When I look at the early identification of African-Americans involved in the Visual Arts, I see a small cadre of artists closely aligned to the production of works in the strict tradition of European or English classicism. The rules were clearly defined for the artists, and cultural expression was not the acceptable standard for visual creations produced by early African-American artists. Those few African-Americans had to sublimate their expression and stick closely to what was defined as art. Therefore, it was not a surprise to see the first African-American artists defined as slave artisans with skills as iron workers, cabinet makers, quiltmakers, even silversmiths and stoneware vessel makers. The majority of these artists were using their Afrocentric talents for creating useful items needed by their masters or for their own households when allowed. The African-Americans’ talents as visual artists were later identified as painters of white families’ portraits and, in rare cases, portrait painters of well to do “free persons of color.” (Chambers 70).
These early American African-American artists enjoyed a degree of status, and many bought their freedom using their artistic talents as acceptable barter. Having a marketable and acceptable skill pleased the white clientele and provided a living for the early African-American visual artists.
Scipio Moorhead of Boston, G.W. HOBBS of Baltimore, Joshua Johnston of Baltimore, Julien Hudson of New Orleans, Robert M. Douglass JR. of Philadelphia, Patrick Henry Reason of Philadelphia, and William Simpson of Boston were among the early identifiable portraitists of prominent black and white subjects from 1773 until 1887.
Being a visual artist required talent, but, for the African-American artists, talent was not enough. This was nineteenth century America and race determined who could be trained in the arts. There were no special schools or places where African-Americans could freely exhibit their talents for art. These talented artists were excluded from the academies, associations, and teaching institutions available to white artists. In rare cases, beneficent white families broke the rules and provided knowledge, direction, and resources to budding African-American talents in the visual arts. Many of these white patrons were among the abolitionists of this period in American history.
After the Civil War, a host of African-American visual artists started to be recognized. From 1865 to the start of the 1920’s, most of these artists produced works, which could be acceptable to museums, patrons, or local salons or studios. They therefore created paintings, drawings, and sculptures in the classical and romantic traditions of scenes depicting nature, history, familiar places, distinguished personalities, and prominent families of wealth. The art world of this period was narrow, and African-American artists had to compete for recognition and earnings from pieces of art requested by their commissioners or patrons. Therefore, African-American artists such as Edward Mitchell Bannister, Grafton Tyler Brown, Nelson A. Primus, Edmonia Lewis, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller had to produce pieces of art appealing to the judges of that art. For the most part, these African-Americans were seeking recognition and a place in the international world of art. Certain American cities began to produce recognizable talents. Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Providence, New York, Hartford, and New Orleans were among the growing places where African-Americans could receive training — but within the limits of what was acceptable as worthy of distinction in a market dominated by European influences.
Most African-American artists could not afford to release their creative energy in the direction of purely social protest art or expressive impressionistic moods in art. African-American artists seeking this freedom of expression later discovered that Rome, Munich, and especially Paris were places where they could find new vistas of respect as just artists, who happen to be African-Americans.
This paper will be concerned with how images in the visual arts reflected the issues associated with the Old Negro/New Negro controversy during the time of the Harlem Renaissance. The concept of the “New Negro” was related to growing demands for equality and civil rights among African Americans. At the same time, the concept was based on a rejection of earlier stereotypical views of African Americans (i.e., the “Old Negro” stereotype). Many of the artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance movement identified themselves with the cause of the New Negro. According to the historian Jervis Anderson, the work of these writers and artists “could be said to represent in art what the race militants had represented in politics – not an appeal to compassion and social redress but a bold assertion of self” (Chambers 86).
The non-fiction writer Alain Locke defined the “Old Negro” and the “New Negro”; a professor at Howard University, in his essay entitled “The New Negro.” Locke claimed that the Old Negro was “more of a myth than a man” – a “stock figure perpetuated as an historical fiction partly in innocent sentimentalism, partly in deliberate reactionism” (Locke 47). Furthermore, Locke argued that “the Negro himself has contributed his share to this through a sort of protective social mimicry forced upon him by the adverse circumstances of dependence” (47). As a result of this way of thinking, African Americans were being kept in a state of oppression. However, as Locke also noted, there was a New Negro emerging in American society; this new type of African American sought greater self-reliance and opportunities for creative self-expression. Thus, as Locke wrote, the African American “now becomes a conscious contributor and lays aside the status of a beneficiary and ward for that of a collaborator and participant in American civilization” (50).
