Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on February 18, 2005 in Resource Library with permission of Oxford University Press. The essay was excerpted from the book Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you are interested in obtaining a copy of the book, please contact Oxford University Press at the following Web address:


African American Art

Painting, sculpture, graphic arts, and crafts developed by people of African descent in the United States and thematically and stylistically informed by African American culture.

By Richard Powell


The term African American art means different things to different people. For some the term designates a largely racial phenomenon, describing all artistic products -- paintings, sculptures, graphic arts, crafts, architecture, etc. -- created by North Americans of African descent. For others the preceding definition fails to take into account the cultural, in addition to the racial, implications of the term. For this latter group African American art refers to the artistic and visual products not just of North Americans of African descent but of many peoples whose work has been shaped thematically, stylistically, formally, and theoretically by the confluence of black Atlantic cultures -- folkways and traditions formed as a result of the TRANSATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE and further developed during alternating periods of colonialism, emancipation, discrimination, and self-assertion. For our purposes the concept of African American art moves freely between these two definitions, providing readers with both the breadth of such an idea and the possibilities for an object-centered and culturally informed definition.


Arts and Crafts during the Colonial, Federalist, and Antebellum Years

During America's infancy (in the period between the 1600s and the early 1800s), what one could describe as African American art indeed embraced a range of forms and definitions. A small drum, several wrought-iron figures, dozens of ceramic face vessels, and a few examples of domestic architecture found among enslaved black communities in the southern United States have been singled out for their similarities with comparable crafts, functional objects, and structures in West and Central Africa . In contrast, black artisans like the New England­based engraver SCIPIO MOORHEAD and the Baltimore portrait painter Joshua Johnson created art that, despite occasional portrayals of black subjects, was conceived in a thoroughly western European fashion. Other workshop -- or academically -- trained African American artists prior to the American Civil War (1861­1865) -- New Yorkers Patrick Reason and William Simpson, Philadelphian Robert Douglass, and the New Orleans -- and Paris-based brothers Daniel and Eugene Warburg -- also created works of art that were indistinguishable from those of white printmakers, painters, and sculptors.


Civil War and Post-Reconstruction Years

The tensions between an art that referred to people's social conditions and an art that transcended race and class politics are represented by the works of two artists active during the 1860s and 1870s: sculptor EDMONIA LEWIS and landscape painter ROBERT S. DUNCANSON. Lewis -- who studied art at Oberlin College, independently in Boston, Massachusetts, and among American and British expatriates in Italy -- used the artistic conventions of neoclassicism to create powerful marble statuary on the subjects of black American emancipation, female oppression, and Native Americans. Duncanson -- working mostly in Cincinnati, Ohio, and other locations in the Ohio River Valley -- painted dreamy, pastoral scenes that recalled the aesthetics of the Hudson River School rather than overtly racial and political themes. Yet the racially tinged ordeals that both of these artists grappled with at various points in their careers gave even their most apolitical portrait busts and landscape allegories a social dimension, thus justifying the African American designation of their work.

A similar political/apolitical bifurcation is present in the work and lives of artists working between 1865 and 1900. First against a social backdrop of enfranchisement and hope and later against one of disenfranchisement and despair, landscape painters like EDWARD MITCHELL BANNISTER and William Harper created moody, Barbizon School-like scenes, bereft of the political jockeying and white-on-black violence that characterized African American lives at the end of the century. For painter HENRY OSSAWA TANNER the pressures of American racism and the burdens of representing his race were too great. His 1891 move to Paris, France, encouraged his interest in painting mostly biblical scenes in a part academic, part symbolist manner. In contrast, the Athens, Georgia, seamstress Harriet Powers, oblivious to the world of art galleries and exhibitions, created at least two powerful Bible quilts that bore strong similarities to West African textile arts, especially to the cloth appliqués from the AKAN and FON peoples.

Increasingly, heroic and uplifting portrayals of African Americans appeared in paintings and sculpture in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Artist EDWIN A. HARLESTON was renowned for his paintings of distinguished (and affluent) black Americans. Sculptors Isaac Scott Hathaway and May Howard Jackson also dedicated much of their careers to creating portrait busts of African American notables past and present. In the pages of the journal the Voice of the Negro artist John Henry Adams, Jr., created dozens of African American portraits: finely drawn and idealized in the manner of the white illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, but informed by an emerging racial consciousness. In the more symbolic and allegorical works of the sculptor META WARRICK FULLER, a black cultural cognizance manifested itself in important nineteenth-century topics such as emancipation and in pieces that foreshadowed several themes that would be important for artists and intellectuals in subsequent years (the African past, a black cultural rebirth, etc.).


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