Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (1920s-1930s)

The Harlem Renaissance/The New Negro Arts Movement was the first art movement in Black American history. Beginning in the early 1920s, the Great Migration brought Southern Blacks to Harlem, NYC. Within the population was a small percentage of the African American cultural elite including scholars, philosophers, artists, and social reformers, including Alain Locke and W.E.B. DuBois who helped form the basis of the movement. DuBois wrote of creating uniquely African American works. Locke believed that the arts were a potent means to reconfigure the identity and image of African Americans. 


Artists explored themes of Africa and the Black experience in America. For the most part, Black artists received recognition through black-only exhibitions and consumers of Black art were largely white. The bulk of these exhibitions were funded through the William E. Harmon Foundation, a white philanthropic organization.


  1. Richmond Barthe (1901-1989)– Barthe graduated from the Art Institute in Chicago in 1929 and moved to Harlem. Sculptures are mainly male nudes and busts of Black men and women. Barthe was also a co-founder of the Sculptor’s Guild


Feral Benga, 1935


  1. Archibald J. Motley Jr (1891-1981) Motley trained at the Art Institute of Chicago and studied with artist George Bellows of the Ashcan School of painters who used vibrant colors, angles, and overlapping shapes. Motley was a member of the Bronzeville movement in Chicago which paralleled the Harlem Renaissance. During the Depression, Motley was hired by the Works Progress Association(WPA) from 1933-36 to paint murals on African American history for schools.


Black Belt, 1934 Motley’s favorite subjects were Prohibition activities such as illegal 

gambling and drinking.

  • Aaron Douglas (1899-1979) Douglas was one of the leading artists of the Harlem Renaissance, identifying with Locke and DuBois beliefs in the visual arts. Douglas came to Harlem, NYC in 1925. He also studied African and modern art in Philadelphia and Paris developing a style that combined African and European design aesthetics.  


Aspects of Negro Llife: An Idyll of the Deep South, 1934 – One of four murals depicting moments in African American history. This was a WPA project, installed at Schomburg Center in Harlem, NYC. This mural represents the time just after Reconstruction, during Jim Crow.


  1. James VanDerZee (1886-1983) VanDeZee is viewed as the most significant photographer of the Harlem Renaissance. From 1916 to 1945 he recorded Black life in Harlem. An official photographer of the UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Assoc), he documented Marcus Garvey. He was hired as a portrait photographer with Newark photographer Charles Gertz before starting his own business, Guarantee Photos Studio. By 1928, VanDerZee was the premier photographer in Harlem. He portrayed subjects as members of the wealthy elite. 


Future Expectations, (Wedding Day), photograph, 1926