African American Expatriate Artists [Negro Colony]
- Theresa Leininger-Miller
Group of African American artists active in France in the 1920s and 1930s. Between the world wars Paris became a Mecca for a “lost generation” of Americans. Hundreds of artists, musicians, and writers from all over the world flocked to the French capital in search of a sense of community and freedom to be creative. For African Americans, the lure of Paris was enhanced by fear of and disgust with widespread racial discrimination experienced in the United States. They sought a more nurturing environment where their work would receive serious attention, as well as the chance to study many of the world’s greatest cultural achievements. France offered this along with an active black diasporal community with a growing sense of Pan-Africanism. Painters, sculptors, and printmakers thrived there, studying at the finest art academies, exhibiting at respected salons, winning awards, seeing choice art collections, mingling with people of diverse ethnic origins, dancing to jazz, and fervently discussing art, race, literature, philosophy, and politics. Although their individual experiences differed widely, they had much in common, including exposure to traditional European art, African art, modern art, and proto-Negritude ideas. As a result of their stay in Paris, all were affected artistically, socially, and politically in positive ways and most went on to have distinguished careers.
At least a dozen African American artists went to Paris between 1922 and 1934 and they constituted quite a diverse group. Gwendolyn Bennett (1902–81), Aaron Douglas, William Thompson Goss (b 1894), William Emmett Grant (fl. 1929–31), Palmer Hayden, William H(oward) Johnson, Archibald J. Motley, Jr., Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, Augusta Savage, Albert Alexander Smith, Laura Wheeler Waring, and Hale Woodruff came from all over the United States. Almost all moved from their small hometowns to attend art schools in larger cities; few, though, enrolled at the same institution. These artists had in common dedicated teachers who had studied in Paris and who urged their students to do the same. In addition, nearly all supported themselves through school by working a variety of odd jobs. All but two of the artists were more than 32 years of age by the time they went to Europe.
The experiences of African American artists in Paris during the interwar years were distinctive, yet they shared some of the same benefits and challenges as other foreign artists there at the same time, such as a loose sense of community and an ambivalence about the city and their place in it. What made them unique was the kind of art they produced and the ways in which they marketed those images. Ever aware of multiple audiences, they created diverse works. Their stylistic approaches, although mostly academic and rarely avant-garde, were less exciting than the subjects they tackled. These ranged from conservative landscapes and depictions of French landmarks to Cubist and near-abstract compositions. These artists also explored two main themes that were occupying French artists at the same time, those of modernity and nostalgia. The concept of nostalgia, or more specifically of longing for both an earlier, mythical time in America’s folk history and a grand, exotic vision of Africa, is all the more intriguing given the use of stereotypes by these artists. The reliance on, expansion, and subversion of black stereotypes were certainly conditioned and affirmed in large part by white American and European patronage. Yet there was considerable agency and choice on the part of the producers as well.
In the first half of the 19th century, most artists in Paris studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. At the turn of the century, many American artists went to the privately operated Académie Julian. They were attracted by the school’s live models, critiques by professors, longer studio hours, and the lack of an entrance examination. Henry Ossawa Tanner was the first African American artist to study at the Académie Julian; followed by Annie E. A. Walker, William Harper, William Edouard Scott, and Gwendolyn Bennett. However, by the late 1920s, the Académie had lost its appeal and rigor and Woodruff quickly dropped out in favor of the recently founded académies Moderne and Scandinave. Douglas and Savage also attended the latter school. These institutions, along with the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, were attractive because of their smaller classes and more personalized attention. Others preferred the long-standing prestige of national schools; Prophet worked at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and Smith studied old master printmaking techniques at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels.
African American artists depicted famous landmarks, such as the Pont Neuf and Sacré-Coeur (both in Paris), Chartres, Cluny, Versailles, and Parisian cafés, markets, and street scenes, which sold well. Jazz performer Albert Alexander Smith partially supported himself by offering inexpensive prints of such scenes to the tourist market. The Indianapolis Star newspaper paid Woodruff for his sketches of and comments about celebrated landmarks, and Hayden learned that American buyers admired his watercolors of French folk and trade. Images of Parisian nightlife were also popular, and Smith, Hayden, and Motley captured the heady atmosphere of crowded nightclubs.
