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Teaching the American Twenties: Exploring the Decade through Literature and Art


Harlem Renaissance

Visual Art

Aaron Douglas

Alain Locke's 1925 issue of the Survey Graphic was a special issue of the social work journal known as Survey. This issue attempted to illustrate the African-American political and cultural developments emerging through Harlem. When this publication came to the attention of Kansas artist Aaron Douglas, it was "the most cogent single factor" in encouraging him to move to New York. Like African-Americans throughout the country, Douglas was drawn to Harlem and its community of creative artists.

The Survey Graphic also introduced him to the modernist and folk-art inspired work of Winold Reiss. The German artist became Douglas's teacher and encouraged Douglas to study African art forms and embrace modernism. Along with Reiss and Miguel Covarrubias, Douglas provided illustrations for The New Negro, the book-length development of the original Survey Graphic issue. In a letter to his wife, he noted, "I'll be the only Negro artist with a drawing in it... Some sampling, eh?" The New Negro provided a springboard for Douglas, and his work began appearing in magazines, including Opportunity and The Crisis.

Among Douglas's best-known works are his cover for Fire!! and his illustrations for James Weldon Johnson's collection of "seven Negro sermons in verse," God's Trombones (1927). His work has become a visual marker of the Harlem Renaissance.

Miguel Covarrubias

Charlotte Osgood Mason, white patron of Harlem Renaissance artists Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Claude McKay, was also a sometime "godmother" to Miguel Covarrubias. Covarrubias, born and raised in Mexico, was one of many international writers and artists who were inspired by the cultural renaissance taking place in Harlem.

Covarrubias arrived in New York in 1923 and began documenting African-American life in and around Harlem, sometimes publishing these images in Vanity Fair.

With introductions provided by former New York Times music critic Carl Van Vechten, he was soon tapped to provide illustrations for The New Negro and Langston Hughes's The Weary Blues. He published a collection of these works in 1927 under the title Negro Drawings.

While his work was generally well-received, W. E. B. Du Bois and other critics expressed some concern over his depiction of African-American life.

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Drawing "Flapper" from Negro Drawings
Miguel Covarrubias

Covarrubias was captivated by Harlem and its inhabitants. In Negro Drawings (1927) he drew a variety of Harlem society types, including the flapper.

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