A first generation artist of the New Negro Movement, Hale Aspacio Woodruff created paintings, prints, and murals that depict the historic struggle and perseverance of African Americans. Though some of his work, such as his Afro Emblems series, is entirely abstract, Woodruff is perhaps best known for his American scenes that combine a representational style with a modern idiom and African aesthetic. He believed it was important to “keep your artistic level at the highest possible range of development and . . . [simultaneously] make your work convey . . . what we are as a people.” It was a philosophy that Woodruff lived by and one that he passed on to his students at Atlanta University.
A native of Cairo, Illinois, Woodruff began his career as a political cartoonist, first for a high school newspaper in Nashville, Tennessee, and later for an African American newspaper in Indianapolis. It was not until he enrolled in the John Herron Art School in Indianapolis that Woodruff learned about African and African American art. An encounter with William Edouard Scott, who had just returned from Europe, inspired Woodruff to study art, including African art, abroad. Financed in part by an award from the Harmon Foundation, in 1927 Woodruff began a four-year sojourn in Paris, where he became part of what he designated the “Negro Colony.” This group of expatriated African American artists and intellectuals included Henry Ossawa Tanner, Augusta Savage, Alain Locke, and the recently arrived Josephine Baker. Though they did not directly engage with the Parisian artist circle comprised of Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Matisse, and others, Woodruff and his friends were nonetheless aware of their artistic innovations and dealt with similar aesthetic issues in their own work. At the same time, Woodruff explored the ethnographic market with Alain Locke and studied African sculpture in books.
Economic uncertainty brought on by the Great Depression induced Woodruff to accept a teaching position at Atlanta University in 1931. In a 1968 interview, Woodruff recalled his return to the American South as “coming home.” In Atlanta, Woodruff founded an art department that became known as the “Atlanta School” or the “Outhouse School.” The latter designation was inspired by Woodruff’s realist approach that demanded the inclusion of all visible forms in his students’ landscape paintings, including less picturesque elements such as privies. In 1942, Woodruff initiated the Atlanta University Art Annuals, which not only offered a forum for African American artists from across the nation to exhibit their work, but also enabled his local students to experience African American art in a way that they could not otherwise. This exclusively African American art exhibition continued until 1970.
It was during his tenure at Atlanta University that Hale Woodruff discovered American Regionalism. Eager to create art that spoke to the black experience, the artist’s penchant for abstraction soon gave way to a more representational and socially conscious art. During the 1930s, Woodruff created a series of woodcut prints that depict African American life in the South—from brutal lynchings to daily chores. Following a 1938 trip to Mexico during which he studied fresco painting with Diego Rivera, Woodruff began incorporating public art into his oeuvre. He created several powerful murals, including his highly acclaimed The Amistad Mutiny, 1839 at Talladega College and Art of the Negro in Atlanta University Library.
Hale Woodruff was a lifelong advocate of African American art and artists. Although he spent his later years in New York—where he helped establish the Spiral Group (with fellow artists Charles Alston, Romare Bearden, and others) and taught at New York University (where his students included Arthur Rose, Merton Simpson, and Leo Twiggs)—his impact on his Southern home was deeply felt. The Atlanta University Art Annuals led to the creation of an extensive African American art collection at that institution. Woodruff’s paintings can found in the collections of such prestigious institutions as the Cleveland Museum of Art, Detroit Institute of Arts, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and National Gallery of Art, among others.