A first-generation artist of the New Negro Movement, Hale Aspacio Woodruff created paintings, prints, and murals that depict the historic struggles and perseverance of African Americans. Though some of his work 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.

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 he learned about African and African American art. An encounter with William Edouard Scott, who had just returned from Europe, inspired him 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 salon 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 that role, he also instructed students at two other historically black colleges: nearby Morehouse and Spelman colleges. In a 1968 interview, Woodruff recalled his return to the American South as “coming home.” It was during his time in Atlanta that he discovered American Regionalism. Eager to create art that spoke to the black experience, his penchant for abstraction soon gave way to a more representational and socially conscious art. As a result, the artists emerging from his tutelage were often referred to as belonging to the “Atlanta School” or the “Outhouse School.” The latter designation was inspired by Woodruff's insistence that all visible forms be depicted in his students' landscape paintings, including less picturesque elements like privies. Woodruff believed that “no country can produce a truly great art that does not at the same time have a great sympathy for its poor people.”

As his tenure progressed at Atlanta University, Woodruff grew increasingly distressed by the dearth of opportunities for African American artists on the national stage. In 1942, he 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.

Following a 1936 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's Library. Robert Neal, then a student-teacher at Atlanta University, was Woodruff's chief assistant on the Alabama project.

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 was deeply felt in the South. 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, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the National Gallery of Art, among others.