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hale woodruff | Rosenwald Film

Two art exhibitions in Chicago

For the next couple months, two galleries in downtown Chicago will be showing complementary exhibitions featuring artwork by Rosenwald Fund fellows.

The Art Institute of Chicago offers a show entitled, “They Seek a City: Chicago and the Art of Migration, 1910–1950.” This show will consist of work by and about newcomers to Chicago during a period in which the city swelled with new immigrants from overseas and new African American residents from the South (in a movement known as the Great Migration). At the link above, the Art Institute uses two paintings by Archibald Motley to advertise the show. Motley, who was not a Rosenwald Fellow, was a great observer of Chicago’s South Side. Some of his best paintings of nightlife in the “Black Belt” are on permanent display in the Art Institute.

Across Michigan Avenue, at the beautiful Chicago Cultural Center, is “Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College.” This is an important show of work by the great Rosenwald fellow, and we blogged about it when it opened in Atlanta last year. Both exhibitions will be open until early June, so if you’re in the Chicago area, take the time to see them.

Swann Galleries to auction work by Rosenwald fellows

On February 14th, Swann Galleries in New York City is holding another auction of African American Fine Art – this blog reported on a similar auction at Swann Galleries last October 18th. Beautiful artworks by many Rosenwald fellows are up for auction, including Charles Alston, Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, Gordon Parks, William Edouard Scott, Charles White and Hale Woodruff. Prints, lithographs and sculptures by a Rosenwald fellow who died last year, Elizabeth Catlett, are prominently featured, including an excellent print of her famous Sharecropper.

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.

By Michael Rose

Work by Rosenwald fellows for sale at New York auction

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.

By Michael Rose

Murals depicting African American life and history to be restored in Harlem

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.


“A Study of Negro Artists,” 1937
Video credit: The Prelinger Archives / The Internet Archive

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.

By Michael Rose

Rosenwald fellow’s restored murals to be displayed

A set of six murals by the great African American artist Hale Woodruff are kicking off a tour of several cities at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Woodruff, one of the most celebrated American painters of the twentieth century, chose the slave rebellion on the Amistad as the subject for these murals which originally hung at Talladega College in Alabama. The recently restored murals were completed in 1938, five years before Woodruff received consecutive Rosenwald Fellowships to work and teach in New York, where he would stay until he retired decades later. After Atlanta, the murals will travel between now and 2015 to Dallas, New York, Washington D.C., New Orleans, Hartford, Detroit and finally Birmingham, so be on the lookout for them at a museum near you. Thanks to our neighbor, Robert Mallet, for letting us know about the exhibit in Atlanta.

Hale Woodruff working on a mural, 1942
Photo credit: Library of Congress via Office of War Information

By Michael Rose