Artists of the Harlem Renaissance

By Erin Kinhart

February 17, 2011

Fully Digitized Collections Document African American Art and Artists of the Twentieth Century

Sketch of Bal Noir de Paris, Palmer Hayden papers
Bal Noir de Paris, between 1925 and 1970. Palmer C. Hayden papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

In honor of Black History Month, the Archives of American Art is highlighting our rich collection of papers documenting African American art in the twentieth century, particularly the papers of artists who began their careers during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. All of the artists’ papers discussed in this blog post have been fully digitized and are available to researchers online.

The papers of Palmer C. Hayden include thirty-two diaries, correspondence, photographs, and forty-seven sketchbooks documenting a period of nearly forty years. Hayden won first prize for “Distinguished Achievement among Negroes” at the Harmon Foundation’s first awards ceremony in 1926, and he used that award to continue his studies in Paris. When he returned to New York in 1932 he worked for the Treasury Relief Art Project and the Works Progress Administration. As indicated by his numerous sketchbooks, Hayden used Harlem and Paris as inspiration for his paintings of African American life.

Photograph of William H. Johnson painting
William H. Johnson painting near the cathedral at Chartres, ca. 1927 / unidentified photographer. William H. Johnson papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Like Hayden, William H. Johnson studied painting in New York and France during the 1920s. While in France he had the opportunity to meet African American expatriate painter Henry Ossawa Tanner and was greatly impressed by his work.

The William H. Johnson papers include biographical material, exhibition catalogs, photographs, and scrapbooks which primarily document the period that he lived in Europe with his wife, Danish artist Holcha Krake, his work for the WPA as a painting teacher at the Harlem Community Art Center, and his career in New York during the 1940s.

Painter and muralist Charles Henry Alston was an active member of the Harlem art community as a director of the Harlem Art Workshop and as a founder of the Harlem Artists Guild. In 1950, he became the first African American instructor at the Art Students League.

Alston’s small collection, the Charles Henry Alston papers, primarily documents his later career as an artist and educator and includes letters from Harlem Renaissance figures and personal friends Romare Bearden, Byron Brown, Jacob Lawrence, Hale Woodruff, and Dr. Louis T. Wright.

Jacob Lawrence was a student of Charles Alston at the Harlem Art Workshop, and gained early success as a painter of African American history. Edith Halpert exhibited “The Migration Series” at her Downtown Gallery in 1941 establishing Lawrence as the first African American artist to exhibit in a top New York gallery.

The Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight papers include extensive correspondence with friends, artists, students, art schools, galleries, museums, as well as writings by Lawrence, news clippings, exhibition catalogs, and photographs.

Photograph of Romare Bearden
Romare Bearden in Harlem, ca. 1950 / unidentified photographer. Romare Bearden papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Letter from Lawrence to Bearden
Jacob Lawrence to Romare Bearden, 3 Apr. 1971. Romare Bearden papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Romare Bearden grew up in Harlem, surrounded by the cultural explosion of the 1920s. During the 1930s he studied art, worked as a cartoonist, and was a member of the Harlem Artists Guild. Until his retirement in 1969, Bearden worked as a social worker with the New York City Department of Social Services, working on his art at night and on weekends.

In 1964, Bearden became the first art director of the newly established Harlem Cultural Council, and served as an active spokesman and writer on artistic and social issues. The Romare Bearden papers include numerous letters referring to African American art movements of the 1960s and 1970, writings by Bearden, photographs, drawings, and printed material.

Copy of The Negro Mother
The Negro mother and other dramatic recitations, 1931. Prentiss Taylor papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Also available online is the digitized microfilm of the Prentiss Taylor papers. During his time in New York, Taylor developed close friendships with poet Langston Hughes and writer Carl Van Vechten. While working as a lithographer and printmaker, he collaborated with Hughes in the formation of the Golden Stair Press to produce publications reflecting the ideas of the Harlem Renaissance.

The Prentiss Taylor papers contain extensive subject/correspondence files, which include correspondence with Hughes and Van Vechten, as well as numerous photographs of notable Harlem Renaissance figures, many taken by Van Vechten.

Erin Corley is a processing archivist at the Archives of American Art

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Comments

For those interested in further study, Harry Henderson, who co-wrote the 1993 publication "History of African American Artists" with Bearden, donated his papers to Penn State University Archives. Most of the research files to put together this book are in this collection.

You have an amazing site of old photos, do you have any of our american indians, or civil war in your findings. I find them to neat to look at that part of Amecana. Thanks!

very interested bit of history here, especially interesting the Prentiss Taylor papers - well worth having a peek at, wouldn't have found it if it wasn't for this blog

Some interesting information and photo's on here i hope there's more to come

wow its really wonderfull old photos and interested bit of history here,who co-wrote the 1993 publication "History of African American Artists" with Bearden, donated his papers to Penn State University Archives. Most of the research files to put together this book are in this collection.I find them to neat to look at that part of real Amecana. Thanks!

Wow that was heartwarming!

This work is a recognition from the whole state to these men and women that from different art fields have built the American History. History is not only the struggle of the politics and the confrontation of different political ideas, its about the peoples´daily lives and artists are the ones reflecting that through different means. Work of art remain as monuments of the past.It´s good that the black community finally had its recognition.

Spectacular collection. What a wonderful resource. Well done

It must be hard work digging some papers documenting of African American art in the twentieth century. But the result is great. And it is a great program from Archives of American Art that mediated for all of the artists’ papers can discussed in this blog post cost the documents have been fully digitized and are available to researchers online. Thank you for sharing.

this is great, yes, well done mate

I really enjoyed reading this. This type of art is one of my favorites.
Ollie

As a young black kid growing up and trying to be an artist (I really wasn't any good), I really appreciate that these works are recognized for their great quality. My best friend is an artist who has mastered his craft . . . maybe one day I'll find his works being honored as well.
Thanks so much
Terence