Aaron Douglas was an African American painter and graphic artist who played a leading role in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. He was born in Topeka, Kansas on May 26, 1899. His passion for art developed early on, finding some inspiration from admiring his mother’s drawings. He attended Topeka High School, during which we worked for Skinner’s Nursey and Union Pacific material yard. After he graduated in 1917, Douglas attended the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. There, he pursued his passion for creating art, earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1922.
After graduating, Douglas worked as a waiter for the Union Pacific Railroad until 1923, when he secured a job teaching visual arts at Lincoln High School in Kansas City, Missouri. He taught there for two years before he decided to move to New York City. At the time, New York’s Harlem neighborhood had a thriving arts scene.
In 1925, Douglas quickly became immersed in Harlem’s cultural life. He was convinced to stay in Harlem and develop his art during the height of the Harlem Renaissance, influenced by the writings of Alain Locke about the importance of Harlem for aspiring African Americans. While in Harlem, Douglas studied under Winold Reiss, a German portraitist who encouraged him to work with African-centric themes.
He contributed illustrations to Opportunity, the National Urban League’s magazine. These illustrations focused on articles about lynching, segregation, theater, and jazz. He also contributed illustrations to the Crisis, put out by the National Association for the Advanced Colored People. He created powerful images of African American life and struggles, and won awards for the work he created.
Douglas created some of his best-known paintings in the 1930s. In 1933, he had his first solo art show. Soon after, he started one of his most legendary work – a series of murals entitles “Aspects of Negro Life” that featured four panels, each depicting a different part of the African-American experience. Each mural included a mix of Douglas’s influence, from jazz music to abstract and geometric art.
Aaron Douglas used his art to create a sense of unity between African Americans and exemplified the New Negro philosophy. His art left a lasting impression on African American culture. He is now known as the “Father of African American arts.”