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Article

Regenia Perry, Christina Knight, dele jegede, Bridget R. Cooks, Camara Dia Holloway and Jenifer P. Borum

[Afro-American; Black American]

Term used to describe art made by Americans of African descent. While the crafts of African Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries continued largely to reflect African artistic traditions (see Africa, §VIII), the earliest fine art made by professional African American artists was in an academic Western style (see fig.).

Regenia Perry, revised by Christina Knight

The first African American artist to be documented was Joshua Johnson, a portrait painter who practised in and around Baltimore, MD. Possibly a former slave in the West Indies, he executed plain, linear portraits for middle-class families (e.g. Sarah Ogden Gustin, c. 1798–1802; Washington, DC, N.G.A.). Only one of the approximately 83 portraits attributed to Johnson is signed, and none is dated. There are only two African American sitters among Johnson’s attributions. Among the second generation of prominent 19th-century African American artists were the portrait-painter ...

Article

Theresa Leininger-Miller

[Negro Colony]

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....

Article

Nizan Shaked

(b Buffalo, NY, May 9, 1968).

American painter and draftsman. She studied English and Studio Art at Williams College, Williamstown, MA, graduating with a BA in 1991. Shortly thereafter, she attended the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program, New York, and completed her MFA in 1994 at Washington University, St Louis. Ali became known for her painting series Greenheads, in which round-headed characters perform choreographed activities against flat, light-blue backgrounds. These cartoon-styled allegories of American history and culture examine the sublimated or overt aggression inherent in activities such as team sports, ceremonies, military training, court marshaling and lynching. Referencing folk art or hieroglyphs, Untitled (Greenheads) (gouache on paper, 1998) depicts a sequence of disputes between uniformed characters and injured figures in athletic apparel. As with most of Ali’s oeuvre, the gestures and expressions of the figures communicate a sense of violent intensity, while the exact nature of the interaction remains enigmatic. Addressing the power dynamics of race, religion and gender, her scenarios respond to personal experience as well as local or world events, yet do not serve to represent them directly. Correspondingly, the single figures that appear in her later drawings and paintings display what initially seem to be specific ethnic tributes or dress codes, subsequently revealed to be invented and constructed by Ali. As it remains up to the viewer to interpret who these characters are or what may distinguish them as individuals, the perspective and biases of the viewer become part of the artwork’s meaning. The young, green-faced character in ...

Article

Deborah Cullen

(Henry) [Spinky]

(b Charlotte, NC, Nov 29, 1907; d April 27, 1977).

African American painter, sculptor, graphic artist, muralist and educator. In 1913, Charles Alston’s family relocated from North Carolina to New York where he attended DeWitt Clinton High School. In 1929, he attended Columbia College and then Teachers College at Columbia University, where he obtained his MFA in 1931. Alston’s art career began while he was a student, creating illustrations for Opportunity magazine and album covers for jazz musician Duke Ellington.

Alston was a groundbreaking educator and mentor. He directed the Harlem Arts Workshop and then initiated the influential space known simply as “306,” which ran from 1934 to 1938. He taught at the Works Progress Administration’s Harlem Community Art Center and was supervisor of the Harlem Hospital Center murals, leading 35 artists as the first African American project supervisor of the Federal Art Project. His two murals reveal the influence of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera (1886–1957). His artwork ranged from the comic to the abstract, while often including references to African art. During World War II, he worked at the Office of War Information and Public Information, creating cartoons and posters to mobilize the black community in the war effort....

Article

Joan Marter

(b Atlanta, GA, March 16, 1938).

African American painter, printmaker, and weaver. Amos studied fine arts and textile weaving at Antioch College at Yellow Springs, OH, where she received her BFA in 1958. She went on to study etching and painting at the Central School of Art, London (1958–9), and the following year she moved to New York, where she began working at two printmaking studios: Robert Blackburn’s workshop and that of Letterio Calapai (an outpost of Stanley William Hayter’s Atelier 17). She completed her MA at New York University (NYU) in 1966. Through Hale Woodruff, an art professor at NYU and family friend, she was invited to exhibit with Spiral, an all-male art group founded by Woodruff and Romare Bearden and featuring recognized African American artists. Spiral, closely allied with the Civil Rights movement, dissolved in 1967 and subsequently Amos had trouble exhibiting her work. In 1974, after the birth of her two children, Amos found a position as an instructor in textile design at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts. She continued her own weaving in New York and benefited from the revival of interest in women’s traditional art forms in the early years of the feminist art movement....

Article

Deborah Cullen

(b Plainview, GA, Nov 13, 1930; d Brooklyn, New York, Nov 10, 2006).

