Gather Out of Star-Dust: The Harlem Renaissance and The Beinecke Library
Just as in literature, music, theater, and dance, the Harlem Renaissance saw expanded interest in visual art by African Americans: dealers, patrons, curators, and schools of art were newly invested in promoting and collecting painting, sculpture, drawings, and prints by artists largely based in New York, Chicago, and Paris. In 1919, the Knoedler Gallery in New York hosted an exhibit of the paintings of Henry Ossawa Tanner, then based in Paris. In 1921, the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library exhibited painting and sculpture by Tanner, Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, William Edward Scott, and Laura Wheeler Waring. Perhaps the greatest single impact on the fortunes of African American artists came from the Harmon Foundation, founded in 1922, which in 1926 began awarding prizes for visual arts as well as literature; in 1928 it began hosting a juried exhibition, bringing artists like Palmer Hayden, Hale Woodruff, Sargent Johnson, Aaron Douglas, Malvin Gray Johnson, and Archibald Motley to widespread attention.
African American artists in this period drew from a wide range of subjects, but most celebrated African American culture and the heritage of the African Diaspora, often creating portraits of notable historical figures. The arts also drew heavily on African themes: when Aaron Douglas arrived in New York from Topeka, Kansas, to study with Bavarian artist Winold Reiss, Reiss instructed him to visit the African masks at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Douglas would go on to blend African statuary with modernist abstraction. Douglas’s ubiquitous magazine and book illustrations and murals would create the visual vocabulary most closely associated with the Harlem Renaissance.
After publishing Aaron Douglas’s artwork alongside Langston Hughes’s poetry in several issues, Opportunity issued a holiday fundraiser in December of 1926 pairing six of Hughes’s poems with six illustrations by Douglas. With the exception of “Feet o’ Jesus,” a poem inspired by Negro spirituals, the rest of Hughes’s poems were blues, dictating the paper and ink used in the portfolio. Hughes gave Carl Van Vechten and Fania Marinoff the set as a Christmas gift that year, and Charles S. Johnson gave a set to James Weldon and Grace Nail Johnson.
Among the most celebrated artists of the Harlem Renaissance, the sculptor Richmond Barthé was born in Mississippi in 1901. He was one of many African American artists to receive his formal training at the Art Institute of Chicago (others included E. Simms Campbell and Archibald Motley). Barthé visited New York on a year-long fellowship in 1929 and settled there permanently two years later, befriending Langston Hughes, Carl Van Vechten, and Aaron Douglas, and frequenting A’Lelia Walker’s salon. Barthé’s work was frequently featured on the cover of Opportunity, and he exhibited in the Harmon Foundation’s juried exhibition of African American art every one of its six years. He was particularly fond of depicting dance and dancers; this sculpture was based on Mark Lutz, an associate of Van Vechten’s.
Connecticut native Laura Wheeler Waring trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts; like many of her contemporaries, she managed two visits to Paris to study art, in 1915 and 1925. Waring is perhaps best remembered for her drawings, which were frequently featured on the cover of The Crisis. Her portrait of Marian Anderson was completed in 1944. Betsy Graves Reyneau was a prominent suffragist in addition to being a portrait painter. Her portrait of civil rights activist and Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. Many of Reyneau’s portraits were acquired by the Harmon Foundation, which, in addition to awarding cash prizes and sponsoring juried exhibitions of African American art, also issued several artists’ portfolios, including for Waring and Reyneau and for Richmond Barthé.
This Aaron Douglas image accompanies James Weldon Johnson’s “Prodigal Son,” the third sermonic poem in God’s Trombones (1927). As scholar Amy Helene Kirschke notes, Douglas has “illuminated the author’s words in visual form.” The image immediately thrusts us into the “drinking dens” and “gambling dens” of Babylon where the wayward young man is “throwing dice with the devil” and meeting up with “the sweet-sinning women.” The corners of the image present the dollars, dice, and cards of gambling as well as most of a word that is probably “Gin.” The young man is surrounded by all that while he dances and handles the women. That is the space he is in. The horns blaring from above are trombones, but certainly not God’s trombones! The electric light shines down on modern figures behaving badly in the here and now. The light is notable precisely because it is so different from the heavenly celestial light illuminating Douglas’s other God’s Trombones images. All this abets what Johnson’s preacher is surely saying about sin and temptation in the world his congregation lives in.
-Robert Stepto, Professor Emeritus of African American Studies
Born in Virginia, wood-carving sculptor Leslie Garland Bolling attended Hampton University for two years, but had no formal training in sculpture. Bolling exhibited with the Harmon Foundation several times, as well as at the National Negro Exhibition at the Smithsonian in 1933. The Boxer is based on a Virginian boxer who went by the ring name “Wild Cat.”
One of the best remembered artists of the era, Augusta Savage was born outside Jacksonville, Florida, the seventh of fourteen children. Her parents, devout Methodists, discouraged her interest in art, but she persisted, fashioning sculptures out of clay she dug up outdoors. Savage arrived in New York in 1921 to study sculpture at Cooper Union on a full scholarship; she completed the four-year course in three years. After graduation, Savage supported herself by taking in laundry; her first major commission was a portrait bust of W. E. B. Du Bois for the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library. This piece, with the playful title Green Apples, was a gift to the library from Grayce Fairfax Nail, the sister-in-law of Grace Nail Johnson.
