The Harlem Renaissance: A Social Documentary Through Art

Virtual exhibition gallery

Virtual exhibition gallery

Introductory  Wall Text

The Harlem Renaissance: A Social Documentary Through Art

Zora Neale Hurston

Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Zora Neale Hurston, 1938

The Harlem Renaissance was a period of cultural revival for African Americans that lasted from the 1920s to the 1940s. During this period, blacks generated for themselves a sense of pride and identity through creative expression. Though the literary, musical, and artistic innovation was concentrated in Harlem, New York City, the passion there soon spilled over and spread across the United States. This attention to the local was never more profoundly embodied than in the work of Zora Neale Hurston, a prominent essayist, poet, and above all, anthropologist of the Harlem Renaissance. The art produced at this time varied greatly in theme. It ranges from the depiction of grandiose urban lifestyles to mundane rural landscapes; from the frivolous daily motions of individuals to the all-encompassing and weighty themes of slavery and cultural origins in Africa.

Note on selection choices: We decided to focus on the societal unit, and moreover, its diversity and mutability.  Based on this observation, we surmised: What better way to model our approach to after than the anthropological work of Zora Neale Hurston herself?

Midsummer Night in Harlem

Palmer C. Hayden, Midsummer Night in Harlem, 1938, oil on canvas

Gallery Guide

Brother Brown

Mailou Jones, Brother Brown, 1931, watercolor on paper

A notable central theme is the depiction and reinterpretation of everyday life. Much of the art of the Harlem Renaissance features scenes of people living their lives and performing everyday tasks. The works of art are not meant to be mundane but rather intended to capture undertones of emotion and struggle present in the everyday lives of 1920s and 30s blacks in America.  Many of the struggles present in the Harlem Renaissance occurred because it was a time of great change and marked a convergence of vastly different ideologies.

During the Harlem Renaissance there was a great struggle for intellectual recognition among African-American artists, authors, poets and scholars. In a related way, the Harlem  Renaissance also focused on members of the black community reasserting pride in their cultural history and identity. For the first time, during the Harlem Renaissance there was a major effort to bring academic and historical legitimacy to many classic folk tales and lore.

Langston Hughes On The Stoop

Portrait of Langston Hughes in Harlem, June 1958

Among the most important thinkers of the Harlem Renaissance was Zora Neale Hurston, who was greatly influential in legitimizing and spreading the messages of the Harlem Renaissance. More specifically, Hurston was known in large part for her anthropological and literary contributions to the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston wrote a great deal about what it means to be a black woman in a society dominated by white men. One major contribution of Hurston was her writings for the Harlem publication Fire!, which also featured other revolutionaries of the time such as Langston Hughes.

In large part Fire! was created to help promote and embrace a newly forming intellectual movement in the African-American community during the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. The new ideas of the Harlem Renaissance spread by publications such as Fire!! helped foster a major social movement. However, the Harlem Renaissance was clearly about much more than just the spread of new ideas through the written word; art and music were also pivotal important in giving birth to the Harlem Renaissance.

Wall Text

Wall Panel

Wall Text Panel 1

The Great Depression and its Effects on the Arts: Hard Times Ignite the Arts

These circumstances, coupled with the anger and frustration of the black American population ignited the arts during the Harlem Renaissance as an outlet to show the world the plight of their community.  Our exhibit features works such as Free Clinic by Jacob Lawrence. This painting shows a large group of black Americans crowded into a waiting room. They are battered and down trodden under the surveillance of a white official. The Soup Kitchen by Norman Wilfred Lewis is another piece that exemplifies the hardships black Americans went through during the Great Depression. The scene depicts a few black Americans waiting in line at a crowded soup kitchen for what may possibly be their only meal of the day. Black American artists used these images to give the rest of the world a first-hand view into the hardships of their daily life during the Great Depression, and, in doing so, they launched the Harlem Renaissance.

Wall Panel

Wall Text Panel 2

Zora Neale Hurston: A Social Commentator

Arguably the most influential anthropologist of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston became renowned for both her detailed ethnographies which centered on her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, and her large-scale work as a talented writer.  Hurston is recognized for her critical eye in detecting social and cultural nuances at the local level, and for this, is known as a “local colorist.”  After moving to Harlem, Hurston furthered her career by transitioning into essays and poetry.  In many of her writings, Hurston recounts the struggles she faced on a daily basis as a black woman.  Not only did her race influence others’ perceptions of her, but it even affected the image she held of herself.  However, in this iconic portrait photograph, Hurston seems to defy these tactless impressions.

Wall Panel

Wall Text Panel 3

The Daily Lives of African Americans: The Sanctity of the Mundane

During the Harlem Renaissance, African American painters, writers, sculptors, musicians and poets looked inward toward their culture as a source of inspiration for their work. Representations of the “mundane” or “everyday” gained sacred significance by preserving African-American traditions and acting as a mechanism of social change. There are numerous works of art in this exhibition that depict everyday life during the Harlem Renaissance. The art of the Harlem Renaissance laid the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement by exposing the ardent passion African Americans had for their culture and its importance in American society.