The Harlem Renaissance writers and artists who associated themselves with the New Negro were especially concerned with showing the “truth” of the African American experience, as opposed to the stereotypical views that had existed in the past. In her book The Harlem Renaissance, Veronica Chambers says that the artists and intellectuals of the New Negro movement were “dedicated to expressing the spirit, the hard work, the joys, and the sorrows of thousands of black Americans living in a society that largely rejected their contributions” (107). The novelist Jessie Redmon Fauset was among those who argued for the importance of African Americans expressing the truth about their own lives. As Fauset claimed: “Let us who are better qualified to present that truth than any white writer, try to do so” (Chambers 75). The poet Langston Hughes made a similar argument in his claim that “we younger Negro artists who create now intended to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame” (Hughes 95). As Hughes also noted, his own poems were “racial in theme and treatment, derived from the life I know” (94). Specifically, Hughes referred to the “meanings and rhythms of jazz” as having an important influence on his poetry (94). Albert C. Barnes, an art collector of the time, added to this that it was important for African American artists to incorporate elements of their original African culture into their work. In Barnes’ view, the special value of African American art could be found in how it “comes from a primitive nature upon which a white man’s education has never been harnessed,” and at the same time “embodies the Negroes’ individual traits and reflects their suffering, aspirations and joys” (129).
However, not all African American thinkers agreed on how the idea of the “New Negro” should be interpreted. For example, W. E. B. Du Bois agreed that the stereotypes of the “Old Negro” were detrimental and that African American artists had a “bounden duty” to present their own vision of beauty and truth (Du Bois 102). Yet, Du Bois did not approve of the way some Harlem Renaissance writers and artists were expressing their view of the “truth.” The fiction writer Claude McKay, for example, showed what he thought was a realistic portrayal of poor, struggling African Americans in the inner cities. Du Bois thought McKay’s writing was “exaggerated” and claimed that it would not overcome stereotypes but, rather, “would substantiate the false notions that whites held about black life” (Chambers 34). Du Bois argued, instead, that the art and writing of the New Negro should be a form of “propaganda,” designed to uplift the African American race. Other proponents of the New Negro, such as James Weldon Johnson, similarly “balked at publishing anything that seemed too rich, worried about reinforcing white stereotypes – and about frightening away white financial support” (Chambers 99). However, most of the New Negro writers and artists wanted to depict “true” African American life, in both its good and bad aspects. As stated by Chambers, most of the followers of the New Negro movement “believed that a deliberately sunny view of black life was artistically dishonest” (Chambers 35).
These views in the debate over the New Negro/ Old Negro controversy were reflected in various ways by the visual artists associated with the Harlem Renaissance. For example, the painter Archibald Motley sought to depict African Americans in an honest, yet dignified manner. Motley rejected the Old Negro stereotype, which he said depicted the African American as an “ignorant, southern darky.'” In contrast to this degrading image, Motley claimed that the Negro “deserves to be represented in his true perspective, with dignity, honesty, integrity, intelligence, and understanding” (Chambers 105). Although Motley sought to be “frankly honest” in his portrayals of African Americans, he also, similarly to Du Bois, sought to depict the New Negro only in a positive way. Another painter of the Harlem Renaissance, Aaron Douglas, created images of the New Negro that showed the influence of traditional African culture. For example, his painting Aspects of Negro Life: An Idyll of the Deep South shows wildly dancing figures in silhouette. Regarding such works, Chambers says that Douglas applied “the qualities of primitive African sculpture to paintings, using stylized figures, rhythmic lines, and narrative themes” (72). Chambers also notes that Douglas often used Egyptian design elements to “symbolize black Americans’ mysterious African past,” as well as the image of concentric rings in order to “represent the importance of education in forging an African-American future” (Chambers 104).
