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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

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

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

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

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

(Willie)

(b New York, Oct 8, 1930).

African American painter and sculptor. Born in Harlem, Jones studied art at the City College of New York beginning in 1950. By 1955 she had completed her degree in Fine Arts and Education, and had two daughters, Michele Faith Wallace and Barbara Faith Wallace. From 1955 to1973 Ringgold taught in the New York City public schools. She spent many summers in Provincetown, MA, painting landscapes. In 1959 she completed a Masters degree in fine arts at City College of New York. Two years later Ringgold made her first trip to Europe, where she visited museums in Paris, Florence, and Rome. In 1962 she married Burdette Ringgold and began using his name professionally. Her first political paintings, including The American People series (1963–7), were inspired by the writings of James Baldwin and Amiri Baraka (then Leroi Jones) and included the powerful imagery of The Flag Is Bleeding. In 1966...

Article

Patricia Hills

(b Roxbury, MA, April 14, 1922).

American sculptor, painter, printmaker and teacher. Raised in Roxbury, a suburb of Boston, Wilson was the second of five children of Reginald and Violet Wilson, immigrants from British Guiana (now the Republic of Guyana). He attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston with a full scholarship and received a diploma with highest honors in 1945; a BS degree in art education followed in 1947 from Tufts University. With a fellowship from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, he spent 1947–9 in Paris, where he studied with Fernand Léger. Returning to Boston he taught briefly at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, married Julie Kowitch and moved to Mexico City with a John Hay Whitney Fellowship. There he became friends with Elizabeth Catlett and her husband Francesco Mora, both active in the graphic workshop organized by leftist artists, the Taller de Gráfica Popular, where he worked. In Mexico he learned the techniques of true fresco, which had been popularized by Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, and painted the mural, ...