Few members of the “Negro colony” ever associated with the famous white American community in Paris in the 1920s, which included such literary figures as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Bennett did go to tea at the homes of Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach (owner of the Shakespeare & Company Bookstore), Konrad Bercovoci, and even Henri Matisse, while Woodruff met Kay Boyle, Raymond Duncan, and George Antheil, but they were never mentioned in the memoirs of these prominent people. While African American artists seemed to have been invisible to this group, their interactions with them were mostly positive.
African American artists depicted other parts of France as well. Hayden traveled throughout Brittany filling his sketchbooks with seascapes and workers in the fishing village of Concarneau. Smith went north to Trouville, the coastal resort so popular among the bourgeois in the late 19th century. Johnson and Woodruff followed painter Chaim Soutine’s path south to Cagnes-sur-Mer, an artists’ colony on the Riviera.
While few African American artists in France between the world wars worked in a Cubist mode, all were quite conscious of the inspirational role that African sculpture played in the development of this modernist style. Woodruff claimed that after Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907; New York, MOMA) clarified the relationship between modern French art and African art for him, he bought his first pieces, a Yoruba Shango staff and a Bemba male figure, at a flea market in Paris. Philosopher Alain Locke, who made his own purchases, accompanied Woodruff on these forays. Locke built a large collection of African art during his European travels and lectured widely on its influence in the works of modern French painters. Like W.E.B. Du Bois, Locke urged African Americans to take pride in and depict their African heritage. In his important anthology of writings by and about young Black artists, The New Negro (1925), he strongly advised the new generation to “look to the art of the ancestors” for inspiration in creating racially representative art. Not all African American artists heeded Locke’s charge, however. Hayden was, in fact, the only African American artist in Paris between the world wars who included a likeness of an African sculpture in his painting Fétiche et Fleurs (c. 1923).
As Paris was an international metropolis that was part of the African diaspora, African American artists were able to depict Africans and people of African descent in their art while they were in Paris. Working from live models, Motley painted Senegalese and Martinicans, while Prophet sculptured powerfully meditative portrait busts of black men, and Savage produced a half figure of an African female warrior holding a spear.
Affected by the influence of African sculpture on modern art and jazz, and by the arrival of the singer Josephine Baker in 1925, Parisians were enthralled by black culture between the world wars, and African American artists benefited from the plethora of publications on the subject. However, although the rising popularity of black culture in Paris no doubt contributed to the commercial and exhibition success of some African American artists, for the most part, they earned critical attention solely on artistic merit rather than on racial grounds, and collectively, they demonstrated an impressive exhibition history.
African American artistic activity in Paris peaked between 1922 and 1934. By 1931, however, those African Americans who remained had begun to feel the effects of the Great Depression in France. By that year, almost all of the African American artists had returned to America.
Study and success in Paris were crucial to African American expatriates and the Negro Colony. In this challenging and stimulating environment, they proved their talents and enriched their visions, while in the process forever changing their lives. Although the artists came from disparate backgrounds throughout the United States and their works differed dramatically in style and content, they had much in common in terms of class, origin, education, patronage, experiences, achievements abroad, artistic development and subject matter, and careers. Paris provided a formidable and dynamic site for these intersections and fostered a coming of age.
- T. Leininger-Miller: “‘Heads of Thought and Reflection’: Busts of African Warriors by Nancy Elizabeth Prophet and Augusta Savage, African American Sculptors in Paris, 1922–1934,” Out of Context: American Artists Abroad, ed. L. Fattal and C. Salus (Westport, 2004), pp. 93–111
- T. Leininger-Miller: “Modern Dancers and African Amazons: Augusta Savage’s Sculptures of Women, 1929–1930,,” The Modern Woman Revisited: Paris Between the Wars, ed. W. Chadwick and T. T. Latimer (New Brunswick, 2003), pp. 183–97
- T. Leininger-Miller: New Negro Artists in Paris: African American Painters and Sculptors in the City of Light, 1922–1934 (New Brunswick, 2001)
- T. Leininger-Miller: “The Transatlantic Connection: New Negro Artists in Paris, 1922–1934,” Harlem Renaissance (Oklahoma City, 2009), pp. 77–101