Aaron Douglas, Aspiration, 1936, Oil on canvas, 60 x 60", Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase from the estate of Thurlow E. Tibbs Jr., the Museum Auxiliary, American Art Trust Fund, Unrestricted Art Trust Fund, and private donations from the people of the Bay Area, 1997.84.

The Modernism of Aaron Douglas and the Harlem Renaissance

Aaron Douglas, The Founding of Chicago, circa 1933, Gouache on paperboard, 14-3/4 × 12-3/8", Spencer Museum of Art, The University of Kansas, Museum purchase: R. Charles and Mary Margaret, Clevenger Fund, 2006.0027.

Aaron Douglas, Song of the towers, 1966, Oil on canvas, 30 x 25", State of Wisconsin, Executive Residence, Madison.

Aaron Douglas, Building More Stately Mansions, 1944, Oil on canvas, 54 × 42", Fisk University Galleries, Nashville.

Aaron Douglas, The Creation, 1935, Oil on Masonite, 48 x 36", Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


Spencer Museum of Art
University of Kansas
1301 Mississippi Street
Kress Gallery and
South Balcony Gallery
Aaron Douglas:
African American

September 8-
December 2, 2007

A native of Topeka, Kansas, Douglas graduated from Topeka High School in 1917. He received his B.A. degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1922. In 1925, Douglas moved to New York City, settling in Harlem. Just a few months after his arrival he began to produce illustrations for both The Crisis and Opportunity, the two most important magazines associated with the Harlem Renaissance. He also began studying with Winold Reiss, a German artist who had been hired by Alain Locke to illustrate The New Negro. Reiss's teaching helped Douglas develop the modernist style he would employ for the next decade. Douglas’s engagement with African and Egyptian design brought him to the attention of W. E. B. DuBois and Alain Locke, who were pressing for young African American artists to express their African heritage and African American folk culture in their art.

Organized by the Spencer Museum of Art at The University of Kansas, curated by Susan Earle, curator of European and American art and coordinated by Stephanie Knappe, doctoral candidate in art history. The exhibition and catalogue are made possible through the generous support of the Henry Luce Foundation, with additional funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and The Office of the Chancellor, The University of Kansas.

Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist presents the first nationally touring retrospective of the work of Aaron Douglas (1899-1979), the foremost visual artist of the Harlem Renaissance. A native of Topeka, Kansas, and a socially conscious artist, Douglas vividly captured the spirit of his time and established a new black aesthetic and utopian vision. Working from a politicized concept of personal identity, he combined angular cubist rhythms and seductive art-deco dynamism with traditional African and African American imagery to develop a radically new visual vocabulary that evoked both current realities and hopes for a better future. In paintings, murals, and illustrations for books and progressive journals, his forceful ideas and their distinctive artistic form produced the most powerful visual legacy of the Harlem Renaissance and made a lasting impact on the history of art and the cultural heritage of the nation.

The exhibition highlights this achievement, including Douglas's work in New York and his subsequent teaching at historically black Fisk University in Nashville. By considering Douglas and the work he created between the 1920s and 1940s as a prime example and test case, the exhibition will interrogate the boundaries of American modernism in order to assess the seminal but neglected role of the Harlem Renaissance and one of its most important artists. The substantial retrospective of approximately one hundred objects brings together many rarely seen Douglas works from public institutions and private collections. The exhibition features approximately ninety works by Douglas and incorporates several works by his contemporaries and students, as well as portraits of Douglas, printing plates and sketchbooks, and ephemera related to the Harlem Renaissance.

In 1928-29, Douglas studied African and Modern European art at the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania on a grant from the foundation. In 1931 he traveled to Paris, where he spent a year studying more traditional French painting and drawing techniques at the Academie Scandinave. It was during the early 1930s that Douglas completed the most important works of his career, his murals at Fisk University and at the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library (now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture).

In 1937, he moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he founded the Art Department at Fisk University and taught for 29 years.

To accompany the traveling exhibition, the Spencer and Yale University Press will co-publish an illustrated scholarly assessment of Douglas's achievements and historical significance. The exhibition book presents original research concerning Douglas in the form of essays by Dr. Renée Ater, Professor David Driskell, Dr. Susan Earle, Dr. Amy Kirschke, Dr. Richard J. Powell, and Cheryl Ragar, along with a narrative chronology documenting Douglas's life and artistic career written by Stephanie Knappe.

An interdisciplinary symposium Aaron Douglas and the Arts of the Harlem Renaissance is also conceived to enhance Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist. Organized by William J. Harris, professor of English at the University of Kansas, the two-day interdisciplinary symposium is scheduled for September 28-29, 2007, in tandem with the exhibition's opening. The symposium will explore the complex constellation of visual and performing artists, writers, and political and creative thinkers who comprised the Harlem Renaissance and Douglas's place within it.

The retrospective will travel in 2008 to Frist Center for the Visual Arts (Nashville), Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington, D.C.), and Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (New York).


Aaron Douglas, The Negro Speaks of Rivers (for Langston Hughes), 1941, Pen/ink on paper, 5-1⁄2 x 11", Courtesy of the Walter O. Evans, Collection / Savannah, College of Art and Design.