African American painter, collagist, printmaker, and art advocate. Benny Andrews grew up under segregation in the rural South, one of 10 children in a sharecropper’s family. After graduating from high school, he served in the US Air Force. Afterwards, through the GI Bill of Rights, he studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he received his BFA. In 1958, he moved to New York. Andrews received a John Hay Whitney Fellowship (1965–6) as well as a CAPS award from the New York State Council on the Arts (1971). From 1968 to 1997, he taught at Queens College, City University of New York and created a prison arts program that became a national model. In 1969, Andrews co-founded the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC), an organization that protested against the Harlem on my Mind exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Between ...

Article

Margaret Rose Vendryes

(b Bay St Louis, MS, Jan 28, 1909; d Pasadena, CA, March 6, 1989).

African American sculptor and painter. Barthé was raised a devout Roman Catholic Creole. He was also the only African American artist of his generation to consistently portray the black male nude. Although closeted throughout his life, sensual figures such as Stevedore (1937; Hampton, VA, U. Mus.) expose his homosexuality. Barthé’s elementary education ended in 1914. As an adolescent, he skillfully copied magazine illustrations, especially figures. Barthé worked for the wealthy New Orleans Pond family, who summered on the Bay, and in 1917, he moved to New Orleans to become their live-in servant. Barthé had access to the Pond library and art collection, and while in their employment, he began to paint in oil. In 1924, his head of Jesus prompted the Rev. Harry F. Kane to fund the first of four years at the Art Institute of Chicago School, where Barthé studied painting with Charles Schroeder and sculpture with Albin Polasek (...

Article

Dennis Raverty

(b Charlotte, NC, Sept 2, 1911 or 1912; d New York City, Mar 12, 1988).

African American painter, collagist, and author. Bearden is best known for his collages, which often addressed urban themes (e.g. The Dove). He was a founding member of Spiral, a group of African American artists who started meeting at his downtown New York studio in 1963. He also published essays and cartoons, designed book jackets, magazine and album covers, and is widely regarded as the first African American artist to successfully enter the mainstream of the contemporary art world. The posthumously published book he co-authored with Harry Henderson, A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present (1993), in a very short time became an almost canonical text in the field.

Bearden’s family moved permanently to Harlem, a predominately black neighborhood of New York City, in 1920. His mother, Bessye Bearden, was the New York correspondent for the Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper, and through her Bearden was introduced to many of the artists, writers, and intellectuals associated with the ...

Article

James Smalls

(b Gastonia, NC, April 13, 1924; d Houston, TX, Jan 25, 2001).

American painter, draftsman, printmaker and sculptor. John (Thomas) Biggers, the youngest of seven children, grew up in segregated Gastonia, NC. Upon the death of his father in 1937, his mother sent him away to Lincoln Academy to receive a high quality education. While there, he learned a great deal about African art and the value of African culture; these were lessons he would carry with him throughout his career. Although African influences were most noteworthy in his works, he also managed to synthesize elements from American Regionalism, the African American figurative tradition and Native American sources. In 1941, Biggers entered the Hampton Institute (later renamed Hampton University) in Virginia, where he studied art. In 1943, his mural Dying Soldier was featured in the landmark exhibition Young Negro Art, organized for the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In that same year, he was drafted into the United States Navy. After receiving an honorable discharge three years later, he enrolled at the Pennsylvania State University. He received his BA and MA degrees in ...

Article

Gina M. D’Angelo

(b Harrisburg, PA, Feb 22, 1841; d St Paul, MN, March 2, 1918).

African American painter and lithographer. Brown was the first African American artist to portray California and the Pacific Northwest. One of many artists who migrated West in the years after the gold rush, Brown began his career in San Francisco in the 1860s as a commercial lithographer, and made his mark in the 1880s as a landscape painter of the Pacific Northwest.

The son of freed slaves, Brown probably began his career working at the lithographic firm of P. S. Duval in Philadelphia, and in the late 1850s followed C. C. Kuchel, a Duval lithographer and his soon-to-be employer, to San Francisco. From 1861 to 1867 he worked as a draftsman and lithographer at the Kuchel & Dressel firm in San Francisco, and in 1867 established his own firm, G. T. Brown & Co. His most celebrated project, The Illustrated History of San Mateo County (1878), featured 72 city views whose sensitive topographical style would influence his paintings. Brown sold his firm in ...

Article

Sandra Sider

(b Lafayette, LA, 1967).

African American painter. Charles graduated from McNeese State University in Lake Charles, LA, in 1985, having studied advertising design, illustration, and painting. He received his MFA from the University of Houston in 1993, and subsequently taught at the University of Texas at Austin. His paintings, which manipulate images of historical black stereotypes, have generated critical controversy and hostile reactions from viewers. Charles, however, saw himself as investigating these images and their place in American history, exploring and exposing their negativity. He typically signs his work with an actual copper penny, oriented to display the profile of Abraham Lincoln.

