Aaron Douglas, From Slavery through Reconstruction, 1934

Aaron Douglas (May 26, 1899-February 3, 1979) was a painter and art instructor. Douglas was a leading artistic member of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s. His artworks often contain Afrocentric imagery and address issues related to racial issues in the United States.

Aaron Douglas

Aaron Douglas

Douglas was born in Topeka, Kansas. He received a BFA from the University of Kansas, Lincoln. He later worked for two years as a high school art teacher in Kansas City, Missouri. In 1925, he moved to New York City and became part of the vigorous art and literature scene in Harlem. While at Harlem, Douglas created illustrations for magazines such as Opportunity and The Crisis, which was the journal published by the NAACP. He eventually gained a commission to illustrate an anthology of writing by Alain Locke, titled The New Negro. Douglas had become part of the growing movement for civil rights and the autonomy of Black people in the United States. Some of his friends were W.E.B. DuBois, Wallace Thurman, and Langston Hughes. His artwork had begun to change at this time, from literal portrait works and domestic paintings to works that contained African imagery and references to civil rights. He used Synthetic Cubism and silhouettes for objects and figures, and concentric circles to create focal points.

In 1928, Douglas received a Barnes Foundation Fellowship in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. During his time in Philadelphia, he studied African Art and various types of Modern Art. In 1930, he moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to create a series of murals for the Fisk University Library. He also completed mural commissions in Chicago, Illinois, and Greensboro, North Carolina during this period. In 1931, he moved to Paris, France, to attend the Académie Scandinave, where he studied painting and sculpture.

In the 1930s, Douglas moved back to Harlem and received some of his most significant commissions. The most important of these was his WPA commission to paint the mural series titled Aspects of Negro Life, for a branch of the New York Public Library. These murals are titled Song of the Towers, From Slavery through Reconstruction, An Idyll of the Deep South, and The Negro in an African Setting. The murals were completed in 1934. Soon after, in 1935, Douglas became the president of the Harlem Artists Guild. This organization created a network of artists in New York City to support the art of the Harlem Renaissance.

Click images to see larger slideshow view.

Douglas received his MA from Columbia University Teacher’s College in 1944. He then moved to Nashville, Tennessee to found and serve as the chairman of the art department at Fisk University. Douglas encouraged his students at Fisk to understand their heritage and to include African American history in their studies. After a very distinguished career, he retired from Fisk in 1966.

Douglas was one of the few artists during these years to employ African and African American imagery in artworks. He was a very influential mentor and teacher. He is now considered one of the greatest, most distinctive artists in U.S. history. He died in Nashville in 1979.

Here are a few more of his works.


Dr. Michael Faris is an artist, art educator, and art and civil rights advocate. Visit his website to view more of his work at www.michaelfarisart.com.

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