Born in Topeka, Kansas, Aaron Douglas was a leading figure in the artistic and literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. He is sometimes referred to as “the father of black American art.” Douglas developed an interest in art early on, finding some of his inspiration from his mother’s love for painting watercolors.
Douglas had a unique artistic style that fused his interests in modernism and African art. A student of German-born painter Winold Reiss, he incorporated parts of Art Deco along with elements of Egyptian wall paintings in his work. Many of his figures appeared as bold silhouettes.
One of his most legendary works—a series of murals entitled “Aspects of Negro Life” that featured four panels, each depicting a different part of the African-American experience. Each mural included a captivating mix of Douglas’s influences, from jazz music to abstract and geometric art.
Aspects of a Negro Life
Oil on Canvas. 60 x 60 in. (152.4 x 152.4 cm) 1936
Aaron Douglas’s works were positive when it came to describing the Harlem Renaissance. He depicted the encouraging change that came with the new Negro movement. He liked the idea that African American people could better themselves through developing their new talents such as music, dance, and art.
As we can see in this work, many African Americans are working hard. There is a giant wheel present, symbolic of this hard work ethic. There is also black smoke, symbolic of the factory smoke that bellowed out as the workers were working. But, at the center of the piece, is a man playing a saxophone with his hands in the air (so much joy). Aaron Douglas also decided to use warmer colors in this piece to further emphasize this positivity. His pieces in the Aspects of Negro Life Series, truly tie together to paint a picture of what life was really like for the African American community at that time.
Oil on canvas, 60 x 60 in. (152.4 x 152.4 cm) 1936.
Aspiration was an oil on canvas piece in the series that was very popular due to the inspirational piece that this was. We see three people looking off into the distance, surrounded by beautiful colors and we can’t help but wonder if this is light that is shed in a moment of hope. One man is pointing to the large factory in the distance, is this their destination, where they aspire to go?
The three, stand above the rest who are chained (hands rising up with chains attached to their wrists) and seem to have a chance to make it to the next place that they need to go.
The beautiful block stylistic quality of the dynamic cubism in Aaron Douglas’s work is what inspired Jacob Lawrence as he began his journey as an artist. This style is representative of this movement that was happening during the Great Migration.