Augusta Savage

Sculptor and Educator

Augusta Savage Sculpture "The Harp"
Augusta Savage sculpture "The Harp" at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Archive Photos/Sherman Oaks Antique Mall/Getty Images

Augusta Savage, an African American sculptor, struggled to succeed as a sculptor despite barriers of race and sex.. She is known for her sculptures of W.E.B. DuBoisFrederick DouglassMarcus Garvey; "Gamin," and others. She is considered part of the Harlem Renaissance arts and culture revival.  

Early Life

Augusta Christine Fells Savage lived from February 29, 1892 - March 26, 1962

She was born Augusta Fells in Green Cove Springs, Florida.

As a young child, she made figures out of clay, despite religious objections of her father, a Methodist minister. When she began school in West Palm Beach, a teacher responded to her clear talent by engaging her in teaching classes in clay modeling. At college, she earned money selling animal figures at a county fair.

Marriages

She married John T. Moore in 1907, and their daughter, Irene Connie Moore, was born the next year, shortly before John died.  She married James Savage in 1915, keeping his name even after their 1920s divorce and her remarriage.

Sculpting Career

In 1919 she won an award for her booth at the county fair in Palm Beach. The fair's superintendent encouraged her to go to New York to study art, and she was able to enroll at Cooper Union, a college without tuition, in 1921. When she lost the caretaking job that covered her other expenses, the school sponsored her.

A librarian found out about her financial problems, and arranged for her to sculpt a bust of African American leader, W.E.B.

DuBois, for the 135th St. branch of the New York Public Library.

Commissions continued, including one for a bust of Marcus Garvey. During the Harlem Renaissance, Augusta Savage enjoyed growing success, though a 1923 rejection for a summer of study in Paris because of her race inspired her to get involved in politics as well as art.

In 1925, W.E.B. DuBois helped her get a scholarship to study in Italy, but she was unable to fund her additional expenses. Her piece Gamin brought attention, resulting in a scholarship from the Julius Rosenwald Fund, and this time she was able to raise money from other supporters, and in 1930 and 1931 she studied in Europe.

Savage sculpted busts of Frederick Douglass, James Weldon Johnson, W. C. Handy, and others. Succeeding in spite of the Depression, Augusta Savage began to spend more time teaching than sculpting. She became the first director of the Harlem Community Art Center in 1937 and worked with the Works Progress Administration (WPA). She opened a gallery in 1939, and won a commission for the 1939 New York World's Fair, basing her sculptures on James Weldon Johnson's "Lift Every Voice and Sing." The pieces were destroyed after the Fair, but some photos remain.

Retirement

Augusta Savage retired to upstate New York and farm life in 1940, where she lived until shortly before her death when she moved back to New York to live with her daughter Irene.​

Background, Family

  • Father: Edward Fells (minister)
  • Mother: Cornelia (Murphy) Fells
  • born at Green Cove Springs, Florida; seventh of fourteen children

    Education

    • Florida State Normal School (now Florida A & M University)
    • Cooper Union (1921-24)
    • with sculptor Hermon MacNeil, Paris
    • Academie de la Chaumiere, and with Charles Despiau, 1930-31

    Marriage, Children

    Married:

    • ~1907: John T. Moore (died)
    • ~1915: James Savage (carpenter; divorced 1921)
    • 1923: Robert L. Poston (died 1924)

    Children: Irene Moore