Aaron Douglas was born May 26, 1899, in Topeka, Kansas. As a child, he was exposed to his mother’s love of painting with watercolors. From there, his personal interest in art developed. His love for art persisted throughout high school and well into his collegiate career.
Douglas graduated from Topeka High School in 1917 and immediately began studying at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. By 1922, he had earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. Shortly after graduating, he taught art to the students of Lincoln High School in Kansas City, Missouri for two years before leaving.
Douglas then moved to New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. Early-1920s-Harlem was a central hub for the Black arts in America. Soon after he landed in Harlem in 1925, Douglas delved deep into the cultural scene. He contributed some of his illustrations to Opportunity and The Crisis, the magazines of the National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Douglas’ art–a fusion of African art and modernism with a combination of Egyptian hieroglyphics and Art Deco–depicted the hardships of Black life from Africa to America and everywhere in between. He won several awards for his work and was commissioned to illustrate the anthology of Alain LeRoy Locke, titled ‘The New Negro.’
In 1926, Douglas married Alta Sawyer. They settled in Harlem where they often hosted visitors like W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and the like. During this same time, Douglas and Wallace Thurman founded the magazine Fire!! which showcased Black art and literature. The duo only published one issue of the magazine, however.
‘Aspects of Negro Life’
Douglas soon built a reputation for creating visually compelling graphics. Many writers lobbied to work with him. He provided illustrations for James Weldon Johnson’s ‘God’s Trombone’ (1927) and Paul Morand’s ‘Black Magic’ (1929). Douglas then received a fellowship from the Barnes Foundation which allowed him to study African and modern art.
In 1930, Douglas was commissioned to paint a mural for Fisk University. In 1931, he spent time in Paris, learning painting techniques from Charles Despiau and Othon Friesz. He returned to New York in 1933 where he had his first solo art show. He then created ‘Aspects of Negro Life,’ a mural depicting various stages of the Black experience.
In the late 1930s, Douglas accepted an assistant professor position with Fisk University. He founded the school’s art department and established the college’s Carl Van Vechten Gallery. He then enrolled in classes at Columbia University’s Teacher College in 1941 where he earned his Master’s degree in art education.
After earning another fellowship and several other awards and accolades, Douglas was granted an honorary doctorate from Fisk University in 1973. He continued to paint and give lectures until 1979. Aaron Douglas died on February 2, 1979, of what some reports state was a pulmonary embolism. He was 79 years old.
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