Aaron Douglas
American, 1899–1979
Study for Aspects of Negro Life: The Negro in an African Setting

Gouache, with touches of graphite, on illustration board
372 x 406 mm
Solomon Byron Smith and Margaret Fisher funds, 1990.416

Aaron Douglas completed this finished sketch in preparation for a mural he painted under WPA/FAP sponsorship for the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library in Harlem (now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture). The four-panel series Aspects of Negro Life tracks the journey of African Americans from freedom in Africa to enslavement in the United States and from liberation after the Civil War to life in the modern city. In this study for the first panel, a man and woman in Africa dance to the beat of drums as concentric circles of light emphasize the heat and rhythm of their movements. A sculpture floating in a central circle above the dancers' heads suggests the importance of spirits in African culture.

Kansas-born Douglas was a leading member of the Harlem Renaissance, also known as the New Negro Movement, which flourished in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood during the 1920s. This period of intense creativity in the visual arts, literature, music, and dance inspired African Americans to be proud of the heritage of their race. In the early 20th century, European artists such as Pablo Picasso borrowed elements of African art for their own works. Douglas, however, was among the first African Americans to consciously incorporate African imagery, culture, and history into his art. Although he had never visited Africa, the painter was able to create this image from his imagination. It combines the influence of ancient Egyptian sculpture with the modern Art Deco style.