Originally from Topeka, Kansas, Aaron Douglas earned his bachelor of fine arts degree 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 and became a part of the exciting cultural movement inspired by the teachings of Alain Locke, an African American philosopher and social activist. The New Negro Movement emphasized self-respect and pride among African 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 style based on European traditions. His contemporaries encouraged him to look to traditional African art and motifs as he developed his aesthetic voice. Through his study with the German modernist Winold Reiss, Douglas developed his penchant for strong lines and clean edges. Douglas's 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 1920s, 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 pictorial history, 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). He also executed murals for Fisk University and the Harlem YMCA. 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. A 1937 Julius Rosenwald Foundation fellowship funded brief residencies at three historically black schools: Tuskegee Institute, Dillard University, and Fisk University. This experience 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. A second Rosenwald grant supported travel to Haiti and other Caribbean islands the following year. In 1944, Douglas received a master’s degree from the Teachers College at Columbia University.

Douglas later accepted a full-time professorship at Fisk and remained a member of the faculty until his retirement in 1966. His broad campus influence was especially evident in the inter-disciplinary activities of the university’s Van Vechten Gallery. Throughout his tenure, he clearly and consistently exhorted students to be global ambassadors of African American culture. Fisk, along with Spelman College in Atlanta and Hampton University in Virginia, was one of a handful of HBCUs that displayed the Harmon Foundation’s traveling African American art exhibitions between 1928 and 1933. When the foundation dispersed its assets in 1967, the art inventory was divided between four institutions: the National Portrait Gallery, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Hampton, and Fisk. Many credit Aaron Douglas with the gift to Fisk, which numbered approximately two hundred objects.