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Aaron Douglas

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Aaron Douglas was an African-American painter, illustrator and visual arts educator. He was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance. He developed his art career painting murals and creating illustrations that addressed social issues around race and segregation in the United States by utilizing African-centric imagery. Douglas set the stage for young, African-American artists to enter public arts realm through his involvement with the Harlem Artists Guild. In 1944, he concluded his art career by founding the Art Department at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He taught visual art classes at Fisk until his retirement in 1966. Douglas is known as a prominent leader in modern African-American art whose work influenced artists for years to come.

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Aaron Douglas (May 26, 1899 – February 3, 1979) was an American painter, illustrator and visual arts educator. He was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance. He developed his art career painting murals and creating illustrations that addressed social issues around race and segregation in the United States by utilizing African-centric imagery. Douglas set the stage for young, African-American artists to enter public arts realm through his involvement with the Harlem Artists Guild. In 1944, he concluded his art career by founding the Art Department at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He taught visual art classes at Fisk until his retirement in 1966. Douglas is known as a prominent leader in modern African-American art whose work influenced artists for years to come.

Aaron Douglas was born in Topeka, Kansas, on May 26, 1899, to Aaron Douglas, Sr, a baker from Tennessee, and Elizabeth Douglas, a homemaker and amateur artist from Alabama. His passion for art derived from admiring his mother's drawings. He attended Topeka High School, during which he worked for Skinner's Nursery and Union Pacific material yard, and graduated in 1917.

After high school, Douglas moved to Detroit, Michigan, and held various jobs, including working as a plasterer and molding sand from automobile radiators for Cadillac. During this time, he attended free classes at the Detroit Museum of Art before attending college at the University of Nebraska in 1918. While attending college, Douglas worked as a busboy to finance his education. When World War I commenced, Douglas attempted to join the Student Army Training Corps (SATC) at the University of Nebraska, but was dismissed. Historians have speculated that this dismissal was correlated with the racially segregated climate of American society and the military. He then transferred for a short time to the University of Minnesota, where he volunteered for the SATC and attained the rank of corporal. After the signing of the armistice, he returned to the University of Nebraska, where he received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1922.

After graduating, Douglas worked as a waiter for the Union Pacific Railroad until 1923, when he secured a job teaching visual arts at Lincoln High School in Kansas City, Missouri, staying there until 1925. During his time in Kansas City, he exchanged letters with Alta Sawyer, his future wife, about his plans beyond teaching in a high-school setting. He wanted to take his art career to Paris, France, as many of his aspiring artist peers did.

In 1925, Douglas intended to pass through Harlem, New York, on his way to Paris to advance his art career. He was convinced to stay in Harlem and develop his art during the height of the Harlem Renaissance, influenced by the writings of Alain Locke about the importance of Harlem for aspiring African Americans. While in Harlem, Douglas studied under Winold Reiss, a German portraitist who encouraged him to work with African-centric themes to create a sense of unity between African Americans with art. Douglas worked with W. E. B. Du Bois, then-editor at The Crisis, a monthly journal of the NAACP, and became art editor himself briefly in 1927. Douglas also illustrated for Charles S. Johnson, then-editor at Opportunity, the official publication of the National Urban League. These illustrations focused on articles about lynching and segregation, and theater and jazz. Douglas' illustrations also featured in the periodicals Vanity Fair and Theatre Arts Monthly. In 1927, Douglas was asked to create the first of his murals at Club Ebony, which highlighted Harlem nightlife.

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Aaron Douglas Artworks
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