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Aaron Douglas


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Painter. A leader of the Harlem Renaissance, he led the way for African-American artists to employ explicitly black themes, fostering a resurgence of racial pride in black art. Born in Topeka, Kansas, he held several blue-collar jobs and served in the military during World War I before earning a BFA in 1922 from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. After additional study at the University of Kansas, he taught in a Kansas City high school until 1925, when he moved to New York. There he soon established himself as the Harlem Renaissance's leading graphic artist with book and magazine illustrations for the movement's literature. His boldly stylized, black-and-white compositions benefited from private instruction between 1925 and 1927 with German-born painter and graphic artist Winold Reiss (1886–1953). In 1927–28 Douglas worked for a year at the Barnes Foundation, and in 1931 he left for a year of study in Paris. After his return, Douglas painted murals under the sponsorship of the federal art projects and was active as an organizer of the American Artists' Congress. At its first national meeting in February 1936, he delivered a paper on “The Negro in American Culture,” calling for an end to racial discrimination as a means of resisting fascism's spread. From 1940 he was employed intermittently at Fisk University, where he joined the full-time faculty upon receiving a master's degree from Columbia University in 1944. After retirement in 1966 he continued to live in Nashville, where he died. Douglas's easel paintings, generally rather straightforwardly realistic portraits or genre scenes, include such characteristic works as The Composer (Carl Van Vechten Gallery, Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee, 1967), a sensitive and dignified likeness of classical musician William Hurt, and Triborough Bridge (Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, 1935), depicting the idle unemployed in a snowy park. However, Douglas's reputation depends largely on his more stylized graphic work and murals. In both media, he made effective use of energetic flat patterns reflecting the fragmentations and reductions of post-cubist art, as well as African, Egyptian, and early Greek design. Installed in 1934 in the New York Public Library's 135th Street branch (now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture), his best-known achievement comprises four murals collectively titled Aspects of Negro Life. Flattened silhouettes, sometimes partially transparent, enact a decorative, dreamlike pageant of the African-American journey from Africa through slavery and emancipation. In the final panel, a jazz musician triumphantly brandishes his saxophone to symbolize liberation of the race. Although Douglas's narrative skirts stereotype, exoticism, and primitivism, his elegant and balanced forms materialize within a restricted palette to convey spiritual reverence for the distant origin and difficult history of his people.

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