In 1938 Augusta Savage was commissioned by the New York World’s Fair Board of Design to create a sculpture for the exposition on the theme “Negro Contribution to Music, especially Song.” Savage took James Weldon and J. Rosamond Johnson’s song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the Negro National Anthem, as her inspiration, creating a harp with twelve singers of different heights, and an arm and hand forming the sounding board. A crouching figure held the harp’s pedal. The sixteen-foot work, cast in plaster and painted with a black basalt finish, was exhibited in the courtyard of the Contemporary Arts building at the World’s Fair in 1939, a fitting memorial to James Weldon Johnson, who had been killed in a car accident in June 1938. Though the work was popular, it was never cast in bronze at full size, but Savage did cast small maquettes with silver, copper, and black patinas.
In 1926, Theatre Arts Monthly commissioned Aaron Douglas to create illustrations based on Eugene O’Neill’s play The Emperor Jones to accompany Alain Locke’s article “The Negro and the American Stage.” Douglas created four prints illustrating four stages of Brutus Jones’s rise and fall: “Bravado,” “Defiance,” “Flight,” and “Surrender.”
Born in New York and attending the Fieldston School of Ethical Culture, Albert Alexander Smith became in 1915 the first African American student admitted to the National Academy of Design. After serving in World War I, he completed his degree in 1920 and moved to Paris, where he remained for the rest of his life. Smith’s drawings frequently appeared in Opportunity and The Crisis, and he submitted work to the Harmon Foundation. A trained printer, Smith may have been the first African American ever to make etchings. Prominent historical figures of African descent were a popular subject for African American artists; Smith’s portfolio of portraits includes Aleksandr Pushkin, Alexandre Dumas, and Phillis Wheatley in addition to Coleridge-Taylor and Frederick Douglass.
Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller was born into Philadelphia’s established black upper-middle class in 1877. She trained at the Pennsylvania School for Industrial arts before traveling to Paris and studying sculpture with Auguste Rodin. Fuller exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1908 and again in 1920. Older than most Harlem Renaissance artists, Fuller was not able to benefit as much from the patronage of the Harmon Foundation as her successors. Her most famous sculpture, Ethiopia Awakening, was created for the “America’s Making” Exposition, a multicultural festival, in 1921. This statue is a miniature version, and was a gift to the library from Grayce Fairfax Nail, the sister-in-law of Grace Nail Johnson.
Remembered as the photographer of Harlem, James Van Der Zee moved to New York at 20 and remained there nearly all the rest of his long life. A photography hobbyist from the age of 14, Van Der Zee’s only formal training was as a darkroom assistant at a department store studio in Newark, New Jersey. He founded his own studio, Guarantee Photos, at 109 West 135th Street in 1916, offering studio portraits to Harlem’s growing middle class. By the early 1930s, he had moved his operation to G.G.G. Studio, named for his second wife, Gaynella, at 272 Lenox Avenue, where the Van Der Zees also lived.
Van Der Zee shot the great majority of his subjects in his studio, but he was also appointed the official photographer of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, and he occasionally staged snapshots of people he met on the street to be featured in his promotional calendars. A portfolio of eighteen of his photographs was printed from Van Der Zee’s negatives in 1974 by the photographer Richard Benson; each print was then signed by Van Der Zee himself.
Geographies of Harlem
Harlem’s dense geography has been a source of fascination at least since E. Simms Campbell published his Night-Club Map of Harlem in the magazine Manhattan: a Weekly for Wakeful New Yorkers in 1933. Campbell’s map, part frivolous, part serious, flips Harlem upside down for most New Yorkers, offering a vantage from the north. The map is organized around a triangle of the three hottest clubs—The Cotton Club at 644 Lenox Avenue in the lower-right, Connie’s Inn at 2221 Seventh Avenue at top-left, and Small’s at 2294 ½ Seventh Avenue at right, while other venues line streets so tightly packed that 110th jumps to 131st, and 142nd is packed in south of 138th.
Many of Harlem’s luminaries appear: Cab Calloway, whose band succeeded Duke Ellington’s orchestra at The Cotton Club in 1931, sings his famous “ho-de-hi-de-ho”; Bill “Bojangles” Robinson performs his famous stair dance; and Gladys Bentley “tickles the ivories” with her infamous double-entendres. Over at the Savoy Ballroom, Earl “Snake-Hips” Tucker defies anatomy. Meanwhile, the gags abound: a crush of taxis carries lavishly attired downtowners to Connie’s. A man lends his top-hat to a friend by tossing it out the window. Pairs in every part ask each other, “What’s the number?”—including the police playing cards at the new station—in reference to racketeer-run lottery games.
Campbell trained at the Art Institute of Chicago before moving to New York. His illustrations appeared in Opportunity, The New Yorker, Life, Collier’s, Saturday Evening Post, The Pittsburgh Courier, Cosmopolitan, and Playboy. He joined Esquire as a staff illustrator in 1934, and his feature “Cuties” was syndicated in dozens of newspapers.
This 1953 map finds “points of interest” throughout Harlem, mostly focusing on churches, theaters, and clubs. The Schomburg Collection is also mentioned (#16).
Carl Van Vechten, Harlem Street Scenes, 1940. Reproduced from Van Vechten’s Kodachrome slides in the Beinecke Digital Studio.
Portraits by Carl Van Vechten
See a selection of Van Vechten's portraits, accompanied by biographies of the individuals, in a separate digital exhibit here.
Browse all of Van Vechten's portraits in Yale Library's Digital Collections here.