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The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance

Author: Ian McConnell
Description:

This lesson will explore the Harlem Renaissance.

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Tutorial

An overview of the Harlem Renaissance in the visual arts.

Video Transcription

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Hello. I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell, and today's lesson is about the Harlem Renaissance. As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward or rewind as often as you feel is necessary. And as soon as you're ready, we can begin.

Today's lesson objectives are listed below. By the end of the lesson today, you'll be able to identify and define today's key terms, describe the origins of the Harlem Renaissance in the arts, and identify examples of Harlem Renaissance in the visual arts.

Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson. The first key term is Harlem Renaissance, a dynamic artistic and cultural movement centered in New York City focusing on black consciousness, civil rights, and racial integration.

New Negro Movement, a term popularized during the Harlem Renaissance encouraging African Americans to have self-confidence, racial pride, and self-expression.

Jazz, one of the most important art forms of the 20th century, a purely African American music genre.

The Big Idea for today, Harlem Renaissance was originally known as the New Negro Movement. It occurred primarily as a literary movement, but also involved the participation of social reformers, activists, and artists.

And the artwork that we're looking at today dates from between 1927 and 1977.

We'll be traveling to Topeka, Kansas, the birthplace of Aaron Douglas, Chicago, Illinois, where Archibald Motley lived and died, and New York City, where Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden both lived and where Romare Bearden died in 1988.

So the roots of the Harlem Renaissance can be traced back to the aftermath of the Civil War, as many freed African Americans made their way north to get away from the discrimination and social pressures they felt in the South. It was a migration that occurred over many generations, and large numbers of African Americans congregated in neighborhoods of large northern cities, like Chicago, and in the boroughs of New York City, particularly Harlem. And within these neighborhoods, African Americans were able to share common cultural interests and develop new ones that had connections to their ancestral roots.

So the Harlem Renaissance was originally known as the New Negro Movement. And although its origins were centered in Harlem, its influence spread throughout the country, and even overseas into places like Paris, France, where jazz music was also finding a foothold. It was relatively short lived, but incredibly influential for decades after its demise during the Great Depression.

It originated primarily as a literary movement, but also involved the participation of artists, like Aaron Douglas. Now Aaron Douglas' work is exemplary of the Harlem Renaissance and created a visual aesthetic that was highly stylized and unique. Now he was influenced by the color and abstraction of African art, but also by the rhythmic improvisation of jazz music. He fused these influences together into a style that emphasized flattened forms with strong, crisp outlines and repetitive designs.

Archibald Motley was an interesting figure in the Harlem Renaissance. He was something of an outsider, in many respects. He never lived in Harlem, but rather grew up in a racially tolerant neighborhood of Chicago. And he was of mixed racial descent, which, given the time, caused him a lifetime struggle with what could be described as a sort of cultural alienation. His own perception, and that of many others, was that he wasn't quite white enough or black enough to fit in with either demographic, which left him in a sort of cultural limbo. Now this contributed to his fascination with skin tone and the effect of cultural identity that permeated his work. Archibald's work, like this example from 1934 called "Black Belt", was typical of his subject matter.

Rather than depict the rural African American, which was a more common theme in other artistic circles, he chose to depict the vibrant and colorful social lives of urban African Americans. His style recalls the work of Aaron Douglas in the flattened and stylized forms. But what's more, notice how each of the figures seems less like an actual individual, a technique that always felt to me as his way of perhaps emphasizing the collective community, rather than the individuals within it.

Romare Bearden is one of two artists we'll look at today that could be considered a descendant of the Harlem Renaissance, in that his work might have come after, but it was created with the same spirit. He lived during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's, which is one of the most important eras in African American history. During this time, he made a shift in medium to collage from painting, becoming and remaining one of the most important American artist to work in this medium.

"The Calabash" is undoubtedly influenced by the Civil Rights movement. Bearden incorporates a common artistic motif, that of a nude woman bathing. The nude woman in the foreground seems unaware or perhaps simply ignores the elderly, or maybe prematurely aged, woman in the background holding the child. The title "Calabash" may very well refer to the name of a particular type of gourd, sometimes called the bottle gourd, which would be dried out and used as a container for liquids. Historically, the gourd, sort of nature's canteen, is associated with human migration, perhaps alluding to the migration of African Americans northward or the figurative migration of the African American population out of the past and into the present, symbolizing the cultural shift of the Civil Rights movement.

Now the other descendant of the Harlem Renaissance who was important in the artistic community and beyond, was this figure of Jacob Lawrence. His self-portrait of 1977 is typical of his style, something he referred to as dynamic cubism, in which the forms are flattened and broken up into blocks of color, but simultaneously appear independent and cohesive. Now like many figures of the Harlem Renaissance and their descendants, Jacob Lawrence turned to education, eventually settling in Seattle to teach and inspire new generations of artists at the University of Washington. His artistic production never ceased, and he continued working until his death in 2000, at the age of 82.

So that brings us to the end of this lesson. Let's take a look at our objectives again to see if we met them. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms? Can you describe the origins of the Harlem Renaissance in the arts? And can you identify examples of the Harlem Renaissance in the visual arts?

Once again, the big idea for today, the Harlem Renaissance was originally known as the New Negro Movement and occurred primarily as a literary movement, but also involved the participation of social reformers, activists, and artists.

And there you go. Thank you very much for joining me today. I'll see you next time.

Notes on "The Harlem Renaissance"

Citations

Bearden, The Calabash, fair use according to Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Romare_Bearden_-_The_Calabash,_1970,_Library_of_Congress.jpg Jacob Lawrence "Self-Portrait", fair use according to wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lawrence_Jacob_Self-Portrait_1977.jpg  Aaron Douglas "Noah's Ark", Creative Commons, http://www.flickr.com/photos/47357563@N06/8248291737/; Archibald Motley "Black Belt" creative commons: http://www.flickr.com/photos/artsyzeal/5446330989/

TERMS TO KNOW
  • Jazz

    One of the most important art forms of the 20th-century, a purely African American music genre. 

  • New Negro Movement

    A term popularized during the Harlem Renaissance encouraging African Americans to have self-confidence, racial pride, and self-expression.

  • Harlem Renaissance

    A dynamic artistic and cultural movement centered in New York City, focusing on black consciousness, civil rights, and racial integration.