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Grove Art: Subject Guide

African American art

Introduction

William H. Johnson: Going to Church, oil on burlap, 968×1121 mm, c. 1940–44 (Washington, DC, Smithsonian American Art Museum); photo credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC/Art Resource, NY While African American art of the 18th and 19th centuries continued to reflect African artistic traditions, the earliest fine art made by professional African American artists was in an academic Western style. Among the leading black sculptors of the 19th century were Eugene Warbourg and Mary Edmonia Lewis, the first professional African American sculptor. The most distinguished African American artist who worked in the 19th century was Henry Ossawa Tanner, who painted African American genre subjects and reflects the realist tradition.

In the early 20th century, the most important aesthetic movement in African American art was the Harlem Renaissance or the ‘New Negro’ movement of the 1920s. The Harlem district of New York became the ‘cultural capital of black America’. Practicing in New York, Stuart Davis was heavily influenced by African American culture and jazz music, though he was not an African American. Aaron Douglas consciously incorporated African imagery into his work. The most important African American photographer of that period was James Van Der Zee, who photographed people and scenes in Harlem for more than 50 years. During and immediately after World War II there arose to prominence a new school of African American artists, many of whom were the so-called ‘children of the Harlem Renaissance’. During the 1950s African American art was dominated by Abstract Expressionism and realism; their significant practitioners included Charles Alston, Romare Bearden and James Wells. In the 1960s and 1970s new classifications appeared in African American art based on continuing developments in abstract art and the rise of the figurative style known as Black Expressionism. The most prominent African American abstract painter was Sam Gilliam, based in Washington, DC. Martin Puryear emerged during the 1980s as a leading African American abstract sculptor. In the 1980s African American art was the subject of a number of pioneering exhibitions, such as Black Art—Ancestral Legacy: The African Impulse in African American Art (Dallas Museum of Art, 1989), that brought together the works of African, Caribbean and African American academic and folk artists. Today’s artists, such as Kara Walker and Fred Wilson, continue to grapple with the complex issues of African American history and identity in contemporary visual art.

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