and creativity but also for the sheer beauty of their artworks. Moreover, it is a unique art born from a troubling period in American history, taking cultural influences and inspiration from worldwide.
When you display African American canvas art in your home, you celebrate these artists and their social message. The history of African American people in the USA is a story of intense suffering, sacrifice, bravery, determination, and triumph.
Their art tells this story and continues to do so in the present. Indeed, African American art continues to shape how we think about ourselves, our place in society, and how we imagine the future.
African American Canvas Art: Fine art oil paintings
If you love the energy and dynamism of African American wall art, explore our extensive collection of famous paintings by black artists. With pioneering art from the Harlem Renaissance and lesser-known masterpieces, you’ll find museum quality oil paintings on canvas African American Wall art.