As Black History month comes to a close, we find several artists who have been leaders in the art community that have greatly contributed to the advancement and recognition of their culture.
One of the first to gain international acclaim was Henry Ossawa Tanner born in Pittsburg Pennsylvania June 21, 1859. Throughout his early childhood he self-taught himself art and it wouldn’t be until 1879 that he would receive his first formal education at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. This was beyond progressive for his time, being the only African-American student enrolled at the academy and when nearly everyone was reluctant or outright refused to take him on as an apprentice. The only professor to truly embrace and accept Tanner as an artist was Thomas Eakins, who found a student of great caliber and talent within Henry Ossawa Tanner. This alienation amongst his peers created a deep sense of isolation and a sense of worthlessness at the academy due to the perpetual racism that he faced every day. It was because of this that after studying abroad in Paris he would spend most of his life living there returning to visit America from time to time. During one of these visits home Henry Ossawa Tanner painted one of his most famous oil paintings, The Banjo Lesson(1893).
The sensitivity of what appears to be a grandfather figure teaching his grandchild how to play the banjo made it stand above other depictions done by previous artists. The quality of how he renders the light in the room and composition creates a sense of a precious moment captured from the warm light of the hearth on the right as the cool light from the left provides a strong second light source. It also displays a signature approach of Henry Ossawa Tanners technique of first rendering certain focal parts with great detail such as the faces of the two people and the banjo. His second approach is the use of loose suggestive strokes to render other areas of the piece, like the towels and the dishware on the tables and how the light hits the far back wall. This juxtaposition of styles helps to illuminate various elements of the composition for the audience and provided a new emotional narrative to the African-American culture that was lacking before.
Besides paintings of the Paris cityscape and other pieces of African-American life, he also worked on many religious themed pieces in his later career. Some attributed this focus to the fact that his father, Benjamin Tucker Tanner, was a minister and instilled a strong spiritual focus in his son. He did many war posters during World War I and was rewarded by France with the honor of being a knight of the Legion of Honor for his work. Despite peacefully passing away May 25, 1937 in Paris, France Henry Ossawa Tanner’s legacy lives on. His piece, The Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City (1885) hangs in the Green Room of the White House, the first African-American artwork purchased for the White House Permanent Art Collection.
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While Tanner sought refuge in France from the discrimination during that time in history, others stayed here in USA to challenge the social norm. Augusta Fells (Savage) was born on September 29, 1892 in Florida. There she spent the majority of her childhood sculpting from an early age facing resistance not only from those wary of an African-American competing in county fairs but also from her father. Initially he saw the sculpting as sinful idolatry, until one day he saw her create a sculpture of the Virgin Mary and repented his stand against her art.
It wouldn’t be until October 1921 that she would receive a formal art education when she would enroll at the Cooper Union art school in New York City. Her skills flourished with the tutelage and was awarded room and board funds for her abilities on top of the free tuition already granted. It was also here that she would marry James Savage. Though the marriage did not last, she kept the last name when they divorced and she would be known henceforth as Augusta Savage.
In 1923 she applied for a french art program and was refused solely due to her race. Rightfully distraught, she began a debate with the council which got media attention in the USA and Europe thus beginning her first of many civil right battles for African-Americans in the world of art. During this period, while working a double life as a sculptor and cloth washer, she would create busts of such notables as W.E.B Du Bois and Marcus Garvey.
As the Great Depression struck the nation, Augusta Savage pressed on despite the art field suffering. In 1934 she became the first African-American to be elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors. She followed this by creating the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts in Harlem, New York with the idea that anyone would be accepted to pursue a path in the art field. Many future artists attended the studio including Gwendolyn Knight, Norman Lewis and Kenneth B. Clark who became a sociologist whose research contributed to the ruling in the Brown vs. Board of Education that school segregation was unconstitutional. Her guiding role in art education would evolve into becoming the first director of the Harlem Community Art Center. In the 1940’s she retired north to live with her daughter in Saugerties, New York where she stayed until her death in 1962.
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Augusta Savage inspired many young students while running The Savage Studio and the Harlem Community Art Center. One such student was Jacob Lawrence. Born on September 7, 1917 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, he would contribute his “Dynamic Cubism” style to the Harlem Renaissance influences he acquired in his studies. He would use his art to explore the African-American story of both its darkest and brightest times. He was commissioned to do many portraits of great leaders such as Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, and George Washington Bush in a series of five paintings. He was an African-American pioneer of the west. What garnered him the most recognition was a 60 panel piece called now The Migration Series that depicted the migration of blacks from the rural south to the urban north. This time in history also came right after the end of World War I when there were many hardships faced in the exodus north and the acclimation to the new environment. His depictions would garner national recognition and many future exhibits, becoming the most celebrated African-American artist in the country during the 1940’s.
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Art is often viewed (too often) as an elective for those to explore during their personal time. What these three and many others have shown is the power of art to elevate the narrative above the tropes of accepted norms. Art is a way to express the turmoil of the human experience so the collective of humanity may see life as lived through our neighbors eyes and how its felt through our neighbor’s hearts. It’s a story of how we have existed, and also how we could and should evolve to become greater than the sum of our past so we may live in a better tomorrow, together.
Phil, Fine Art Department