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"The Founding of Chicago" by Aaron Douglas Acquired by Spencer Museum of Art

July 15, 2006


The Spencer Museum of Art has acquired a significant work by Aaron Douglas, an African American artist from Kansas who went on to be the most important visual artist of the Harlem Renaissance, a period of artistic efflorescence that helped define American culture of the 1920s and 30s.

The work, The Founding of Chicago, was painted between 1930 and 1933. A symbolic representation of the role that African Americans played in the economic and physical development of Chicago, the painting shows a laboring man and an enchained mother with infant beholding an urban vista.  The man portrayed may represent Jean Baptiste du Sable, the French African American who founded Chicago. The work is painted with gouache on paper board and measures 14 3/4 x 12 3/16 inches.

"I am thrilled by the addition of this important Aaron Douglas work to the Spencer Museum collection," said KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway, who is known for his biography of writer Zora Neale Hurston, a cohort of Douglas's. "The Founding of Chicago is powerful and provocative, and it demonstrates why this native Kansan is considered the leading visual artist of the Harlem Renaissance."

The Founding of Chicago will be a crucial component of the first-ever traveling retrospective exhibition of Douglas's work, which the Spencer is currently organizing. Opening in September 2007 at the Spencer, Aaron Douglas, African American Modernist will also have venues in Nashville, Washington, D.C., and New York, and will be accompanied by a scholarly catalogue edited by Susan Earle, the exhibition curator and the Spencer's Curator of European & American Art, with contributions by the leading scholars of African American art. Yale University Press will publish the exhibition catalogue; the Henry Luce Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts are supporting the exhibition.

Curator Susan Earle said, "The Founding of Chicago greatly increases the depth to which Douglas and his work can be appreciated and understood by visitors to the Spencer and KU. The new acquisition joins an important example of Douglas's graphic work that the Spencer acquired in 2003 -- a portfolio of six prints mixing Douglas's imagery with text by Langston Hughes and published in 1926 by the progressive journal Opportunity." Earle notes that the provenance of the painting is impeccable; the museum purchased the work from a private individual who bought the painting directly from Douglas.

"It is exciting that the Spencer Museum of Art has acquired the gouache study," said Renée Ater, Assistant Professor of Arts of the African Diaspora at The University of Maryland, and a contributing essayist to the forthcoming exhibition catalogue. "The work helps us to better understand Douglas's working method. Through his use of gouache studies, Douglas seemed to have developed his conceptual and visual understanding of a theme and then not to deviate too far from it in the final mural or painting."

Freestanding painted works by Douglas seldom appear in the art market (much of his artistic production resulted in fixed murals and in graphic illustrations for books and periodicals). The Spencer has examined many works by Douglas and considers this one of the finest works by Douglas to come on the market in many years. It exemplifies Douglas's powerful artistic style and ability to articulate a progressive, utopian vision. The acquisition of such an important work by one of Kansas's most distinguished native sons is a great triumph not only for the Spencer and the University of Kansas, but indeed, for the entire state.

"The Founding of Chicago is truly a hallmark of the didactic style that gained Douglas commendation during the Harlem Renaissance and for which he is renowned today," said Stephanie Fox Knappe, exhibition coordinator for Aaron Douglas, African American Modernist and KU doctoral candidate in art history. "The painting features Douglas's distinctive restricted palette, potent economy of form, and figures in strong silhouette."

Knappe said that although relatively small in scale, the monochromatic gouache is as powerful in its composition and content as Douglas's large format oils held in such collections as the Corcoran in Washington, D.C.; the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.; and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York.. "This signature work," Knappe said, "is evidence of the artist's keen eye and profound ability to wed the historic with elements of modernism to create a message of uplift."

Aaron Douglas (1899-1979) was the foremost visual artist of the Harlem Renaissance. A native of Topeka, Kansas, and a socially conscious artist, Douglas vividly captured the spirit of his time and established a new black aesthetic and vision. Working from a politicized concept of personal identity, he combined art-deco dynamism with African and African American imagery to produce a new visual vocabulary that evoked current realities and hope for a better future. His work is the most powerful visual legacy of the Harlem Renaissance and has had a lasting impact on the art and cultural heritage of the nation.

"The new Aaron Douglas acquisition strengthens the collection of the Spencer Museum, contributing to the understanding and appreciation of an important American artist as we share Douglas' work with the public now and in the future," said Spencer Director Saralyn Reece Hardy. "This joins in our collection the collaborative portfolio made by Douglas and Langston Hughes, another important Kansas-born artist, for the journal Opportunity. We acquired The Founding of Chicago in anticipation of the exhibition that will open in 2007 and travel nationally." 





(above: Aaron Douglas 1899-1979, born Topeka, Kansas; died Nashville, Tennessee, active United States, The Founding of Chicago, circa 1933, gouache on paper board,14 3/4 x 12 3/8 inches. Spencer Museum of Art, The University of Kansas. Museum purchase: R. Charles and Mary Margaret Clevenger Fund, 2006.0027)


Exhibition History of Painting

Fisk University Galleries, Nashville,The Art of Aaron Douglas: A Centenary Celebration, April -November 2000, no. 13 (as Founding of Chicago [Mural Study])
Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, An Enduring Legacy: Art of the Americas from Nashville Collections, 8 April 2001-10 March 2002, no. 27  (as The Founding of Chicago)
Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, Challenge of the Modern: African-American Artists, 1925-1945, 23 January-30 March 2003, no. 33 (as Birth of Chicago [Study for Chicago Sheridan Hotel Mural])


About Aaron Douglas, African American Modernist

Aaron Douglas, African American Modernist presents the first nationally touring retrospective of the work of Aaron Douglas (1899-1979), the foremost visual artist of the Harlem Renaissance. A native of Topeka, Kansas, and a socially conscious artist, Douglas vividly captured the spirit of his time and established a new black aesthetic and utopian vision. Working from a politicized concept of personal identity, he combined angular cubist rhythms and a seductive art-deco dynamism with traditional African and African American imagery to develop a radically new visual vocabulary that evoked both current realities and hopes for a better future. In paintings, murals, and illustrations for books and progressive journals, his forceful ideas and their distinctive artistic form produced the most powerful visual legacy of the Harlem Renaissance and made a lasting impact on the history of art and the cultural heritage of the nation.

