Faces of the Harlem Renaissance

Aaron Douglas

1899-1979 / Painter, illustrator

"The father of African art." "Dean of African-American painters." "Pioneering Africanist." All of these honorifics have been applied to Aaron Douglas. His painting—typified by flat forms, hard edges, and repetitive geometric shapes—was strongly shaped by African motifs and culture, as well as by African-American jazz music.

Douglas was drawn to Harlem from his native Kansas after hearing about the creative output of other black artists.

Scholars W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke, who promoted the work of talented black artists, admired Douglas' designs and included his illustrations in leading publications. James Weldon Johnson asked Douglas to illustrate his book of poetic sermons, God's Trombones.

In 1934, the Works Progress Administration commissioned Douglas to paint Aspects of Negro Life, a four-panel mural for the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library. In one of the panels, Song of the Towers, Douglas depicts three figures, each portraying a facet of the black experience. The figure on the right represents the escape of former slaves, while the figure on the left symbolizes the economic hardships of African Americans. In the middle stands a saxophonist—an emblem of the new opportunities that art and music offered blacks during the Harlem Renaissance.