Aaron Douglas

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History is filled with countless valuable contributions of African Americans, among them is the preeminent artist Aaron Douglas. He was famous for his paintings that depicted the African culture. He was not only a painter but also an illustrator and an educator of arts. He held a distinctive position as a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance that explored the cultural, social, and artistic potential of African Americans at its height in Harlem, New York.

On February 3, 1979, Aaron Douglas was born to Aaron and Elizabeth Douglas, in Topeka, Kansas. From a very young age he had developed a keen interest in art which his mother supported. He received his secondary education from Topeka High School, graduating in 1917. Subsequently, he went to University of Nebraska where he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1922. He was the only black student in his class yet it did not keep him from winning the first prize for drawing. Later he enrolled himself at University of Kansas where he also graduated with a BFA.

Douglas was anything but a mainstream painter as he felt strongly against the Victorian attitudes to drape the subject of one’s artwork in class. Subsequent to his higher studies, he moved to Harlem in New York in 1925. His first order of business was to invest his energy to Harlem Renaissance which he did by contributing to major magazines that supported the movement. He used to draw illustrations for The Crisis and Opportunity. During his time in Harlem he got under supervision of a German artist Winold Reiss. Douglas learned quite a lot from his mentor including the modernist style which he would incorporate in his works in the years to come.

Moreover, Douglas’s meticulous work depicting African and Egyptian design caught two of the most eminent artists and civil right activists’ attention, Dr. Locke and William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. They wanted the young African American talent to emerge and represent their heritage in true colours, adopting the right form of art to showcase their folk culture. His knack for staying true to his work as an artist along with his strong grip on his African heritage allowed him to surpass all boundaries that separated exquisite art and culture. This juxtaposition of two led to his entitlement as “Father of African American arts”, given his contribution to Harlem Renaissance. However, Douglas remained modest as he commented on his newly acquired title that he was only “son of Africa” and painted what truly inspired him.

Besides illustrating for two of the chief magazines of Harlem, he also painted canvases and murals and illustrated books. In fact, he made an effort to publish his own magazine featuring works of young writers and artist. Even as he became a prominent painter, he didn’t put his studies aside. At the Barnes Foundation in Merion he learned about African and Modern European art and on his trip to Paris he became familiar with traditional French painting and drawing techniques.

Aaron Douglas’s love of painting and art education took him to Nashville, Tennessee. His arrival led to the establishment of an Art Department at Fisk University, where he taught for almost three decades. In the early twentieth century his work appeared in top-tier magazines, Harper’s, and Vanity Fair and also in the books by James Weldon. Moreover his artwork was showcased at several hotels, museums, galleries and art academies.

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