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Harlem Renaissance painter and illustrator who explored African themes and sought to make his cultural heritage relevant to contemporary African-American experience
Aaron Douglas was born in Topeka, Kansas, on May 26, 1899. He received Bachelor of Art degrees from the University of Nebraska in 1922 and from the University of Kansas in 1923. After a brief stint as a high school teacher in Kansas City, Missouri, he moved to New York, New York, and earned his Masters in Fine Arts degree from Columbia University Teachers College. In 1928-1929, he studied in Paris, France, on a grant from the Barnes Foundation. In 1937 he founded the Art Department of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and served as its chairman until 1966.
Douglas's illustrations appeared with those of Winold Reiss in the 1925 book The New Negro. He also illustrated books for Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and James Weldon Johnson, and did illustrations for Vanity Fair, Theatre Arts, and American Mercury. Douglas also created murals for Fisk University, the Harlem branch of the YMCA, and Harlem Hospital, as well as canvases for the Countee Cullen branch of the New York Public Library. In 1928, he became the first president of the Harlem Artists Guild, which was successful in helping African-American artists obtain projects under the Works Progress Administration.
Douglas was known for his abstract, two-dimensional paintings in which he broke down figures of traditional African styles into geometric objects. Two of his most recognized paintings are shown below: "Into Bondage" (1936) and "Power Plant, Harlem" (1939).
Power Plant, Harlem
Douglas and his wife, Alta, split their time between Nashville and an apartment in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, where they played host to Harlem's cultural elite. Alta Douglas died in 1958. Aaron Douglas took up full-time residence in Nashville after his retirement from Fisk. He died in Nashville on February 3, 1979.
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This page was last updated on 02/03/2019.