“INsite/INchelsea,” a modern art exhibition at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in Manhattan, closes its nearly 3 month run this Saturday, March 9th. The show features work by 5 of the most prominent artists to receive Rosenwald fellowships: Eldzier Cortor, Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, Augusta Savage and Charles White. Incidentally–and interestingly–the Rosenfeld Gallery’s selections from these artists displays what their art looked like before they received their Rosenwald grants.
For example, take a look at Cortor’s 1938 “Rooftops on Wabash,” a painting of Chicago rowhomes framed through a second story apartment window. With the help of the Rosenwald Fund in the mid-1940s, Cortor went on to develop his artistic practice outside of this kind of urban space (traveling to South Carolina and, later, the Caribbean) but it’s fascinating to see this earlier stage in his career. Likewise, you’ll see Jacob Lawrence’s 1937 “Christmas in Harlem,” which displays some of the same style he would perfect in his acclaimed “Great Migration” series, completed with the help of consecutive Rosenwald grants in 1940, 1941 and 1942. From Charles White, the gallery offers a 1936 oil portrait, a piece that’s markedly different from the epic, historical murals and prints he would create later in his career, after his consecutive Rosenwald grants in 1942 and 1943.
Finally, be sure to see Augusta Savage‘s famed “Gamin” (1929), a beautiful piece that put the great sculptor on the map and earned her 3 Rosenwald grants to study art in Europe in 1929, 1930 and 1931. Because these works of art were likely the ones that initially drew the attention of the Rosenwald Fund grant administrators, viewing them can give you a glimpse into the Fund’s working process. If you are in the area, take the time to visit the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery before the exhibit closes.
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.