The “New Negro Arts Movement” began in 1917 and lasted until the 1930’s as a part of the larger “New Negro” movement in which African American culture achieved unprecedented political and social recognition despite the ongoing horrors of Jim Crow law and segregation. The “New Negro” movement was born from America’s post World War I transformation and out of black migration from rural communities to city centers. African Americans’ claim of citizenship found new ground within the urban setting where the development of social, academic, and artistic forms took place. The movement is more popularly known as the “Harlem Renaissance.”
Scholar and philosopher Alain Locke’s The New Negro handbook, published in 1925, was first to use the term, “New Negro,” and encourage black artists to draw from their experiences and cultural heritage for inspiration. The socio-political work of W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey influenced the “New Negro” movement through the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and the dissemination of two major national publications, The Crisis and The Negro World. Along with these publications, others such as Survey Graphic and Opportunity distributed ideas of equality, solidarity, and racial pride, commissioned artists for graphic designs, and showcased artistic works by African Americans. The rhetoric of progressive race intellectuals, such as Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Alain Locke, propelled black intellect and creativity with underlying themes of renewal, rebirth, and growth for African American status in a new era of modernity. Locke, especially, advocated these ideas within black literature and arts.
Painter and illustrator Aaron Douglas (1898-1979) was an early modernist artist who is most often associated with the “Harlem Renaissance.” Douglas was from Kansas where he taught art and organized an art club at Lincoln High School in Topeka. While in Kansas, he subscribed to all the major black journals and followed the art movement in Harlem. Douglas moved to Harlem in 1925 and began mentoring under Alain Locke and Winold Reiss, immediately placing himself in the center of the “New Negro” movement. Reiss, a German immigrant, was an established artist of the “Harlem Renaissance” whose elegant portrait studies of African Americans helped shape the visual aesthetic and agenda of the movement by countering negative racial representations and stereotypes with respectful depictions of famous and unknown African Americans. Weiss also designed graphic covers for African American journals. Both Locke and Reiss pushed Douglas to explore his own blackness and experiences in his art. Reflecting on his African roots and his American experience, Douglas developed a style called, “Egyptian Form.” This style combines Egyptian motifs, abstracted forms, hard-edged geometric shapes, stylized figures in silhouette, and monochromatic tone and color. Further developing his style, Douglas introduced a limited color palette with diagonal and concentric bands of gradated and overlapped colors that contrast the linear forms. All of which became his distinct signature style.
Douglas designed illustrations for Alain Locke’s book The New Negro, covers for civil rights, labor, and socialist oriented journals, and other illustrations. In the 1930’s Douglas began working on mural projects where he could address social issues in public spaces. Douglas designed a five part mural series titled, Aspects of Negro Life, commissioned by the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library, now the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, under the WPA Federal Arts Project. Aspects of Negro Life chronicles the journey of African Americans in a four-part series. The first mural, The Negro in an African Setting, evocatively depicts an African ceremonial dance scene, the second mural, An Idyll of the Deep South, confrontationally illustrates black experience in the south, the third mural, From Slavery to Reconstruction, illustrates freed people striving to build new lives and communities, and the fourth mural, Song of the Towers, warns of the dangers of urban migration and the trappings of mechanized labor. It also includes positive messages such as the power of music and importance cultural leadership. The fifth panel was never finished but was meant to illustrate solidarity and unity between white and black workers. Overall unifying themes of the project include music and cultural heritage, socialist ideas of black labor and exploitation, and the necessity of solidarity.
The “New Negro” era of creativity encompassed all forms of art including painting, illustration, literature, music, dance, film, and theater, all of which influenced each other. New urban centers provided performance spaces where art was expressed as a form of entertainment for both black and white audiences. Jazz musicians Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, along with a wealth of other great performers, played in nightclubs like the Cotton Club. Douglas was influenced by nightclub culture and music and wished to paint visual representations of black music. Painted in his distinct style, the mural Dance Magic (1929), made for Sherman Hotel’s College Room Inn, a whites only jazz venue in Chicago, Illinois, characterized the swagger and feel of the intoxicating music and nightlife.
The “New Negro Arts Movement” happened in urban cities across the country. It is more widely known as the “Harlem Renaissance” for a multitude of reasons including the massive growth of black population in Harlem in the mid-late 1920’s, the high concentration of black artists, intellectuals, organizations, churches, newspapers, and patronage within the community, as well as it being the home of Locke and headquarters for NAACP and UNIA. The label, “Harlem Renaissance,” limits the intellectual and artistic proliferation of black creativity in the 1920’s and 30’s to a singular location and phenomenon and potentially subordinates the scope of artistic genius and creative freedom within communities in major cities across America. Yet, the term “Harlem Renaissance” serves as a metaphor, as it has since its inception, for the transformational period of a renewed and celebrated black culture.
One “Harlem Renaissance” artist who worked in Chicago was Archibald Motley (1891-1981). Motley was the first artist to focus on urban nightlife in Chicago and in 1928 became the second African American artist to have a major exhibition in New York City. He is credited with bringing the subject matter of African American social life into the fine arts arena at a time when it was considered too base for the visual arts. Born in New Orleans, Motley’s parents moved to Chicago in 1892 where Motley spent most of his life. He was trained under George Bellows at the Art Institute of Chicago. Like Douglas, Motley was encouraged by his mentor to explore his own experiences and social surroundings in his work. Motley’s early paintings were realistic portraits of women. He addressed racial and gender stereotypes of the tragic mulatto and the jezebel that were associated with this group, and similar to Weiss, countered negative representations. The Octoroon Girl, 1925, depicts a fashionably dressed and accessorized young woman, directly looking at the viewer, in a realistic style reminiscent of Renaissance and Baroque painting.
After receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1929 to travel to Paris, Motley’s subject matter and painting style changed. He was greatly influenced by Parisian nightlife and the active jazz scene. Here, Motley began painting interior and street scenes, specializing in urban settings. In Paris, Motley’s career blossomed, as he became one of America’s most important artists of African American musical culture. Motley’s approach matured into a uniquely modern style with vibrant warm colors, densely packed compositions, and abstracted figurative forms. Once he returned to Chicago, Motley voyeuristically studied the thriving black community of Bronzeville. In his painting, The Black Belt, 1934, Motley depicted a busy nighttime street scene packed with social activity. Motley’s figures were abstracted into modernized forms and painted with intensely warm, vibrant colors. His subjects are stylishly dressed and engaged in seemingly legitimate and illegitimate activities. This was Chicago nightlife seen through the artist’s eyes. Motley had a unique ability to capture nightlife through his representations of artificial lighting that emanated from interior windows, streetlamps, and cars. Motley did not attempt to idealize or glorify his subjects, but rather he depicted them as he saw them, sometimes grotesque or beautiful, upbeat, and full of life. Motley also painted leisure and recreation scenes for a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project.
Aaron Douglas and Archibald Motley worked from two different places within the “Harlem Renaissance.” Douglas worked from within the intellectual core of the “New Negro Movement,” while Motley concentrated on a specific black community in Chicago. They each developed their own unique artistic modern styles to depict the African American experience. From separate corners, Douglas and Motley were connected by the “New Negro” attitude. They created works of art that opposed and resisted the overwhelming amount of stereotypical, negative images of African-Americans and black culture. Both recognized the importance of their own human experience and that around them and celebrated the life, heritage, and culture through their art.
Memphis, TN 2013