Charles also collected black memorabilia, such as Aunt Jemima dolls and other advertising ephemera, and has researched 19th-century blackface and minstrelsy performers. Some of his most controversial figures have been of childhood literary icons, including a black Sambo reminiscent of Mickey Mouse. Charles is interested in how these images remain in America’s collective memory, and the different attitudes of Caucasians and African Americans when viewing them. He creates extreme caricatures, such as a sinister-looking black face with a watermelon slice for a mouth and black seeds instead of teeth—images meant to stimulate thought. The faces in his paintings confront the viewer with their oversized scale, some of them more than 1 m high. Charles felt that American advertising conditioned people of all types to pigeonhole blacks as representing the body (instead of the mind), and as entertainers—and that these stereotypical attitudes have been retained in the American psyche. To emphasize this point, Charles juxtaposed African American celebrities with advertising imagery, such as Oprah Winfrey as a cookie-jar mammy figure....

Article

Corinne Robins

(b New Orleans, LA, May 6, 1926).

African American painter. Edward Clark experienced the excitement of being part of the younger generation of Abstract Expressionists and over a period of 50 years built up a solid body of work that has made something both unique and original out of his commitment to Jackson Pollock’s (1912–56) principles of action and spontaneity.

Born in New Orleans in 1926, Clark grew up in Chicago and, after studying at the Chicago Art Institute, took advantage of the GI Bill and went to Paris. There, he enrolled in the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in 1951 and by 1952 came under the influence of Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) and of Cubism. In 1954, the American Center for Students and Artists became interested in the artistic activity in Montparnasse studios and presented an exhibition titled Grandes Toiles de Montparnasse, in which Clark participated and was described in a review in ...

Article

Sharon Matt Atkins

(b Oakland, CA, Aug 26, 1925; d Tucson, AZ, June 4, 2009).

American painter, printmaker and teacher. Colescott produced highly expressive and gestural paintings that addressed a wide range of social and cultural themes and challenged stereotypes. Interested in issues of race, gender and power, his work critiqued the representation of minorities in literature, history, art and popular culture. Stylistically, his work is indebted to European modernism, particularly Cubism and Expressionism, but also makes references to African sculpture, African American art and post–World War II American styles.

Colescott was introduced to art at an early age. His mother was a pianist and his father was a classically-trained violinist and jazz musician. Through his parents’ social circles, he often found himself surrounded by creative individuals as he was growing up, like his artistic mentor, the sculptor Sargent Johnson (1888–1967). Colescott received his BA in 1949 and later his MFA in 1952 from the University of California, Berkeley. He also studied with ...

Article

Jacqueline Francis

(b Richmond, VA, Jan 10, 1916).

African American painter and printmaker. Cortor’s signature form is the attenuated black female nude presented as the personification of the African Diaspora’s cultural richness and beauty. Born in the American South, Cortor left the region as a child and was raised in Chicago. After finishing high school, he studied painting and drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1936 to 1938. In 1938, Cortor joined the easel painting division of the Federal Art Project and worked in this Works Progress Administration program for five years, producing heroic, social realist genre pictures.

In 1944–5, Cortor was awarded successive Julius Rosenwald Foundation Fellowships that funded travel to the Sea Islands off the Georgia and South Carolina coasts. There, Cortor studied and painted the Gullah people, African Americans well-known for their retention of African cultural ways and languages.

By the late 1940s Cortor had developed a romantic realist style that generated widespread notice and praise. His painting ...

Article

James Smalls

(b Knoxville, TN, Dec 30, 1901; d Paris, March 29, 1979).

African American painter. Beauford Delaney was the eighth of ten children born to John Samuel Delaney, a Methodist minister and barber who came from a sharecropping family, and Della Johnson Delaney, a strong and formidable figure who instilled in her children Christian virtues and a love for art and music.

In 1923, with the encouragement and financial help of a white patron, Delaney departed for Boston and informally enrolled in several art schools there including the Copely Society, the South Boston School of Art, and the Lowell Institute. While in Boston, Delaney befriended a white, liberal and quasi-aristocratic family, the Bryants, who introduced the aspiring artist to influential people of liberal Boston society. It was through his experiences with this circle that Delaney was introduced to activist politics and radical racial ideas of the time. It was also at this time that Delaney had his first homosexual encounter.

With his artistic and political education complete, Delaney decided to venture to New York City. He arrived nearly penniless in Harlem in ...

Article

Jenifer P. Borum

(b Emelle, AL, Sept 10, 1928; d McCalla, AL, Jan 25, 2016).

