Augusta Savage, who received three consecutive Rosenwald fellowships, created a monumental sculpture for the 1939 New York World’s Fair entitled “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” While the original sculpture was destroyed, lot 24 of this auction is a smaller version of the sculpture that was offered at the World’s Fair, a haunting memento of the great lost work.
Some may call his work revolutionary, but according to artist Jacob Lawrence his art simply reflects the culture he knew and the stories he was told growing up. Born in New Jersey, Lawrence grew up in the 1920s, a period when artistic expression was booming amongst African Americans. After moving to Harlem, he was introduced to mentors such as Charles Alston and Augusta Savage who molded him into the dynamic artist that visually portrayed the construction of blackness.
Portrait of Jacob Lawrence, 1941
Photo credit: Carl Van Vechten Collection, Library of Congress
During the age of “The New Negro,” a term coined by Alain Locke, Lawrence along with Langston Hughes and Claude McKay was able to expand his talents thanks to the Julius Rosenwald Fund. In Lawrence’s case, the fund enabled him to rent a studio, which led to the further development of his series of paintings entitled The Great Migration, which depicted the journey, struggle, and triumphs of blacks from the South to the North after the Civil War. His depiction of that cultural movement provided a different perspective of a commonly told story capturing moments that people could relate to and understand.
Lawrence was able to complete the series remarkably quickly (all 60 panels were finished in 6 to 8 months of 1941) thanks to the first two of his three consecutive Rosenwald grants in 1940, 1941 and 1942. The Migration Series was recognized fairly quickly as an important work and in December of 1941, it was shown in Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery in New York City as part of a pioneering exhibition of “American Negro Art,” possibly the first time a black artist’s work had been displayed in a major New York gallery.
Curators of two modern art museums, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., immediately expressed interest in purchasing the series. It was decided that the collection would be split in half, each museum taking 30 paintings, for a total purchase price of $2,000. MoMA took the even numbered panels based on the input of one of its trustees, Adele Rosenwald Levy. Levy, the daughter of Julius Rosenwald, had fallen in love with panel #46, an image of a staircase, and it was agreed that the paintings be divided so that MoMA would receive that one. The Migration Series remains a prominent feature of both museums’ permanent collection and over the years has been reunited for exhibitions around the country.
Years after his death, Lawrence still provides a platform for untold stories through art. Jacob and his late wife Gwen developed a fellowship at the Seattle Art Museum that funds artistic work from people of color that reflects Lawrence’s ideologies. The Jacob and Gwen Knight Lawrence Foundation houses all of his series including Toussaint L’Ouverture – one of his most notable works. For more information on Jacob Lawrence’s paintings, visit jacobandgwenlawrence.org.
On October 18th, Swann Galleries in New York will hold an auction of African American Fine Art. Among the lots for sale are prints, paintings and sculptures by 11 Rosenwald fellows: Charles Alston, Richmond Barthé, Elizabeth Catlett, Eldzier Cortor, Lawrence Arthur Jones, Ronald Joseph, Jacob Lawrence, William Eduoard Scott, Charles Sebree, Charles White and Hale Woodruff. One highlight is a print of Catlett’s iconic Sharecropper. Also interesting is Eldzier Cortor’s Classical Composition No. 4., which is estimated to go for the highest price in the auction. Rosenwald Fund grants often allowed artists the opportunity to study and work abroad (for example, see Augusta Savage or Elizabeth Catlett’s work). William Eduoard Scott’s When the Tide is Out is another example – it was done on his 1931 trip to Port-au-Prince, Haiti under his Rosenwald fellowship.
Robin Pogrebin for the New York Times reports that as Harlem Hospital gets a substantial makeover, a group of large murals that have graced the walls of the hospital since the 1930s are undergoing a multimillion dollar restoration. The murals were commissioned as part of the Federal Art Project of the WPA in the 1930s, and depict a variety of scenes from the history, everyday life and symbolism of African American culture. The murals, which have deteriorated and in some cases been covered up, will have a place of honor in a new publicly accessible gallery in the hospital.
A panel from Charles Alston’s “Modern Medicine,” WPA mural in Harlem Hospital
Photo credit: Columbia University
Among the murals is a diptych by Charles Alston entitled “Magic in Medicine/Modern Medicine,” which shows the history of folk medicine alongside modern innovations and contemporary doctors. Alston, who received consecutive Rosenwald fellowships in 1940 and 1941, was a primary driving force behind the murals. The WPA initially blanched at the black-centric subject matter, citing concerns that the content could offend the black community and claiming it was shortsighted to focus on black history in a community that may not always have the same racial complexion. Their misguided criticisms may have resulted from the fact that, according to the New York Times, this was perhaps the biggest federally-funded art project to date that commissioned black artists. In response to the WPA’s pushback, Alston formed the Harlem Artists Guild (with another Harlem-based Rosenwald fellow, Augusta Savage) and successfully lobbied the WPA into allowing the project to proceed. The murals were worked on by a wide variety of artists, including other Rosenwald fellows such as Ronald Joseph.
A panel from Vertis Hayes’ “Pursuit of Happiness,” WPA mural in Harlem Hospital
Photo credit: Columbia University
In addition to Alston’s murals, “Pursuit of Happiness” by Vertis Hayes is a particularly interesting part of the collection. One panel of Hayes’ work in particular (pictured above) depicts the migration of African Americans from the rural south to northern industrial cities. This hopeful painting utilizes a dramatic symbol of progress, a giant cog, which is a common motif in art from the time period that depicts African American history, and can be seen in artworks by two Rosenwald fellows: Lamar Baker’s “Ezekiel Saw The Wheel,” and Aaron Douglas’s “Aspects of Negro Life,” pictured below. The latter was another WPA-commissioned mural and was originally displayed in the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library (which is nearby to Harlem Hospital as well as the Harlem Rosenwald YMCA).
A panel from Aaron Douglas’s 1934 “Aspects of Negro Life”
Photographed by Hane C. Lee (flickr)
Below is an excerpt from “A Study of Negro Artists,” a 1937 film which depicts several Harlem artists at work. The video is cued to a scene from the film that shows muralist Aaron Douglas painting in his studio. Douglas received his Rosenwald fellowship the same year the film was made, probably on the strength of his recent WPA murals and the paintings he contributed as cover art to Rosenwald fellow Claude McKay. With his grant, the New York-based artist traveled to the south to gain new inspiration for his work. If you stay tuned to the film, the next section features another WPA muralist named Palmer Hayden.
Although it was initially resistant, the WPA’s Federal Art Project became a valuable patron of African American art. It’s no coincidence that there are many intersections between the WPA and the Rosenwald Fund. In the early twentieth century, before the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rosenwald Fund and the WPA worked toward a common purpose, and together they made up a huge proportion of the support nationally for black artists.
This blog featured some more murals a couple of weeks ago by a different Rosenwald fellow, Hale Woodruff. Daniel Schulman has written that Charles Alston shared Woodruff’s spirit of experimentation, moving between different artistic styles. It’s great that both of their works are being restored and displayed publicly.