born May 26, 1899, Topeka, Kan., U.S.
died Feb. 2, 1979, Nashville, Tenn.
African American painter and graphic artist who played a leading role
in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.
After receiving a bachelor's degree from the University of Nebraska in
1922, Douglas returned briefly to his native Kansas to teach art. By
1925 he had moved to New York City, where he joined a burgeoning arts
scene in Harlem. He studied with the German-born artist Winold Reiss
and received several commissions for magazine illustrations. His first
major commission—to illustrate Alain Locke's book The New Negro
(1925)—quickly prompted requests for graphics from other writers of
the Harlem Renaissance, including Langston Hughes, Charles S. Johnson,
Countee Cullen, Wallace Thurman, and James Weldon Johnson. Through
this work he attracted the attention of Charlotte Mason, who sponsored
him for a time.
Douglas incorporated synthetic cubist forms with stylized and
geometric shapes drawn from African art. He used the rhythm of
circles, diagonals, and wavy lines to energize his illustrations,
which are widely known for their tonal gradations and Art Deco-style
silhouettes. Through these techniques, he addressed the aspirations of
the “New Negro”and depicted the realities of the black struggle for
political and creative freedom.
In addition to illustrations, Douglas made murals, including a series
for the campus library at Fisk University in Nashville (1930) and
another for Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina (1931).
After a year of study abroad in Paris, he received one of his most
important commissions: the Works Progress Administration asked him to
paint four murals for the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public
Library. Collectively titled Aspects of Negro Life, these murals
represent the pinnacle of his artistic achievement, depicting a social
narrative that places progressive African American experience squarely
within the scope of the American dream.
By 1939, with the depletion of the Harlem Renaissance, Douglas left
New York City to teach at Fisk University, where he remained for the
next 27 years.