African American painter and sculptor. Dial was born into poverty and left school at age nine to work various jobs, including fieldwork. At age ten, his mother gave up Thornton and his half-brother Arthur to be raised by their great-grandmother. Upon her death they were taken in by their aunt for two years, and then given to their great-aunt, Sarah Dial Lockett, in Bessemer, AL.

Throughout most of his life, Dial worked as a farmer, a gardener, a bricklayer, and a construction worker. He worked for the Bessemer Water Works for 13 years and the Pullman Standard for nearly 30 years. Dial’s labor gave him a great many skills that he would later apply to making artwork. He was handy with found objects and materials, often making cemetery decorations, as well as for his yard—both of which should be considered in the context of vernacular signifying practices within the African diaspora. Unfortunately, he buried or destroyed much of his early mixed-media yard work, as it often carried messages of social protest and could have been a source of trouble for him and his family. The practice of destroying his work changed when he met his future patron, the Atlanta collector Bill Arnett, in ...

Article

(b Topeka, KS, April 27, 1899; d Nashville, TN, Feb 3, 1979).

American painter and illustrator. He was a leading artist of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s (see African American art §I 2.). He studied at the University of Nebraska and then in Paris with Charles Despiau and Othon Friesz (1925–31). Douglas was the earliest African American artist consciously to include African imagery in his work, which emphasized the creativity and continuity of African American culture, despite slavery and segregation. He was, however, criticized by his contemporaries for his idealism. In 1934, under the sponsorship of the Public Works of Art project (see United States of America, §XII), he designed a number of murals, including four panels depicting Aspects of Negro Life for the Schomburg Library in Harlem (New York, Pub. Lib.); this work and such others as Judgment Day (1939; USA, priv. col., see exh. cat., no. 99) and Building More Stately Mansions...

Article

Adrienne Childs

(b Eatonton, GA, June 7, 1931).

African American painter, professor of art, art historian, curator and collector. Driskell’s career as an art historian, curator, and practicing artist has been central to the development of the field of African American art. Driskell studied art and art history at Howard University, Washington, DC, between 1952 and 1955. In 1953 he studied at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Driskell received an MFA from Catholic University in 1962. Taking the charge from his mentor, Howard University professor James A. Porter, Driskell dedicated his career to uncovering, documenting, and teaching the history of black artists in America. Driskell taught art and art history at Talladega College, Howard University, Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and the University of Maryland at College Park, where he retired in 1998 as a Distinguished University Professor of Art. In 2000 President William H. Clinton awarded Driskell the National Humanities Medal for his extraordinary contributions to American cultural life and thought. Driskell became an academician of the National Academy in ...

Article

Margaret Moore Booker

(Eva)

(b Long Creek, NC, Dec 1, 1892; d Wilmington, NC, Dec 16, 1987).

African American painter. As a self-taught artist who has been labeled a southern folk artist, outsider artist, a Surrealist painter and a visionary, Evans created highly personal works inspired by her private and very vivid dream world.

The descendant of a Trinidadian woman brought to the United States as a slave, Evans was the only child of farmers who lived in rural Pender County, NC. In early childhood she moved with her parents to Wilmington, NC, where she attended school. At 16 she married Julius Evans and had three sons. She worked as a domestic and later as gatekeeper at Airlie Gardens in Wilmington (from 1948 to 1974). A highly religious woman, she attended St. Matthew African Methodist Episcopal Church in Wrightsville Beach, NC.

Beginning in her youth, she often heard voices and had waking dreams and visions. After a voice (which she believed was a message from God) told her to “draw or die,” Evans, then in her early 40s, began to record the complex imagery of her visions. Using pencil and wax crayons, she created semi-abstract forms on scraps of paper. By the late 1940s she worked in crayon, pencil and ink, and created scenes that were a combination of abstract and realistic forms. Later she experimented with oil paints, and by ...

Article

(b Tupelo, MS, Nov 30, 1933).

American painter. He studied at the University of Louisville, KY (1952–6; 1958–61). Gilliam’s first works showed the influence of Emil Nolde and Paul Klee and the Abstract Expressionist Nathan Oliveira. After marrying Dorothy Butler in 1962, he settled in Washington, DC. There he established contact with Gene Davis (1920–85), Tom Downing (1928–85), and Howard Mehring (1931–78), who represented a second wave of artists associated with colour-field painting. Gilliam became well known for his colour-field paintings and became the most prominent African American abstract painter, with seven one-man exhibitions at the Jefferson Place Gallery, Washington, DC, between 1965 and 1973. Characteristic works of the 1960s include Petals (1967; Washington, DC, Phillips Col.), in which loose canvas is stained with patterns of colour achieved by pigments poured over before it is folded and restretched to give a symphonic resonance. Later works, such as ...