Narratives of African American Art and Identity
Section II Artists

Richmond Barthé

Aaron Douglas

William H. Johnson

Loïs Mailou Jones

Jacob Lawrence

P.H. Polk

Augusta Savage

James VanDerZee

James Lesesne Wells

Hale Woodruff


The first three decades of the twentieth century witnessed a growing awareness of the importance of African heritage in understanding and defining African American identity as the Great Migration established significant black communities in northern cities. Leading intellectuals like W.E.B. DuBois and Alain Locke urged black artists to look towards African arts for inspiration and to choose African and African American subject matter. Simultaneously, and against the backdrop of continuing violence against American blacks, African Americans in the fine and performing arts gathered in cities like Chicago and New York, forming the New Negro Movement—later called the Harlem Renaissance. While black institutions and communities continued to support black artistic achievement and black artists mentored and taught a younger generation, white Americans began to notice what seemed to them a surge of creative expression by black musicians, writers, and artists. Enthusiastic attention from white audiences grew into a kind of obsessive fascination. Whites flocked to Harlem to patronize the arts and sample an 'exotic' blackness. This combination of white patronage and black achievement—a collision of two very different agendas about the nature of black identity—produced a discourse about race, class, patronage, and reception that is key to our understanding of subsequent developments in African American art in the twentieth century.

The works selected from Driskell's collection to exemplify this discourse include paintings, sculptures, and photographs by Richmond Barthé, Roy DeCarava, Aaron Douglas, David Driskell, William H. Johnson, Loïs Mailou Jones, Jacob Lawrence, P.H. Polk, Augusta Savage, James VanDerZee, Laura Wheeler Waring, James L. Wells, and Hale Woodruff.


David Driskell
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II. Emergence