Aaron Douglas was born on May 26, 1899 in Topeka, Kansas. Douglas’ talents allowed him to become a successful muralist. He was commissioned to do the murals for the 1920 opening in the Club Ebony in Harlem. In 1929, he traveled to Chicago to create a mural for the Sherman Hotel’s College Inn Ballroom. Aaron graduated with a B.
A. in fine arts from the University of Nebraska in 1922. During the Harlem Renaissance, the name of Aaron Douglas was supreme as an artist among his peers and the leading writers and leading teachers of the day.
The Harlem Renaissance was the work of the black novelists and poets who lived in the Harlem district of New York City during the early 1920’s and ’30s. Because he was able to produce illustrations for books and magazines, his services were high in demand. Douglas soon taught art at Lincoln High School in Topeka for two years until his artistic skills were critiqued enough to surpass the articulate competitive people in New York. When he arrived in New York, he started the lookout for illustration openings. Douglas was accepted as the illustrator for Dr.
Alain Locke’s new book, The New Negro, published in 1925. He then studied under Winold Reiss, a German illustrator, in New York from 1924 to1927. On his return to the United States in 1928, Douglas became the first president of the Harlem Artists Guild. The guild was successful in helping to get African-American artists the necessary acceptance into the arts project under the U.
S. Government’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). In 1934, Douglas was commissioned, under the sponsorship of the WPA, to paint a series of murals for the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library. The library murals attempt to give a symbolic representation to certain aspects of African-American life. For his efforts, Douglas became known as the “Dean” among his fellow artists.
At the end of 1930, Douglas created another mural for Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. From 1939 to 1966, Douglas took on a position as a professor of art at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He later became department head before he retired in 1966. He wanted to infuse his ideas and African-American culture expressions into his creations. This break from the traditional display in his art was not well received or understood by his critics.
James A. Porter, writer of Modern Negro Art wrote that, “Most of his murals are based on themes from Negro history.” He also wrote, “Douglas’ mural style is the result of a rationalization of form.
He has adopted a formula for Negro physical characteristics, which depends on two effects of design. Those effects are elongation and angular view..
.his Negro forms appear to be linked with a context of primitive dance patterns.” While earning a great amount of money for his murals, Douglas and his wife, Alta went to Paris, France, where he expanded his knowledge of painting and sculpture. Douglas’ decision in becoming an artist came from his exposure to the African American painter, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and his Christ and Nicodemus painting completed in 1899. In 1931, Douglas graduated from the Art College, L’Acadmie Scandinave that he was attending while in Paris.
On his return back to New York in 1944, he received his M.A. at Columbia University Teachers College. Douglas was well known for Cubist-type black and white rhythmic illustrations in which his God’s Trombones illustrations for James Weldon Johnson’s book of poems in verse displayed perfectly.
In 1979 Aaron Douglas passed away with the reputation of being the best recognized artist of paintings and murals.