Aaron Douglas, Harlem Renaissance Painter

aaron douglas
Robert Abbott Sengstacke / Getty Images

Aaron Douglas (1899-1979) was one of the pioneers of the development of African American art. He was a significant member of the Harlem Renaissance movement of the 1920s and 1930s. Later in his life, he promoted the development of arts education in African American communities from his position as the first head of the art department at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.

Fast Facts: Aaron Douglas

  • Occupation: Painter, illustrator, educator
  • Style: Modernist
  • Born: May 26, 1899 in Topeka, Kansas
  • Died: February 2, 1979 in Nashville, Tennessee
  • Education: University of Nebraska
  • Spouse: Alta Sawyer
  • Selected Works: Cover images for The Crisis (1926), Illustrations for James Weldon Johnson's Gods Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1939), Mural series "Aspects of Negro Life" (1934)
  • Notable Quote: "We can go to African life and get a certain amount of form and color, understanding and using this knowledge in development of an expression that interprets our life."

Early Life and Education

Born in Topeka, Kansas, Aaron Douglas grew up in a politically active African American community. His father was a baker and highly valued education despite his low income. Douglas' mother was an amateur artist, and her interest in drawing inspired her son, Aaron.

Following high school graduation, Aaron Douglas wanted to attend college, but he couldn't afford the tuition. He traveled to Detroit, Michigan, with a friend and worked in a Cadillac plant while attending art classes in the evening at the Detroit Museum of Art. Douglas later reported being a victim of racial discrimination at the Cadillac plant.

In 1918, Douglas was finally able to enroll at the University of Nebraska. While World War I raged in Europe, he attempted to join the Student Army Training Corps (SATC), but they dismissed him. Historians speculate it was due to racial segregation in the military. He transferred to the University of Minnesota where he rose to the rank of corporal in the SATC before the end of the war in 1919. Returning to Nebraska, Aaron Douglas earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1922.

aaron douglas invincible music
"Invincible Music: The Spirit of Africa" for "The Crisis" (1926). New York Public Library / Public Domain

Aaron Douglas fulfilled a dream of moving to New York City in 1925. There he studied with artist Winold Reiss, who encouraged him to use his African heritage for artistic inspiration. Reiss drew on the legacy of German folk paper-cuts for his work, and that influence is seen in Douglas' illustration work.

Soon, Aaron Douglas found his reputation as an illustrator rising quickly. He earned commissions for the National Urban League's magazine The Crisis and the NAACP's magazine Opportunity. That work also led to work for nationally popular magazines Harpers and Vanity Fair.

Harlem Renaissance Modernist Painter

By the final years of the 1920s, writers such as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and James Weldon Johnson considered Aaron Douglas part of the movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Early in the following decade, Douglas began painting mural commissions that brought him national fame.

negro in an african setting aaron douglas
"Aspects of Negro Life: The Negro in an African Setting" (1934). New York Public Library / Public Domain

In 1934, with funding from the Public Works Administration, Aaron Douglas painted his best-known set of murals, Aspects of Negro Life, for the Countee Cullen branch of the New York Public Library. For subject matter, Douglas drew on the history of the African American experience from enslavement through the Reconstruction to twentieth-century lynching and segregation. The panel "The Negro in an African Setting" shows Douglas at the peak of his powers. It depicts life in Africa before enslavement as joyous, proud, and firmly rooted in the community.

Aaron Douglas became the first president of the Harlem Artists Guild in 1935. The organization promoted young African American artists and lobbied the Works Progress Administration to provide more opportunities for them.

Arts Educator

In 1938, Aaron Douglas earned a fellowship from the Rosenwald Foundation, a generous provider of stipends to hundreds of African American artists and writers. The funds allowed him to travel to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and the Virgin Islands and create watercolor paintings of life there.

song of the towers aaron douglas
"Aspects of Negro Life: Song of the Towers" (1934). New York Public Library / Public Domain

Upon returning to the U.S., Charles S. Johnson, the first African American president of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, invited Douglas to create the university's new art department. Aaron Douglas served as head of the art department until his retirement in 1966.

President John F. Kennedy invited Aaron Douglas to the White House to participate in ceremonies honoring the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1963. Douglas continued to appear as a guest lecturer after retirement until his death in 1979.


from slavery to reconstruction aaron douglas
"Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery to Reconstruction" (1934). New York Public Library / Public Domain

Some consider Aaron Douglas to be "the father of Black American art." His modernist style laid a framework for the development of art in African American communities. The bold, graphical style of his work is echoed in the work of many artists. Contemporary artist Kara Walker exhibits the influence of Douglas's use of silhouettes and paper cut-outs.


  • Ater, Renee. Aaron Douglas: African-American Modernist. Yale University Press, 2007.
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Lamb, Bill. "Aaron Douglas, Harlem Renaissance Painter." ThoughtCo, Aug. 2, 2021, thoughtco.com/aaron-douglas-4707870. Lamb, Bill. (2021, August 2). Aaron Douglas, Harlem Renaissance Painter. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/aaron-douglas-4707870 Lamb, Bill. "Aaron Douglas, Harlem Renaissance Painter." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/aaron-douglas-4707870 (accessed May 30, 2023).