Exploring Black Art History

How many Black artists do you know of? February is Black History Month, and it’s a great time to learn about some of the Black artists who have drawn their vision of the world to share with us. Let’s meet a few Black artists, starting with one of America’s earliest Black painters, and traveling to today!

Joshua Johnson (Born around 1763, active 1789-1825) 

Joshua Johnson was one of the earliest African American artists. We have his beautiful paintings, but we don’t know too much about him; we don’t even have a picture of him! He was born into slavery near Baltimore around 1763. In 1782, he gained his freedom and then he became a successful painter. He made portraits of families, children, and all sorts of people around Baltimore. Imagine creating a career as an artist through your own studies and effort, after being born into slavery! 

Look at this picture of three brothers and their dog. Joshua Johnson painted this around 1807. You can tell from the picture that the brothers love each other. And everyone in the picture is offering a little gift – each boy has a flower, and even their dog has caught a bird! 

“The Westwood Children” by Joshua Johnson. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Lots of Joshua Johnson’s paintings are of white people and families, because they were more likely than Black families to afford portraits. But he painted some beautiful pictures of African Americans, too. They’re some of the nicest portraits of Black Americans we have from that time. Here is his painting of a Black minister named Abner Coker. 

“Portrait of a Man (Abner Coker)” by Joshua Johnson. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907)

Edmonia Lewis

Edmonia Lewis was a sculptor who was born in New York in 1844. Her father was African American, and her mother was a member of the Ojibwa Native American tribe. Her parents died when she was little, and she grew up in the care of her mother’s tribe.  

When she grew up, Edmonia Lewis studied art and worked as a sculptor in Boston and Rome. She loved to make sculptures of people, especially Black people and Native American people. 

This sculpture is called Old Arrow Maker. It shows Minnehaha and her father, two Native Americans from the story of Hiawatha, which Henry Wadsworth Longfellow told in a famous poem. Hiawatha was from the same tribe as Edmonia Lewis’s mother! 

“Old Arrow Maker” by Edmonia Lewis. Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

This sculpture is called Forever Free. Edmonia Lewis made it in 1867, just a couple years after the Emancipation Proclamation. There are powerful symbols in this sculpture: there are broken chains on the man’s wrists, and the woman is kneeling joyfully in prayer. 

“Forever Free” by Edmonia Lewis. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Aaron Douglas (1899-1979) 

Aaron Lewis

Aaron Douglas was one of the most important artists in a movement called the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was an exciting time in the early 20th century when Black artists, writers, and musicians created an outpouring of art expressing their heritage. Aaron Douglas wasn’t just a painter: he also wrote about art and taught art at Fisk University and other schools. 

Aaron Douglas made many paintings about the experiences of Black people in America. This painting is called Aspiration. It tells the story of African Americans rising from slavery to become leaders in society. You can read the story by starting at the bottom of the painting, where enslaved people raise their chained hands in hope. Then move up the painting, and you’ll see strong Black people holding symbols of education and accomplishment, like a globe and a book. Then look at the top of the painting, and you’ll see the beautiful world they hope to build.

“Aspiration” by Aaron Douglas. Courtesy of the deYoung Museum.

There are also lots of circles in Aspiration. (Do you see them, around the lady holding a book?) Aaron Douglas liked to use circles in his art to represent the sound waves of music. What kind of music to you imagine when you look at this painting? 

Aaron Douglas loved jazz. This picture is called Dance. Do you see all the circles in this picture? The circles show that music is coming from the saxophones and other musical instruments on the painting’s edges, for the couple to dance to! 

“Dance” by Aaron Douglas. Courtesy of Arthive.

Selma Burke (1900-1995)

Selma Burke

If you can find a dime, you’ll see art by Selma Burke! She is the sculptor who made the portrait of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that is on our dimes. Here is a photo of Selma Burke with her original version of this portrait. It’s a semi-flat sculpture, a style that’s called bas-relief. (The “bas” is prounounced “baaa”!) 

Selma Burke was born in North Carolina, and originally she planned to be a nurse. She got involved in the exciting arts scene of the Harlem Renaissance, and then decided to study sculpture in Vienna, Austria. She loved to teach, too: she founded her own schools of art in New York and Pittsburgh. 

