Harlem Renaissance (Art Movement)

What is the Harlem Renaissance?

The Harlem Renaissance is a period in the American History, spanning the 1920s and the 1930s, characterized by the rebirth of the African American culture and black identity empowerment. This revival was particularly evident in literature, arts, music, theatre and fashion.

The Harlem Renaissance writers, painters, and sculptors celebrated the cultural traditions of African-Americans. Through interdisciplinary cultural activities and political activism, they promoted the legacy of black identity, seeking to undermine racial stereotypes and caricatures. They countered inequality, discrimination and white supremacy through self-determination and pride.

The nerve centre and symbol of this expansion was the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, hence the name Harlem Renaissance, even though the artistic and cultural movement expanded beyond the borders of New York. In fact, in the first half of the 1920s, Harlem was marked by a high concentration of black people and it attracted migrants from around the country for its job opportunities and lively atmosphere.

The Harlem Renaissance is also known as the New Negro Movement, an expression that was taken from the anthology of poetry and essays on African American art The New Negro, edited in 1925 by Alain Locke. The collection is now considered a theoretical pillar of the movement.

Notable Harlem Renaissance Artworks

History of Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance was a phase of revival of African American art and culture that emerged in the early 20th century, but it also influenced the subsequent civil rights movements of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. The centre of this cultural renaissance was the Harlem district in New York City. The foundations of the movement are, in fact, to be found in the Great Migration that involved in the early 1900s African Americans from rural to urban spaces, and from South to North, in search of new socioeconomic opportunities, who created in Harlem a new and growing middle class and a community open to experimentation. In Harlem, African American rights movements, intellectual circles, a new art scene and new sensibilities were created. The advent of the Great Depression (1929) and World War II (1930s) brought this phase of American culture to a halt.

The symbolic starting date of Harlem Renaissance is identified in the 1924, when the academic journal Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life organized a party exclusively for black writers. However, from a cultural point of view, the struggle of African American culture to break out of a stereotyped and subordinate position had already begun. For example, in 1917 it was performed Granny Maumee, The Rider of Dreams, Simon the Cyrenian: Plays for a Negro Theater by Ridgley Torrence, a play that openly rejected the racist use of blackface and minstrel shows. In 1919, the poet Claude McKay also published a militant sonnet, entitled If We Must Die, in which he claimed the value of African cultural heritage. In this vibrant context, painters, sculptors, musicians and performers dedicated themselves to creating art that reconnected with African American cultural roots, which had hitherto been misrepresented or ignored, under the label of Primitivism.

The Harlem Renaissance also impacted other cities, countries and minorities. Black intellectuals from Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Washington and Baltimore joined the cause, but Afro-Caribbean and British West Indian intellectuals and expatriates were also an integral part of the movement. Francophone black writers from the African and Caribbean colonies active in Paris were also influenced by the demands of the Harlem Renaissance. This moment of rebirth, therefore, did not only impact African Americans but all cultures born from the African diaspora.

From a sociological point of view, it was a moment of reappropriation and consciousness-raising, which placed the black experience at the centre of American history. It was not immune to criticism: the art of the Harlem Renaissance was often accused of being a copy of the artistic values of European and white culture, rather than a new and independent artistic production, and the black intellectuals were derogatorily called ‘dicky niggers’.

Although there was no common artistic style, the Harlem Renaissance saw the spread of African American music, especially Jazz and Blues, the use of performing arts, and the birth of a black avant-garde in the visual arts. Visual artists -sculptors, printmakers, painters- created a new repertoire of representations that portrayed the lives of African Americans, outside of stereotypes and white caricatures. The medium of photography also documented life in the Harlem neighbourhood at the time, as evidenced by the famous 1969 exhibition ‘Harlem on My Mind’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York).

The Harlem Renaissance art movement was characterised by a great variety of expression, pluralism, and debate. Its legacy had an impact on  black cultural history, influencing the subsequent black art and literature, but also, from a global perspective, it raised greater worldwide awareness of the black experience.

Notable Artists of the Harlem Renaissance

  • Aaron Douglas (May 26, 1899 – February 2, 1979), American
  • James Lesesne Wells (1902–1993) , American
  • Hale Aspacio Woodruff(August 26, 1900 – September 6, 1980), American
  • James Augustus Van Der Zee (June 29, 1886 – May 15, 1983) , American
  • James Richmond Barthé (January 28, 1901 – March 5, 1989), American
  • Georgette Seabrooke (August 2, 1916 – December 27, 2011), American
  • James Latimer Allen (1907–1977), American
  • Jacob Armstead Lawrence (September 7, 1917 – June 9, 2000), American
  • Augusta Savage (February 29, 1892 – March 27, 1962), American
  • Archibald John Motley, (October 7, 1891 – January 16, 1981), American
  • Norman Wilfred Lewis (July 23, 1909 – August 27, 1979), American
  • Romare Bearden (September 2, 1911 – March 12, 1988), American

Related Terms

  • African American Art
  • Black Identity
  • Roaring Twenties
  • New Negro
  • Black Arts Movement
  • African Diaspora
  • Primitivism
  • American Modernism
  • Social Realism

About Cinzia Franceschini

Cinzia Franceschini is an Italian Art Historian specializing in the History of Art Criticism, with a second degree in Communications and Sociology studies. She studied in Padua, Brussels, Turin as well as anywhere with an Internet connection. She works as a guide in Museum Education Departments and as a Freelance Writer. She writes about Contemporary Arts and Social Sciences, and how they intertwine.

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