Collectors’ Focus The Harlem Renaissance Emma Crichton-Miller Work by artists of the Harlem Renaissance has been highly regarded by African-American collectors for decades. More recently, international interest has grown in what is increasingly recognised, quite simply, as great American art – and the market is catching up
In March 1925 the progressive American journal of sociology Survey Graphic published a special issue, ‘Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro’, guest-edited by the philosopher, writer and educator Alain Locke. His introductory essay, ‘The New Negro’, is one of the founding documents of the Harlem Renaissance, documenting and fuelling the explosion of literature, music and visual art by African Americans in the 1920s and 1930s, in and around New York.
One young African-American artist Locke inspired was Aaron Douglas (1899–1979), then an art teacher in Kansas City, Missouri. In New York, Douglas quickly forged a powerful synthesis of African art with European cubism and art deco, which, through his illustrations of James Weldon Johnson’s landmark collection of poems God’s Trombones (1927) and, later, his murals and paintings, became emblematic of the Harlem Renaissance. As an art critic, too, Douglas was crucial in the flowering of this movement, with its distinctive blend of creative experimentation, economic and cultural ambition, and Christianity. Other artists associated included the sculptors Richmond Barthé (1901–89) and Augusta Savage (1892–1962), the painters Palmer Hayden (1890–1973), William H. Johnson (1901–70), Loïs Mailou Jones (1905–98) and Archibald Motley, Jr (1891–1981), and the photographer James Van Der Zee (1886–1983), best-known for his portraits of middle-class African Americans in New York.
While some point to 1929 and the Great Depression as the terminus of this optimistic era, others see its influence roll on into the 1930s, ’40s and beyond, as African-American artists travelled between France and America and to other American cities, passing on their experience. Nigel Freeman, who established
1. The Businessmen, 1947, Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000), egg tempera on hardboard, 51.1 × 70cm. Sotheby’s New York, $6.2m the African-American fine-art department at New York’s Swann Auction Galleries in 2007, comments: ‘The Harlem Renaissance was the first generation of African-American artists who were able to represent the AfricanAmerican experience.’
Many of those artists had been collected consistently by African-American buyers, but wider interest quickened only after 2006. In February 2008, Freeman offered two rare and highly characteristic pieces by Aaron Douglas: one was a monochrome gouacheon-board painting of Emperor Jones (1926), title character of Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 play,
once in the collection of High Cross House, Dartington Hall, in Devon; it sold for $90,000, on a $35,000–$50,000 estimate. The other was a small painting from 1944, Building More Stately Mansions, which fetched a staggering $600,000 against an estimate of $100,000– $150,000 – still Douglas’s global auction record. Freeman explains: ‘With this market, people are focused on key images: key AfricanAmerican subjects in African-American style.’ But such pieces are increasingly hard to find. Since then, the market has grown. In April 2018 Freeman offered two rare screen prints by William H. Johnson from his experimental
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