Selma Burke made many sculptures of influential African American leaders. In this photo, you can see her posing with her sculpture of the writer and teacher Booker T. Washington. 

Portrait bust of Booker T. Washington by Selma Burke. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

But Selma Burke didn’t just make sculptures of famous people. Look at this beautiful wood carving she made of a mother and her child. It shows a Black lady sweetly holding her sleeping baby. Can you feel the love expressed in this art? 

“Untitled (Woman and Child)” by Selma Burke. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Loïs Mailou Jones (1905-1988)

Loïs Mailou Jones was a brave and brilliant art student. She was the first African American woman to graduate from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. And she was only eighteen when she hosted her first solo show of her own art! She became a very successful painter and teacher, and was a professor for many years at Howard University, where she inspired new generations of Black artists. 

Loïs Mailou Jones’s art doesn’t all look the same. She used many different styles from all over the world in her work. This painting is inspired by the French Impressionist style, where artists suggest images with soft shapes instead of drawing firm outlines.

“Jarden de Luxembourg” by Loïs Mailou Jones. Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

This painting is inspired by African tribal art motifs. It’s an abstract painting, which means it’s not meant to look exactly like a scene from everyday life. Loïs Mailou Jones called this painting Moon Masque. Can you see the image in the middle, between the two faces, that looks a bit like the moon, and a bit like a mask? The mask looks like it’s crying, even though it’s placed between colorful patterns. How does this painting make you feel? 

“Moon Masque” by Loïs Mailou Jones. Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Kehinde Wiley (b. 1977) 

Photo of Kehinde Wiley by Brad Ogbonn. Courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens

Kehinde Wiley is an American painter living and working today. He loves to paint portraits that combine the present and the past.

For a lot of European and American art history, most portraits showed white people, not people of color, because white people were more likely to be rich enough to afford portraits. (Remember how almost all of Joshua Johnson’s portraits were of white people?)

But in Kehinde Wiley’s paintings, you can see contemporary African Americans, wearing modern clothes, in settings inspired by historical art. By putting contemporary Black people in paintings with a historical backdrop, Kehinde Wiley gives us a chance to celebrate people of color in positions of power and beauty. 

For example, look at this picture, called Equestrian Portrait of Philip IV. This picture is inspired by a painting of the Spanish King Philip IV by the famous 17th-century artist Velasquez. Instead of King Philip on his horse, Kehinde Wiley painted a strong, beautifully dressed Black man in this powerful pose instead.  

“Equestrian Portrait of Philip IV” by Kahinde Wiley. Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, Oklahoma. © Kehinde Wiley; courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California

In 2008, Kehinde Wiley painted a portrait of President Barak Obama for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. He filled the portrait with beauty and symbolism.

Can you see all the flowers in the background? They all have meaning. There’s jasmine, a flower that grows in Hawaii, where President Obama grew up. There are also African blue lilies, in honor of the President Obama’s father, who was from Kenya.

The painting tells us about Barak Obama’s own history, while also making an image of him as a part of history. 

“Portrait of Barak Hussein Obama” by Kahinde Wiley. © 2018 Kehinde Wiley. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

Shantell Martin (b. 1980)

Shantell Martin and her Installation for the New York City Ballet. Image courtesy of the artist.

Shantell Martin is another wonderful Black artist living and working in America today. She was born in England, and now she lives in New York City and teaches at New York University. Shantell Martin has a unique style of black and white drawing that’s playful and expressive.  

Shantell Martin has made a lot of art while working with other kinds of artists. She did a project with the musician Kendrick Lamar, and one with the New York City Ballet, too! Can you think of ways to combine visual art with other art forms? Maybe dance or music can inspire you next time you get out your art supplies!  

One of Shantell Martin’s favorite ways to make art is drawing in real time while listening to music. Have you ever tried that? Any time you like, you can listen to ICAN with some paper and a pen and draw how the music makes you feel! 

Shantell Martin likes to do live drawing to music in front of audiences, so they can experience the creativity with her. This makes her art really immediate and different from anyone else’s. You can see some of her live drawing in this video, where Shantell Martin talks about what drawing means to her. 

Learn More!

Would you like to learn about more great African American artists? Check out this wonderful list from the National Gallery of Art!

What beautiful pieces of art can you discover?