The Harlem Renaissance Art: A Brief Introduction
The Harlem Renaissance art was an artistic and social blossoming of African American culture in the early twentieth century.
This astounding period of creativity refers to African American paintings, poetry, literature, theater, music, and all forms of visual arts and academia. It began in the aftermath of the turmoil of World War One and ended in the mid-1930s.
In this introduction, we’ve answered the most common questions about The Harlem Renaissance art. From the visual characteristics of Harlem Renaissance wall art to its social impact and leading painters, discover what made this prosperous period of cross-disciplinary artistic and cultural activity so important.
What was the African American artistic movement of the 1920s?
Many people know the flourishing of African American arts and culture in the 1920s, but few realize it is the “Harlem Renaissance.”
Named after Harlem (a neighborhood in New York City), the district became a central creative hub in the 1920s. Indeed, this location became synonymous with first-rate dance, music, theater, and fine art production.
While this artistic resurgence wasn’t confined only to Harlem, it attracted considerable intellectual and creative talent. For this reason, it served as the symbolic capital of African American art during the 1920s.
With roots in the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance grew from the widespread relocations of African Americans in the early twentieth century. People generally traveled North and West to escape racism and frequent poverty in the Southern states.
An estimated six million black Southerners relocated to urban areas in the North and West of America from 1916 to 1970. Of course, one of the largest metropolitan hubs was New York City.
What are the characteristics of art from the Harlem Renaissance?
Art from the Harlem Renaissance broke free from moralizing white stereotypes dominating the nineteenth century. Instead, it redefined black American people’s relationship with their history and culture providing optimism to the contemporary African American experience.
In terms of visual characteristics, Harlem Renaissance artists often used flat planes of bright color. They also frequently combined elements of African art with contemporary American themes.
While no single style defined Harlem Renaissance wall art, almost all artists somehow celebrated African American identity and culture. Their art dignified Black Americans, often counteracting the denigrating racial stereotypes in 1920s American society.
While the Great Depression of 1929 (a period of the extreme economic downturn in America and most of Western Europe) hampered the movement, some artists managed to continue throughout the 1930s and beyond.
Many found support through the US Government’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) scheme, providing financial help to artists with prominent commissions such as public murals.
What impact did the Harlem Renaissance have?
The Harlem Renaissance had a significant societal and artistic impact in America and worldwide. Harlem Renaissance artists asserted their unspoken pride in black identity and black American life.
The increasing awareness of racism, discrimination, and social inequality also paved the way for the civil rights movement of the 1940s and 1950s. Many artists working during the Harlem Renaissance experienced impossible artistic freedom of expression.
The Harlem Renaissance also created significant socioeconomic opportunities for many black artists. It consequently played a crucial role in heightening the pan-African sensibilities of the time. Its impact thus rippled across the United States, Europe, the Caribbean, and Africa.
How did art influence the Harlem Renaissance?
Art influenced the Harlem Renaissance significantly. Sculptors, printmakers, and printmakers were vital contributors to the new celebration of Afrocentric culture.
Some famous Harlem Renaissance artists included Aaron Douglas (often described as the “father of African American Art”), the photographer James Van Der Zee, and painter Jacob Lawrence.
Fine art wasn’t the only influence on the Harlem Renaissance, however. The Harlem Renaissance is now best known for its literary and theatrical creations.
Leading figures included the sociologist and historian W.E.B. Du Bois, musicians such as the Jazz king Duke Ellington and legendary entertainer and dancer Josephine Baker. Famous writers included Zora Neale Hurston, Langton Hughes, and Claude McKay.
Many of these intellectuals were supported and mentored by the artist Charles Alston and the philosopher Alain Roy Locke.
Who were the key artists of the Harlem Renaissance?
While many artists were working in this period, here are four well-known Harlem Renaissance painters, all of whom pioneered and transformed African American art.
As a self-taught American artist, Horace Pippin painted various subjects. Many paintings referred to his service in World War One, but he also created portraits, interior scenes, biblical narratives, and landscapes.
Pippin’s best-known works include depictions of America’s complex history of racial segregation and slavery. In some way, almost all his paintings represented the realities of black life in the United States.
Celebrated as one of this era's most influential African American painters, Pippin also created emotionally intense religious paintings. The Crucifixion (1943) is the most famous of these creations. Pippin was, in fact, a profoundly religious man, remaining a firm member of his local church throughout his life.
Palmer Hayden was a prolific artist who sketched and painted in watercolors and oil paints. While he initially entertained ambitions of becoming a fiddle player, Hayden later enjoyed significant success in the art world.
He joined the US Army as a young man, gaining an education in draftsmanship and map drawing. After leaving the army, Hayden moved to Greenwich Village in New York City. Life was difficult, however, and Hayden worked several jobs (including janitor and postal clerk) to support his burgeoning artistic career.
Works such as Midsummer Night in Harlem (1936) characterize Hayden’s early output. In a richly colorful scene, Harlem residents of all ages sit on steps, play musical instruments, and talk energetically. Referencing the changing nature of American urban society, a motorcar, church, and rising full moon appear nearby on the left of the composition.
As a leading American illustrator, painter, and art teacher, Aaron Douglas was a defining figure amongst Harlem Renaissance painters. His career progressed primarily through large-scale murals and illustrations.
These artworks addressed social issues of race and class. They used African imagery to celebrate or highlight injustices within black history and culture.
One such work, Into Bondage (1936), shows shadowy figures forcibly marching into the distance. Manacled and shackled, they march through tropical foliage and waves. The hands of drowning figures are just visible in the foreground as slave ships sail towards the sun.
Douglas inspired and assisted a subsequent generation of black artists through his work with the Harlem Artists Guild. He also taught art at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, until his retirement in 1966.
Amongst Harlem Renaissance painters, Jacob Lawrence was famed for his portrayals of African American history. Referring to his painting style as “dynamic cubism,” the shapes and colors of Harlem’s vibrant neighborhoods deeply inspired Lawrence.
Many Jacob Lawrence paintings juxtaposed muted blacks and browns with vivid primary colors, as seen in works such as The Builders (1947), where blocks of crimson red interrupt the otherwise black, brown, and cream composition.
In terms of history painting, Lawrence created a series of modernist artworks depicting the life of Harriet Tubman (the famous abolitionist and social activist) in 1940. In these works, heavily stylized figures rush across a barren landscape. For Lawrence, their energetic movement and vividly colored clothing harked back to the bittersweet joy of emancipation.
Later in life, Lawrence also taught at several academic institutions, including the University of Washington.
Art Reproductions On Canvas.
If you’re searching for famous oil paintings of art from The Harlem Renaissance, explore our unparalleled collection of art reproductions from leading Harlem Renaissance painters.
With its unique combination of stunning color, historical significance, and social activism, Harlem Renaissance wall art is a wonderful addition to any art-loving home.