With grant support from the Henry Luce Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, Aaron Douglas, African American Modernist highlights this achievement, including Douglas's work in New York and his subsequent teaching at historically black Fisk University in Nashville. By considering Douglas and the work he created between the 1920s and 1940s as a prime example and test case, we interrogate the boundaries of American modernism in order to assess the seminal but neglected role of the Harlem Renaissance and one of its most important artists. We are working closely with Fisk and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, as well as an outstanding national advisory group, to prepare this exhibition. Planning and research for the project commenced at the time of Douglas's 100th birthday in 1999.

The exhibition of approximately 83 objects, plus ephemera, brings together many rarely seen Douglas works from public institutions and private collections. The exhibition features 33 paintings and 31 works on paper by Douglas, the latter including acrylic, tempera, gouache, pastel, watercolor, pen and ink, and etching. It also incorporates six works by his contemporaries and students including Loïs Mailou Jones and William Johnson, as well as portraits of Douglas, printing plates and sketchbooks, and ephemera related to the Harlem Renaissance.  The exhibition tour follows Douglas's trajectory with three of its venues closely related to the artist's career: northeast Kansas, where he grew up; Nashville, where he taught for 29 years; and New York, where he took center stage in the Harlem Renaissance.

The exhibition meets the challenge of presenting an artist best known for two types of work that resist typical museum presentation:  large-scale public murals, and magazine and book illustrations. A number of the public murals are portable and will be shown with accompanying preparatory studies. Douglas's in situ murals in New York and Nashville will be represented through an artist-made video commissioned by the Spencer Museum, providing a link between the historical works and contemporary art. To accurately convey the power of Douglas's output, we also focus on his work in graphic media and design, including his illustrations for progressive journals such as Opportunity and his collaboration with writers such as Alain Locke in The New Negro and James Weldon Johnson for God's Trombones. Douglas's skill at combining art and text-filled with meaning, strength, and style-created a socially engaged vision and a whole new territory for self-expression, and has influenced generations ever after.

Of special interest to the Spencer's exploration of Douglas and the Harlem Renaissance is the Midwestern origin of artists associated with what seems a distinctly urban and East Coast phenomenon. Douglas and his good friend Langston Hughes both spent their childhoods in Kansas, while other important writers such as Claude McKay and Countee Cullen had Midwestern ties. The exhibition will illuminate not only the Midwestern roots of the "New Negro" outpouring in Harlem, but also how Douglas's influence extended far beyond the Harlem neighborhood and the years most closely associated with the Harlem Renaissance. 


Book Summary

In conjunction with the exhibition, Yale University Press will co-publish a 240-page, multi-author book that assesses Douglas's achievements and historical significance. Despite Alain Locke's prescient claim that Douglas was "the father of Black American art," the artist's role and his importance have never been fully articulated or understood. We expect the publication to be the definitive work on Douglas, with original essays by leading scholars in the field. Based on archival research at Fisk University and the Schomburg Center, the exhibition and book break new ground and argue for Douglas's rightful place as a major figure in the development of twentieth-century art.

In addition to the seven illustrated essays listed below, there will be two forewords to the catalogue; an illustrated chronology detailing Douglas's life and career; images of all the exhibited works; a checklist of the exhibition; and a selected bibliography. The book will include 150 color plates and 50 black-and-white images.


Confirmed essayists & their topics

Kinshasha Holman Conwill, Deputy Director, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of  African American History & Culture:  Introduction
Dr. Richard J. Powell, John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art and Art History at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina:  The Aaron Douglas Effect
Prof. David Driskell, Distinguished Professor of Art at the University of Maryland, College
Park:  Some Observations on Aaron Douglas as Tastemaker in the Renaissance Movement
Dr. Susan Earle, exhibition organizer and catalogue editor, and Curator of European and American Art, Spencer Museum of Art, The University of Kansas:  The Politics of Modernism in Harlem and Beyond:  Aaron Douglas and his Role in Art/History
Dr. Renée Ater, Assistant Professor of Arts of the African Diaspora, University of Maryland: Creating a "Usable Past" and a "Future Perfect Society": Aaron Douglas' Murals for the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition
Cheryl Ragar, completing doctoral dissertation on Douglas at The University of Kansas, and Visiting Instructor, Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, Drury University, Springfield, Missouri:  Aaron Douglas as Public Figure in Black Life: From Kansas to Harlem
Dr. Amy Kirschke, Assistant Professor of Art History, University of North Carolina, Wilmington:  The Fisk Murals Restoration


Educational Materials and Programming Summary

In addition to the exhibition book and a free, full-color brochure, educational materials will include an interactive instructional website, a family activity sheet, and an education packet consistent with national arts education standards. This packet will include background biographical and historical information; a tour script and selection of images; K-12 teachers' lesson plans and suggested activities; and reproducible youth and adult gallery guides, written in both English and Spanish.

Extensive interdisciplinary programming for the exhibition at the Spencer Museum of Art will include a jazz and dance festival, a performance by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, public lectures, and a scholarly symposium.


Editor's note: readers may also enjoy African American Art from Topics in American Representational Art.

Short clip on "Art Treasures of Nebraska - Aaron Douglas" from NETnebraska

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