Aaron Douglas is widely recognized as one of the leading American artists of the twentieth century, and a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Originally from Topeka, Kansas, Douglas earned his BFA from the University of Nebraska and briefly worked as a high school art teacher. Feeling that he had a higher calling, Douglas moved to New York City in 1925 to be part of the exciting cultural movement spearheaded by the teachings of Alain Locke, an African American philosopher and social activist. The “New Negro” movement put forth by Locke promoted self-respect and pride among black Americans, and the enormous creative outpouring that resulted became known as the Harlem Renaissance.
When Douglas arrived in Harlem, he was painting in an academic and realistic style based on European traditions. Fellow Renaissance artists and friends encouraged him to look to traditional African art and motifs as he developed his unique artistic voice. Through his study with the artist Winold Reiss, Douglas developed his penchant for strong lines and clean edges. Douglas' mature style combined simple African imagery with geometric patterning and angular silhouettes. The starkness of the figures combined with the complex compositional design contributed to the emotional impact of his work. During the twenties Douglas also illustrated many Afro-centric books and magazines and painted murals for Harlem businesses. His best known mural series, Aspects of Negro Life (1934), a large four-paneled visual history of blacks in America, was painted for the Countee Cullen Branch of the New York Public Library in Harlem (now known as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture). Throughout his career, Douglas strove to capture the complexity and grand scope of the African American experience.
In 1931, Douglas received a grant to study in Paris. While there he took classes at the Académie Scandinave and began to work in a more naturalistic style, including portraits and landscapes. He received a second grant in 1935 to travel to Haiti and through the Southern states. This trip served to strengthen his dedication to promoting social change for his fellow African Americans, and he actively sought to obtain WPA recognition for black artists throughout the Depression. In 1937, Douglas began to teach art classes at Fisk University, a historically black college located in Nashville, Tennessee. He accepted a full time professorship at the school after earning his MFA from Columbia University in 1944. Douglas taught at Fisk and served as the art department chair until his retirement in 1966.