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Cover of the first (and
only) issue of FIRE!!, November 1926.
Douglas; Magazine reproduced by FIRE!! Press, Elizabeth, NJ
Original art for Spark
journal, 1934, which did not get beyond the planning stage.
Douglas. Schomburg Center collection.
Illustrator: Aaron Douglas
The Crisis, May
Douglas; Publisher: NAACP
Cover of Opportunity,
Illustrator: Aaron Douglas
Panel from Aspects of
Negro Life mural, 1934, created for the 135th Street branch of the
New York Public Library.
Artist: Aaron Douglas
Cover of Carl Van Vechten’s
Nigger Heaven, 1926.
Ilustrator: Aaron Douglas;
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Aaron Douglas was a leading artist of the
also known as the New Negro Movement. Douglas—along with the
philosopher Alain Locke, whose important 1925 anthology The New
Negro featured Douglas's illustrations—helped set in motion a
new visual language detached from traditional European art training
and absorbing a distinctive African heritage. His style blended the
geometric and angular shapes of Art Deco with the linear rhythm of
Art Nouveau; it bore references to African masks and sculptural
figures, as well as allusions to African dance.
After graduating with a BFA in fine arts
from the University of
Nebraska in 1922, Douglas taught art at high schools in Nebraska
and Missouri. In 1924, he moved to New York, where he served for
two years as an apprentice to the German artist Winold Reiss, whom
he met through Charles S. Johnson, then editor of
Through his covers
for Opportunity and The Crisis
Douglas set forth a new vision for the black artist. His strong,
geometric forms and Egyptian profiles resulted in a style later
described by cultural critic and educator Richard Powell as
In 1926, he loaned his
talents to the first and only issue of
Wallace Thurman's magazine FIRE!! and later designed the
cover of Thurman's short-lived magazine Harlem.
Douglas became the most sought-after book
illustrator and cover
designer among the black writers of the time. Probably his most
controversial cover was for Carl Van Vechten's Nigger
Heaven, a book about Harlem nightlife. His illustrations for
James Weldon Johnson's epic poem God's Trombone, published
in 1927, made him especially popular. Rendered in a painterly
style, the plates formed an allegorical study of Negro experience
based on the spiritual songs of oppression and daily life.
Douglas frequented nightspots in Harlem to
soak up the black
urban scene and incorporate these expressions into his works. He is
known for superb murals that grace the walls of nightclubs and
cultural institutions. Among his best-known work is the series of
murals Aspects of Negro Life, created in 1934 for the 135th
Street branch of the New York Public Library, now called the
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
In 1938, Douglas moved to Nashville,
Tennessee, to chair the art
department of Fisk University, a position he held until his
retirement in 1966. He passed away in Nashville in 1979.
Excerpt adapted from “Souls on
Fire,” Print magazine
(May/June 1998), with permission from the author.
1900–1940, Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture, New
York Public Library.
Aaron Douglas: African
American Modernist, Spencer Museum of Art, University of
Bob Greenberg is recognized with a 2014 AIGA Medal for boldly envisioning the future and then designing for it, effortlessly leading his agency through decades of strategic change.
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