Similarly to Aaron Douglas, the painter William H. Johnson “focused exclusively on African-American subjects and developed a deliberately primitive style” (Chambers 67). In works such as Jitterbugs and Street Life, Harlem, Johnson depicted urban African American couples engaged in everyday activities. Although done in an intentionally crude, “primitive” style, these paintings also contain an element of realism because they seek to show the life of Harlem residents in a “truthful” way. However, contrary to what Du Bois would wish for, Johnson’s paintings do not necessarily depict African Americans in a flattering or uplifting way.
Another painter of the Harlem Renaissance, Palmer Hayden, likewise made use of a “primitive” style in his work. Hayden’s painting Midsummer Night in Harlem shows a crowded street scene; African Americans of all types have gathered on the streets and steps and in the windows in order to escape the summer heat. The people socialize in various ways; some of the figures are well-dressed and are coming from church, while others are shown wearing their casual, everyday clothes. Overall, the painting truthfully shows an aspect of everyday life in Harlem, although it is done in the “primitive” style. However, an element of stereotype can be seen in how the background figures have notably large white eyes and smiling teeth in contrast to their dark skin. Another painting by Hayden, The Janitor Who Paints, shows an African American working man in his modest living room, painting a woman holding a child. There is a garbage can sitting next to the man, and there are pipes exposed on the ceiling. These images show that Hayden was more interested in creating a “truthful” work than an “uplifting” one. However, the painting also evokes a feeling of family unity (which is reinforced by the sleeping cat on the floor). Therefore, the painting shows both the positive and negative aspects of African American life at the same time.
Other visual artists also sought, in their own ways, to show the “truth” of the African American way of life. For example, the sculptor Augusta Savage “was one of the first artists to deal consistently with black physiognomy, or physical features” (Chambers 80). The photographer James Van Der Zee was another visual artist who was concerned with depicting the “New Negro” honestly. Many of his photos are concerned with images of everyday people in everyday situations. As noted by Chambers, Van Der Zee’s work relates to the concerns of the New Negro/Old Negro controversy because photography is an effective way of representing people “exactly as they are” and of thus “raising the portrayal of blacks above stereotypes” (105).
Therefore, as discussed in this paper, the writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance wanted to overcome the stereotypes of the “Old Negro,” but some of them disagreed over how the “New Negro” should be depicted. The majority of the African American artists felt it was important to show the “truth” of their experience, and they also sought to incorporate elements of the African culture (or “primitivism”) into their works. Some thinkers rejected this approach and argued for the creation of more “positive” images of African Americans. Nonetheless, most of the African American visual artists continued to emphasize “honesty” in their work, rather than seeking to create idealized images. Yes the old Negro had become the New Negro and the New Negro has become the prominent African American, the blue collar worker, the unemployed, the uneducated, poverty stricken, drug addicted, hungry, incarcerated, still reaching, striving and hoping to erase the scars of slavery. All individuals of their own fate, journeys and stories to be told. A metamorphous has taken place and again we as artists try to reflect what is important to us in our lives, what drives our emotions to tell our stories. As an African American artist “I dream a dream and then I paint my dream.” (Vincent Van Gogh) My work is ever changing and is usually centered around, the path or journey my spirit, my soul has chosen may it be teacher or student my trials, tribulations, celebrations and learning experiences are reflected in my work, and are there to embrace all whose eyes are open wide enough to see the truth.
Barnes, Albert C. “Negro Art and America.” The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader. David Levering Lewis, ed. New York: Viking Penguin, 1994, 128-133.
Chambers, Veronica. The Harlem Renaissance. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1998., 70-98
Du Bois, W. E. B. “Criteria of Negro Art.” The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader. David Levering Lewis, ed. New York: Viking Penguin, 1994, 100-105.
Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader. David Levering Lewis, ed. New York: Viking Penguin, 1994, 91-95.
Locke, Alain. “The New Negro.” The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader. David Levering Lewis, ed. New York: Viking Penguin, 1994, 46-51.